An American’s guide to Czech literature & film

I’ve spent the past several months researching my genealogy, primarily focusing on my Czech ancestry. To say it’s been an ordeal would be an understatement —  Czech-Americans don’t have WASP’s advantage of having their history accessibly documented (though they have a better shot at it than Black and Indigenous people in this country). To piece together my family history, I’ve read hundreds of pages of records, written more notes than I can hope to organize, and started to learning Czech, a language so complex that even other Slavic dialects want it to calm down.

While that may sound like an arduous exercise in self-torment, it’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. All of my recent writing has been shaped by my genealogy research in some way. Most notably, I wrote about it for The Statesman, Stony Brook University’s undergrad newspaper for which I am Opinions Editor, using Castle Garden in the Battery to discuss my second great-grandmother’s immigration journey. But there’s potentially hundreds of pages worth of material in my research, similarly to how Jack Graham made a whole Austrian economics beat out of his Neoreaction a Basilisk contributions. Eventually I plan to turn this project into a book (and you should really back my Patreon so I can eventually afford a research trip to the Czech Republic).

One of the byproducts of this research has been absorbing a ghastly amount of Czech cultural history. Consider this a holistic genealogist agency where unpacking a family history requires dissecting the world around it. Since many of my ancestors were farmers in rural South Bohemia, I’ve learned more Czech history than biographical details of Grandma Stazi’s life. This whole project is an absurd transatlantic psychogeography which I have no hope of selling to a general audience, and it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.

So while I prepare to write my eventual weird genealogy book, I figured I should turn my research to good use (i.e. monetization). One of the great joys of Czechophilia is the breadth of extraordinary Czech art. The cultural output of the Czech lands is often surrealist and detached in character, reflecting a culture fragmented by everyone from the Nazis to the U.S.S.R. It’s haunted, playful, creepy, and some of my favorite art in the world — perfect for an essay series with a vague sense of thematic unification.

For now, I’ll be focusing on Czech literature and cinema. Both have enough major works that I can paint a general picture without overwhelming myself. I don’t know how many entries this series will have — it probably depends on how much my readers like it. Most likely, I’ll be hewing to one book per author, hoping to represent distinct moments in Czech history. 

Part of this is the relative underrepresentation of Czech literature in the literary canon. Franz Kafka is one of the only major Czech writers who readers already know, so I’m somewhat (if not entirely) disinclined to include him in this series (that and Kafka’s works being in German gives them a flavor distinct from some of these other writers). I’m also likely not to include Tom Stoppard, who despite being Czech by birth has spent most of his career in the U.K.

Instead, we’re going to focus on the works of authors who’ve spent a significant portion of their careers in the Czech Republic, or at least had their work shaped by it. This includes Milan Kundera, whose books are indelibly Czech regardless of his long-term French citizenship. We’ll be going over major Czech classics, although I may throw in lesser-known works that I stumble into along the way.

I’m not an anthropologist or historian. God, I won’t claim to be a Czech expert — just Czech’s personal pronouns amount to a labyrinthian nightmare. The fact is that I’m a fourth-generation American who’s never stepped foot in Prague. This is just a passion project by a writer bridled with a dire case of Czechophilia. I hope it’s as unpredictable and exciting as “Czech literature through the eyes of someone who’s never visited the Czech Republic” sounds. This isn’t great scholarship so much as a giddy love affair with some powerful, strange books.

So, prosím, let me play dilettante, and take us to a land I’ve never visited.