I am sitting in P’s study, at the solid commodious desk which you know so well; it has a glass top under which he has stuck picture postcards from all over Europe. It is Friday, 23 August, night is falling: the fourth night after the invasion. I have spent the day, as I spent the others since the Russians came here, walking the streets of Prague and talking to friends in this most beautiful of old cities. Several times I have crossed Charles Bridge where we stood with you and Nina—how long ago was it, only about a fortnight? Save for the tanks at each end it hasn’t changed since then, and today I even saw a tourist there who was quite unconcernedly taking photographs, not of the young people who were collecting signatures for a petition in support of Party Secretary Dublek, but of the river and the castle, as tourists have done here all this summer. Who is to say he is not right?
But half an hour ago we received a phone call from the British Embassy that a train will be leaving for West Germany tomorrow. I don’t particularly want to go to West Germany, but we have decided to take it. We cannot help anyone by hanging on here. It means that we shan’t see P. and Z. before we go. They are away on holiday, somewhere in the northern mountains, and I hear tanks are blocking all the roads up there. We still have to do our packing, so this will be a rather hurried letter. What worries us—don’t laugh—is that we don’t know how to switch off the gas under the bath heater. Let’s hope the whole place won’t burn down before our good hosts return. I have not used up all my royalties in Czechoslovakia and shall leave some money behind, but it’s not enough even to pay for a new bath heater.
You have been in this house. Nothing has altered except that last night somebody removed the number over the door. I don’t imagine it would fox the secret police, or not for long. Each time I toil up the three flights of stairs I think of our dear P., rushing down to give me a hand with our cases, calling out ‘Goodness me!’, his favourite English expression. And I also think of something else. I look at these steep, cold stairs, this impersonal stair-well, and I imagine some Nazi policemen or agents climbing them and looking at the names on the doors to the flats, checking them against a list they’ve brought with them. This is nothing new. I have had this dreadful image ever since we arrived here from Budapest. It has refused to leave me, worse luck.
I don’t know whether you know that P. has been fairly pessimistic all through these last few terrible weeks; yes, also when the Bratislava conference seemed to promise better times. ‘What guarantees have we?’ he said to me. I too was among the all too few who could see the disaster coming, and when we woke up, last Wednesday, and there were the tanks in our street, I was more shocked than I was surprised. Richenda, who of course is taking it very hard, will tell you that this is true. I recall a strange, somewhat embarrassing meeting with an American here, a communist, just about the time you left Prague. He had that very day arrived from Moscow and was laying it down that there could be no invasion: he actually had a story—and how many like these have we heard!—that the Soviet Central Committee was split, and the highest-up animal in charge of security there had thrown his party card on the table and roared that he would resign if they would permit a return to Stalin’s methods. He was a good fellow, this American, and saying good-bye to us he smiled at me ironically and said, ‘Well, I guess the world will still be standing when we meet next’.
IT WILL STILL BE STANDING, but not the world he meant. That’s gone for ever, and nothing can bring it back. Even though the Russians have fallen into a vacuum. This was becoming clear already yesterday, the second day of the occupation, the day when we saw tanks charging, but not to kill, a crowd of youngsters in Tyn Square who were yelling ‘Fascists!’ at the foreign soldiers. By the way, I also saw a cheerful looking corporal in the square, arguing with the angry young Czechs as people argue at a soccer match. They have fallen into a vacuum, but it’s no use thinking that they have only made some ghastly mis-calculation.
Not at all! If we, after three months in and around Prague, could see with complete clarity that, firstly, there was no real threat to the socialist order in this country, and, secondly, that the fraternal invaders, if they came, would scarcely find anyone locally to back them, the Russians must also have known the trouble they would strike. As I write much is still in the balance, and there may yet be some glimmer of hope, but I am convinced that this outrage cannot but form part of a larger and very dark design now only beginning to unfold. Nothing else makes sense. I hope I am wrong, and that, when we meet in Melbourne, you can laugh me to scorn.
Alas, I won’t be able to hand you then the notes on our Russian journey I promised to write for Meanjin. I don’t feel like producing such an article at this time. Too much of a wrench; it would be so hard to be objective and fair. And yet, damn it all, I keep thinking about Russia and what we saw there, and the kindness we encountered. But do you know what I think of most often? A night in Leningrad, at the Kirov ballet. The ballet was based on Lopez’ Fuente Ovejuna. Rather static, but brilliant. Do you happen to know how it ends, with the villagers rising against their tyrannous lord? Well, just below us, in the stalls, sat a woman who was clapping her hands off while the glorious revolt took place on stage. Her face was absolutely radiant. It was a simple, good, Slavonic face—a peasant face, in fact. Why do I keep thinking of her? Because I can feel it in my bones that she would be clapping exactly like that, clapping like mad, if, on that stage, they were dancing their victory of Prague over the counter-revolutionary revisionists who are threatening Russia and her brand of socialism. She has been brought up to believe, and believers ask no questions. Oh, that night at the ballet! I remember the extraordinary cotillon in the refreshment foyer between acts. Men and women in their best bib and tucker were walking the hall in a sort of ritual circle, quite charming in its way, and Richenda, who had fetched me to look at it, actually joined in. You never saw anything more old-fashioned and orderly. Odd, how it now gives me goose-flesh. Everything there is so hellishly orderly! At a big football match in Kiev, that ravishing, hospitable town, at least two full companies of troops were guarding against some most unlikely mishap or public misbehaviour. I nearly quarrelled about it with our guide, a talented student, a specialist on Evelyn Waugh.
It was this same student who, as we strolled the Moscow streets one night last May, talked of Czechoslovakia and the new road she was taking. A friend who had lately been to Prague had told him that the Czechs were an ungrateful lot. They no longer loved the Russians, who had brought them liberty and socialism. We had a good chin-wag, and he ended up by saying that the twentieth century was not the century of democracy.
But I ought to be writing about Prague. Just let me add this: I simply cannot accept any longer that education on the broadest scale, as we saw it in the U.S.S.R., will of necessity produce a questioning, truly creative-minded and free-spirited generation which cannot be bamboozled into believing every line Pravda churns out. It may be vital, in the dictionary sense of the word, that we should stop deceiving ourselves on this score. I don’t doubt there will be resentment, possibly some opposition in the Soviet Union in face of this idiotic enterprise, but I’ll be surprised if it will amount to much. Not for a long time yet. The Soviet leadership has in one night managed to smash its whole foreign policy as conducted for nearly a decade. It didn’t happen in a fit of absentmindedness, nor will it lead soon to an internal explosion. Which was the best educated and in many ways socially most advanced nation in Europe in 1914? You know the unhappy answer.
BUT PRAGUE … I did not go to the office of the Writers’ Union today. When I was there on Wednesday morning they advised me, and probably not only for my sake, not to call again for the time being. The atmosphere was as gloomy as could be. We had better use initials when referring to individuals, and even then let them be invented initials: you never know. (How damnable that we dare no longer name our true friends!) Mrs V. I used to think of as one of the shrewdest, most drily witty and capable women in this land of capable women. Her eyes were red from crying. Mrs J., whose brother was rehabilitated since you left, said it was the saddest day but one of her life; the saddest was when her husband died. They could not or would not tell me where Professor Goldstuecker was. But one hears rumours of all kinds about all kinds of people, and they can mostly be discounted. Good heavens, didn’t one chap assure me that Marshall Grechko had resigned? And five minutes later did I not hear that Cisar had been shot—which is almost certainly a furphy. Stories, stories on every corner. One which might even be true is that Alexander DubZek’s mother has gone, this evening, to plead with the Soviet commander in Prague for the life of her son, who has been arrested and, they say, taken away. He is supposed to have received her graciously, with the assurance that DuUek was by no means a prisoner, but ‘engaged in important political discussions with our people’. I have heard nothing about any such discussions going on, but sooner or later, of course … Poor Alexander. It’s dangerous to be an idealist in Central Europe.
Leaving the Writers’ Union, I made a stupid remark. Mrs. V. asked me to take care of myself—there had just been some shooting not far off—and I replied, for my sins, that I wasn’t afraid: I had seen war, had been in Madrid in ’37. A ridiculous rejoinder. One is always afraid when one hears shooting, because life, any life, is sweet. And where does Spain come into it now? We were staying for a few days in a room in Interbrigady Square. In the C.S.S.R., for ever so many years, you didn’t boast of having been in the International Brigade. It took less guts to face Franco’s Moors than Gottwald’s and Novotny’s gorillas, who had a special down on International Brigaders. It could make one howl! We are all supposed to have become tools, in our old age, of the C.I.A. They have streets here—you probably know some of them—with names like Partisan Street, Rosa Luxemburg Street, and so on. At long last this was again beginning to mean something, more than a bloody mockery. And what now? Will they go back to their shabby falsehoods, by order? Love us! scream the Russians, but can only reach the people by leaflets dropped from helicopters. Comrades—you don’t get love by ukas, as you must know by this, if you didn’t know it before you mounted your gun carriages.
THE PEOPLE I AM MOST SORRY FOR, apart from the soldiers, some of whom really look like lost and bewildered boys, and apart from the students and the other young ones who just got a little whiff of freedom and now fill the streets with their rage, their pitiful frustration and their lyrical defiance, are the life-long communists who swore that it could not happen. Their words, unstaled by the grief of this week, ring in my ears. A month ago, roughly, I dined with a producer who staged an early play of mine at the DISK Theatre here, years ago. He is considering my new play at present. He and his wife have given their whole life to the party. The woman looked at me almost with hatred when I suggested there might yet be an invasion. ‘It would finish everything.’ On Wednesday I found myself near the theatre where her husband now works, the largest in Prague. A marvellous place. But I couldn’t get through. Behind the station, up towards Vinnhorady, the only barricade in Prague had been put up: I got there just in time to watch tanks moving away after having demolished it, and ambulances move in. A confused situation indeed: it’s supposed to have started with an ammunition carrier blowing up. The mother of Mr R., who is translating the play, lives in that street, and today I found out that her flat was completely burnt out.
But I have not seen much violence like this. A horrible incident yesterday, near the Powder Tower, where a crowd was chasing, and getting hold of, a man, probably an informer. I can still hear his screams.
May you and I be spared fear like this, and may we all be spared the blind cruelty, coming from outside, which in the end must brutalize the most peaceful, most rational beings.
What else, Clem? At the Automat where we take our meals they’ve run out of food, and this evening out of beer. Much talk about shortages threatening Prague, but I note that vegetables are still coming in from the country. Trams arc not running and, worse, roads and tram-tracks are churned up by tank treads everywhere. A good deal of such secondary material damage. Secondary? You are aware that resources here were already stretched to their limits. I think Richenda talked to you about it; how Prague is trying, against hope, almost against reason, to keep its churches, its monuments, its ancient beauty painted and repaired; it could have broken one’s heart, and then comes this hapless wantonness. Special editions of the underground newspapers fall on us like snow. If we had room we could by now have collected half a trunkful. Workers no less than students lead this heady, excited resistance. A Canadian who was leaving by car this morning, and to whom I gave a despatch to take out—also more or less against hope, for the machine is hard to beat—thought it was all a great lark. But he will be dining in his club in Montreal before long, and that’s another world. One, I admit, which doesn’t look too bad from here, just now. The man has not giVen his life to a cause; it’s all right for him to talk about larks.
I HAVE SEEN Prague fill up with young fellows, and their girls, all the months we have been here. They’re from all over Europe and America, tote swags, carry rucksacks and transistors and live on the smell of an oil rag, so to speak. Queueing up for a doss wherever they can. Lovely kids, drunk on the future’s unpressed wine. Most of them are still here, adding their slogans to the thousands on the walls. A big one at the bottom of Wenceslas Square—Long Live Dubcek And His Boys. Somebody, but not I, will write a novel about them one day, and about their Prague summer. If I write one, which I doubt, it would be about the river village where we spent too much happiness, in Central Bohemia, and where you did not manage to visit us. Would have been good to walk together in those marvellous woods … well, some other time, maybe.
You know, I do think I’ll get over it sooner or later, at least I shan’t let it sink me, as I don’t believe most of our friends here will let it sink them. (But I am very afraid for some, the sensitive ones, people like F., a writer and a Jew, very gentle, who, not long since, told me that he had seen the worst already, and it was not unbearable; or V., the poet, who seemed to me to be thinking about suicide too much anyway).
Some people got stranded on the Spanish civil war, and some will get stranded on the spires of Prague … impaled by this tragedy. (Forgive awkward metaphor, but Richenda wants me to start packing.) One can live without illusions, indeed one must, and for everything that has been lost, Prague, and my village, still give us twice as much that is new, that is fine, that no tank can crush. And a cemetery is not the worst place in the world in which to whistle.
So, it’s time to stop. Got to get to the station early tomorrow. This afternoon, at the dry-cleaner, we met a total stranger who offered us the use of his car whenever we needed one: there are plenty of taxis, but they seem to be busy rushing through the city, beflagged, and carrying leaflet-throwing demonstrators. I shall now give him a ring, if the phones are working, and beg him to collect us from here with his car. Our last drive through Prague, curse it! Richenda says I must ask him also if he knows how to put out the gas under the bath heater…