Appreciation of Czech Literature in Iran

Appreciation of Czech Literature in Iran

The tripartite circles of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague are very important for understanding the intellectual culture of Central Europe. Many Czech poets and writers emerged from Prague and were introduced to Europe. Iranian readers are well-versed in the works of authors like Kafka, Kundera, and Klíma. But the Czechs know less about the literary activities of this country in recent years. Iranology and Persian language and literature have a long history in the Czech Republic, and this country has famous Iranologists such as Jan Rypka and Jiři Bečka. This is true even if modern Persian literature is not widely read in the Czech Republic.

The literary dialogue between Iran and the Czech Republic was the subject of Book City’s weekly meeting on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, which was attended by Zuzana Kříhová, Mona Khademi, Majid Bahrevar, and Ali Asghar Mohammadkhani.

The discussion began with Ali Asghar Mohammadkhani, Cultural Deputy of Book City, explaining that Czech is an important cultural nation of Central Europe and that Iranology has a long history there. Extensive research into eastern studies and later Iranian studies have started in this area since the end of World War II. ‎One of the key locations for Iranology research is the Czech Institute of Urban Studies, where well-known individuals like Jan Rypka, Jiři Bečka, Rudolf Macúch, and many more have taught, authored, and translated. Additionally, during these years, Charles University has collaborated in the areas of teaching and research with individuals like Majid Bahrevar, Mona Khademi, Zahra Abolhasani, and Mohammad Reza Movahedi.

Mohammadkhani continued, in the early twentieth century, Persian literature received much more attention in the Czech Republic, and despite difficulties and challenges, authors like Jan Rypka or Jiři Bečka produced notable works like History of Iranian Literature and numerous books on the Shahnameh, One Thousand and One Nights, and on the works of Khayyam, Saadi, Jami, Khaqani, Nizami, and Attar were published. This is while in the more contemporary times, only the writings of Sadegh Hedayat or Forough Farrokhzad have been translated into Czech, and other literary works have seen far less of this attention. Therefore, Czech Republic readers know relatively little about contemporary Persian literature. This is while, contemporary Czech literature is well-known among Iranians. We are familiar with numerous Czech authors, including Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klíma, Franz Kafka, and Milan Kundera, as well as their works because the literature of the Czech Republic throughout the past century has been extensively translated into Farsi. Only the translations of Kafka and Kundera have been published in Iran over the past three or four decades, with an attractive statistic in terms of circulation. Additionally, Ivan Klíma’s works have received positive feedback recently. Just like Václav Havel’s short book, Power of the Powerless which was very fascinating to the Iranian audience.

Today, we focus more on issues like the literary developments in Iran and the Czech Republic over the past few decades, the situation of Czech women writers, their topics and concerns, the themes, styles, concepts, and subjects that are most significant to these writers, as well as how these writers differ from those of other European nations. ‎

Mohammadkhani continued, on the other side, we have started to introduce more works of contemporary Persian literature for the Czech people. Doing comparative studies is one strategy that I believe can be helpful in this direction. For example, we can compare Iranian women writers such as Goli Taraghi, Fariba Vafi, Simin Daneshvar, and Zoya Pirzad with Czech writers to find and examine their similarities and differences. While in Rome House, I presented a comparative analysis of three Iranian writers and three Italian writers and talked about the common themes and elements between Zoya Pirzad, Goli Targhi, Fariba Vafi and Natalia Ginzburg, Alba Dessedes and Grazia Delda.

Mohammadkhani further emphasized that Czech poets and writers came from Prague and studied philosophy at the university. This is a fascinating topic that perhaps one day we would explore. Furthermore, comprehending the intellectual culture of Central Europe and this region requires a deeper grasp of the triad of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

Significant contributions of women writers

Zuzana Kříhová’s address was focused on Czech women writers. She claimed that, as of yet, no works by female Czech authors have been translated into Farsi. This does not imply that there are not enough female authors in the Czech Republic; similarly to other countries throughout the world, there are currently more female authors working in the Czech than male authors. ‎

It is a challenging task for this brief time to present an overview of the modern literary output of Czech women. ‎ I have been focusing more on Czech women writers because their influence on contemporary Czech society is very strong—possibly even stronger than that of male writers. I do not know the reason for this. But I will be content if I can introduce the most significant of these modern female authors, and I hope that Farsi translations and publications of their works will happen soon. All of the authors whose works I will be introducing today have had their works translated into several different languages around the world and so, there is an opportunity to translate these works indirectly.

According to Kříhová, the majority of contemporary Czech literary works were written by female authors from the younger and middle generations. Women predominate in book sales, and they also win the majority of literary honors. In contrast to the nineties, when men predominated the Czech literary landscape, women occupied the scene twenty years ago. The public has accepted the replacement of males like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal in the sphere of Czech literature by women like Radka Danmarková and Katarina Teková.

According to the statistics, more than eighty percent of the first editions of the texts submitted to different Czech publishing houses were authored by women. Over the past few years, there has also been a perceptible rise in interest in the writings of female authors, to the point where it is now increasingly clear that certain publishers are seeking notable works by female authors and predict that women will once again be at the center of stories. ‎Because they are well-known writers and cultural conversations frequently center on their writing, foreign publishers favor modern Czech women writers. There are other types of authors as well. At all levels today, from the publishing sector to libraries, there are more women. The majority of readers are women, as has been demonstrated by statistics. However, today, women are also significantly represented across the book industry, from publishers and book agencies to bookstores.

The fate of the entire family is an important concern for women writers in modern Czech literature. However, this subject has implications for both domestic affairs in the Czech Republic and broader world concerns. These tales frequently take place in a domestic and familial setting; however, they can find any ending, regardless of location, culture, or governmental system. In other words, contemporary Czech women writers research and document universal experiences shared by women from similar cultures.

Kříhová stated that the 23-year-old writer Petra Holova published a novel in 2002 titled My Grandmother’s Memory that takes place in Mongolia. She conducted extensive research about Mongolia, its traditions, environment, culture, and history, which she used in this book to convey to the readers. Petra Prokhazkova, a journalist and writer, covered the atrocities committed against residents, especially women, during the conflict. But she deals with a different environment in the novel ‘Ferishta’. Prokhazkova discusses the autobiographical aspects of the experience of a woman from a liberal background who marries an Afghan man from a very patriarchal and traditional household in this fictitious novel about Afghanistan. This book is exceptional because it takes a nuanced approach that is grounded in a rich and comprehensive understanding of Afghanistan’s regional context. Additionally, it does not advocate condemnation or deliver feminist sermons. Based on this book, the Czech Republic produced the well-received and award-winning animated movie My Sun, Fashion.

She further explained that women in their works address such themes as the everyday processes of life as opposed to the process of wars and conflicts of the Czech people during communism. Additionally, unlike males who primarily focus on big history, the history of wars and political currents, women writers tend to focus more on small history, the history as seen through the experiences of women and children during war and during political adventures and conflicts. For example, Karin Lednitska’s novel takes place in a mine on the Czech border and depicts the dramatic fate of a local community. After the mine collapses and the male workers are killed, the women in this novel are made to fill the roles of males and are obligated to take on their responsibilities. Children are emotionally involved in this tale, in addition to the women who go through a difficult birth. As a result, the dynamic between mothers, fathers, and children is transformed, creating a new setting for reflection.

In another section of her lecture, Kříhová noted that female authors’ innovative treatment of historical subjects is also important. Before beginning to write the novel, these authors conduct an extensive study and draw on a wide range of primary sources, including historical documents, field interviews, and personal accounts from their respective fields. From this extensive knowledge, a fictitious world based on the biographies of several characters emerges. One could even argue that current Czech women writers are redefining how society views topics that were previously avoided or censured.

In the conclusion, Kříhová stated, Radka Danmarkova is another female writer who attempts to depict the intricate repressive practices of the Chinese regime as well as the outcomes of various anonymous individuals in her most recent book, Lead Hours. As a result, in addition to showing contemporary China, she also depicts China’s place in the perception of the jaded and overworked Western economic elites.

From Čapek to the empty place of Czech women writers

Mona Khademi was the other speaker who talked about the history and process of literary translation of Czech works in Iran. Mona Khademi discussed the history and process of literary translation of Czech works into Persian. According to her, the arrival of Czech literature in Iran dates back to the first half of the twentieth century. Czech literature has had a strong foothold among Iranian readers for many years. This is most likely due to our historical affinities with the Czech Republic. Because both countries have had ups and downs, including wars, coups, and revolutions, and have shared some life experiences.

Khademi further stated that the first translations of Czech works were published in the 1940s. Previously, small fragments of Czech literary works were printed in newspaper columns, but according to the National Library, the first complete Czech work translated into Farsi is Karel Čapek’s The Factory of Absolute, translated by Hasan Qaemian from French to Farsi in 1947. It has been translated, with an introduction by Sadegh Hedayat. However, the introduction of Czech literature to Iran occurred nearly two years later, with the translation of Kafka’s first works.

She continued: In the Penal Colony by Kafka was also translated into Farsi by Hasan Qaemian and published in 1948. After that, Sadegh Hedayat translated Metamorphosis by Kafka into Farsi in 1950, which may be said to be a turning point in introducing Czech literature to Iranian readers. Meanwhile, it should be noted that, while Kafka and Kundera are simply known as Czech writers in Iran, there is a long debate in the Czech Republic over whether these two authors are German or Czech. Kundera’s works entered the Iranian book market much later, but in the 1980s and after the 1979 revolution, he is the most important and well-known Czech author, along with Kafka and Klíma, and we owe this to Homayunpour’s excellent translation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a work that has been published 27 times so far. Furthermore, almost all of Kundera’s works, from his articles to his plays, have been translated and are now available in Persian, which provides a very inspiring body of works.

Khademi stated Jaroslav Hašek is also very famous among Iranian readers. This writer brought critical and black humor to Iran. We Iranians recognize ‘Švejk’ as the most important character of contemporary Czech literature. This character’s quotations are found in almost every home. This work became popular after it was translated from Hungarian to Farsi fifteen years ago. However, even this book has been introduced to Iranians long before. It was Hasan Qaemian who originally translated parts of this book into Farsi in 1945, and Iraj Pezashkzad translated a fragment of it into Farsi in the 1980s and published it under the title of Švejk, The Simplehearted Soldier.

She went on to say that in the last two decades, the translation and publication of Czech literary works have grown in power in Iran. From 2000 to the present, there has been a significant increase in interest in Czech literature and translation. During this period, Bohumil Hrabal was introduced to the Iranian audience with Parviz Dawai’s masterful translation of Too Loud A Solitude. This book has been republished 24 times so far and is one of the few books that have been directly translated from Czech to Farsi. Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless has also been published many times. The same is the case with the works of Čapek and Klíma. When we talk about Czech literature, we cannot leave out Ivan Klíma. Although Klíma was known very late in Iran. We can say that Klíma’s works are the forerunners of works translated into Persian in Iran today. His most famous book, The Spirit of Prague, translated by Khashayar Dehimi in 1999, has opened a new window to Czech literature for Iranian readers.

Khademi further discussed, so far, I have mentioned well-known writers in Iran, but other authors who were not well-known among the general public were also translated. In my opinion, the range of literary topics and genres translated from Czech literature is appreciable and shows that our translators and publishers are interested in introducing diverse Czech works. On the other hand, there is no place for children’s poetry or literature. Children’s literature is extremely important in Europe, and Czech children’s literature was particularly influential during the communist era. Another point to mention is that the Iranian book market appears to be uninterested in contemporary Czech works and authors. The literary works translated into Farsi are all works that were produced before the velvet revolution, the latest of them written during the nineties. Of course, Ivan Klíma is an exception. From my point of view, as an activist in the field of Czech literature, the empty place of contemporary Czech literature and women’s literature is visible. Among the contemporary Czech works, only the Eropeana by Patrik Ouředník has been translated into Farsi.

About literary trends and genres after the Czech Revolution, she stated, the Velvet Revolution, which was a watershed moment in the lives of Czechoslovakian citizens, clearly had a significant impact on literature. After the revolution, when that common enemy vanished, the writer who acted as the awakened conscience of the nation during the suffocation of the communist government and was expected to react against the political blockage and government literature and reveal the social and political conditions, lack of freedom and express or the dictatorship in the works. With the triumph of the revolution and the beginning of the new period, like other arts, literature also lost its position and its function was weakened in general, and with the freedom of the press and the right to freedom of expression, this role diminished, starting to decline.

She went on to say that in a newly liberated society that had not had access to many of the free world’s entertainments, such as travel to the outside world that then became possible, literature lost its immediate priority. On the other hand, writers were struggling to find new and interesting topics. As a result, there was a drop in readers and literature remained the concern of just a few interested people. But in the following years, shortly after the revolution and the establishment of a democratic government and the subsidence of the fever of the revolution, literature found its place again in a different way. Along with the state literature that existed during the communist era, samizdat and exile literature were mixed and came to the stage during this period, and banned books by authors such as Ivan Klíma emerged from the underground and were quickly printed and made available to the audience, and new genres appeared in the book market that had no place in Czech literature before.

Khademi went on to talk about some of the most important genres, including memoirs, histories, tragicomic, entertaining literature, postmodern literature, as well as exile literature. After the collapse of communism, writers became able to leave the borders and look for subjects to write about outside the borders of the Czech Republic. For example, writers show their life experiences or coexistence with other cultures and people of other countries. One of the most important Czech writers is Martin Ryšavý, who wrote Journey to Siberia as an autobiographical work. This book is about the author’s travels to Siberia, his experiences, a description of the life and culture of the Siberian native people, and understanding their mentality and thinking model. Also, the author deals with the paradoxes that the Czech society is struggling with after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A shift from Turkish studies to Iranian studies

Majid Bahrevar was the other speaker who said, in September of this year, a conference was held at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Prague, where Iranologists and Orientalists from all over the world participated. Of course, I was the only Asian attending this conference. Jan Rypka was one of the Institute of Oriental Studies’ founders, so I felt his work and legacy deserved to be highlighted.

He explained, the speakers present at this conference and the topics of their speeches, and then he repeated a fragment of his speech from that conference: In my speech, I tried to address Rypka’s one-year presence in Iran in the press, memories, and available sources such as letters. Jan Rypka is traveling to Iran with his master on behalf of the Institute of Oriental Studies and with the financial support of the Masaryk Institute to attend the Ferdowsi Millennium Congress. Rypka’s master returns, and he stays in Iran for nine months. Although he claims to have spent a year in Iran, the documents show that he was there from early November to early August of the following year. In any case, this period was significant and influential, causing Rypka to shift his focus from Turkish to Iranian studies.

Bahrevar explained, perhaps this stay will provide an answer to the question of how Rypka left that valuable background in Turkic studies and came to Iranian studies. However, it should be noted that Rypka was previously interested in the military, and he writes in his memoirs, “I was hesitant to come to Iran or not, and in the end, I saw that coming to Iran would help improve my practical Persian language and enable me to do my work and to understand how much it will help in my future work”.

He went on to say that Rypka is in Iran to attend the Ferdowsi Congress in Dar al-Funun. The largest gathering of intellectuals from Iran and around the world gathered in the hall of Dar al-Funun, a gathering that may never be repeated. Rypka meets a network of Iranologists, writers, and poets at this congress and begins a network of literary connections. The first mission of the research network is to study contemporary Iranian literature. Therefore, he returns to Tehran and resides on Saadi Street and communicates with such modern literary figures as Sadegh Hedayat, Bozorg Alavi, Parviz Natel Khanlari, and Isa Seddigh. According to the memoirs of Natel Khanlari and Isa Seddigh, he asks Isa Seddigh to introduce him to someone who knows a foreign language and could help. Khanlari, who was an undergraduate student at that time, comes to his aid and accompanies him home and talks about his family relationship with Hedayat. Rypka meets Hedayat with the same pretext at Jaleh Cafe, Lalezar; thus ‘The Group of Four’ is established. In the second mission, he established a good relationship with Sufi Nematullahi, and Shams-ul-urafa, and incidentally, he went there with Maria, his wife, to the passage of Norouz Khan in the market. Of course, these regions in the old bazaar of Tehran have all transformed today. The third place where Rypka forms his literary network in Tehran is near the church and Iranian classics; that is, the Iranian Literary Association, especially the Hakim Nizami Association in the house of Vahid Dastgerdi in Jaleh Square. Rypka established this literary network during his stay in Iran. As the documents and incidentally, he shows in his classifications and memories, he started his work by participating in The Group of Four and then he went to Sufi Nematullahi (in the monastery that was the home of Shams-ul-urafa Hossein Tehrani) and then to Vahid Dastgerdi who incidentally also wanted to compose a work on Nizami’s Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties). Rypka had already published The Seven Beauties in Prague the year before, and it was very good for Vahid Dastgardi to have the printed version of this work beside Rypka.

Bahrevar clarified, but what aspect of this journey is useful and significant? When did the Czechs become interested in contemporary Persian literature? Perhaps it can be said that the interest in contemporary Iran was formed in this period between the two wars and this is because of the developments that took place in the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic was part of the Habsburg Empire and its connection and conflict was more with the Turks. The change that happened in terms of geopolitics and the distance that fell especially after the Cold War period has made distant countries like Iran much more attractive to them. Incidentally, especially the tradition of Austria-Hungary has been based on a kind of tradition of crossing the Turks. Rypka has been very influential in this turn from classical literature to contemporary literature. The first translations of Hedayat are in this book. In his Bombay letters, Hedayat appreciates Rypka for explaining ‘Death Eaters’ to him. Rypka’s students were also translators of Hedayat and Alavi’s works and were influenced in forming intercultural links between Iran and the Czech Republic. Also, it needs to be stated that Rypka has worked on surrealism in Iran and the Czech Republic and was interested in this movement. It seems that this stems from the interest and prevalence of surrealism in the Czech Republic between the wars.


Report by Ghazaleh Sadr Manouchehri

Translated by Esmail Yazdanpour