By Rick Steves and Honza Vihan
To learn more about the Czech Republic past and present, check out a few of these books, plays, and films.
Books and Plays
The most famous Czech literary classic is Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk, a darkly comic novel that follows the fortunes of its title character, a soldier in World War I’s Austro-Hungarian army.
Novelist Bohumil Hrabal, writing in a stream-of-consciousness style, mixed tales he had heard in pubs from sailors, self-made philosophers, and kind-hearted prostitutes into enchanting fictions that deftly express the Czech spirit and sense of humor. His best works are I Served the King of England, The Town Where Time Stood Still, and Too Loud a Solitude. (Jiří Menzel turned some of Hrabal’s writings into films — for more on Czech cinema, keep reading.)
Other well-known Czech writers include novelist and playwright Karel Čapek, who created the robot in the play R.U.R.; Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, set during the 1968 Prague Spring uprising; and playwright — and Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president — Václav Havel, whose many essays and plays include The Garden Party, Audience, and Temptation (for more about Havel, see the sidebar).
The most famous Czech writer of all is the existentialist great, Franz Kafka, a Jewish Prague native who wrote in German. His surrealist stories include The Metamorphosis, about a man turning into a giant cockroach, and The Trial, about an urbanite being pursued and persecuted for crimes he knows nothing about.
Some lesser-known Czech writers are also worth discovering. Ota Pavel began his career as a sportswriter, translating athletic victories and defeats into compassionate epics. At the end of his life he produced two remarkable collections of simple, sadly humorous short stories whose main characters were fish and Pavel’s witty Jewish father (collected in How I Came to Know Fish). In Arnošt Lustig’s Dita Saxová, a young survivor of a concentration camp struggles to restart her life, while Josef Škvorecký’s The Cowards (Zbabělci) describes the generation coming of age just after the World War II. Dominika Dery’s The Twelve Little Cakes is a delightful memoir of her childhood (spent near Prague) at the end of communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So far, the definitive book of the 1989 generation is Jáchym Topol’s Sister. Topol captures “the years after the Time exploded” in a rich mixture of colloquial Czech that’s full of neologisms and borrowed German and English words. Alex Zucker’s English translation does an excellent job of capturing these nuances.
Nobel Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert experienced during his long life all the diverse movements of the 20th century — Dadaism, Surrealism, communism, anti-communism — and created a medium of his own, in which everyone finds a poem to his or her own liking.
The Czech film tradition has always been strong, and the 1960s were its heyday, giving birth to Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (an Oscar-winner based on Bohumil Hrabal’s absurdist novel) and Larks on the String, Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting, and Miloš Forman’s Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde. After his 1968 escape from communist Czechoslovakia, Forman made it big in the US with films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Menzel went on to film five more of Hrabal’s novels, including the acclaimed I Served the King of England (2006).
Two Czech filmmakers made a mark on the international stage after 1989: Jan Svěrák (The Elementary School and the Oscar-winning Kolya) and Jiří Hřebejk (Divided We Fall, nominated for an Oscar). More recently, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda created a sensation with their hilarious, original, and disturbing documentary, Czech Dream, about the opening of a fake hypermarket invented and massively advertised by the directors themselves.
One of the most inspiring Czech artists is painter, animator, director, and surrealist Jan Švankmajer. His films Alice, Faust, Conspirators of Pleasure, and Food combine all of the author’s artistic skills into a highly original style that is guaranteed to change the way you look at the world. His two most recent films — Little Otík and Mad — blend in more realism.
The Czechs have a wonderful animation tradition that successfully competes with Walt Disney in Eastern Europe and China. Pat a Mat, Krteček (The Little Mole), or Maxipes Fík are intelligent gifts to bring to your little ones at home.
Honza Vihan is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Prague & the Czech Republic guidebook.