Stuart Morgan


The Axe

(November 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.64, Mid-November 1973, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Axe
Ludwik Vaculik
Andre Deutsch, £2.50.

LUDWIK VACULIK was one of the key figures in the Czechoslovak events of 1968. Twice he took the initiative in leading intellectuals to clash with the authorities: in 1967 when he denounced the regime at the writers’ congress; and again in June 1968, when he penned the manifesto, 2000 words, which called upon the population to pressurise the Dubcek government through demonstrations and strikes.

This novel, first published in Prague in 1966, is very much an account of how someone like himself is driven in opposition to the regime. It describes a society which claims to be socialist but cannot satisfy the basic needs or aspirations of the mass of the population.

The novel takes the form of the more or less random recollections of a journalist who has incurred the wrath of the authorities by seeking to discover true reasons for the suicide of a school-girl – reasons which reflect adversely on the influential figures of the locality in which she lived. His mind wanders over the whole of his life, trying to make some sense of the predicament in which he finds himself and of the society which has produced that predicament.

He remembers the pre-war years, the poverty of the village he was brought up in, his father, a vehement communist carpenter, forced to work on a contract abroad to pay off his debts, writing bitter and lonely letters to his wife. The memories are interspersed with recollections of the early post-war period, ‘those bright, impetuous, hopeful days ... How fervently we believed in the justice of our history in the making ...’ By that time his father had become a local notable, chairman of the district council, attempting to force the local peasants to join the collective farm, ‘uncompromisingly devoted to the interests of his fellow men, interests which they themselves were able to perceive.’

And then there is disillusionment. His father, still pathetically clinging to his beliefs in the ‘land of the Soviets’, is demoted for not being nasty enough to his peasant neighbours and is shunted from one petty official job to another, forced by bureaucrats above to do things he does not want to do, forcing those below him to do things they do not want to do, still weighed down by debts.

As a journalist, the son finds that he is forced to keep the truth out of his own writing if he is to keep his job. ‘That’s what our Czech invention amounts to’, he tells a friend, ‘terrorising ourselves so democratically that there’s no-one for us to assassinate.’ The friend later dies of a heart attack just as he is due to repudiate publicly an article he has written.

Bewildered and angry the journalist goes to visit his brother, a bus driver, whom he has not seen for 10 years. He finds him living in a miserable department with a wife he met in a Youth League labour camp when the two of them also were enthusiastic about shaping history. Now the brother ‘had to send his child to his mother-in-law so that the two of them could work on variously interweaving shifts in order to get the money for an apartment ...’ On the buses, it seems life is just as frustrating as in the newspaper office. The authorities are always thinking up reasons for cutting back wages, changing schedules, imposing unbearable shift systems.

When she hears that anyone who wrote up the truth of what happened on the buses would lose his job as; a journalist, the brother’s wife interjects, ‘Yes ... But that’s the end of socialism.’

The three of them decide, in the end, to avenge themselves a little on the authorities expropriating a fallen log, a little bit of bureaucratic property, just as before the war their father would help himself to a little bit of the landowner’s property. With this act, the journalist feels that at long last he has freed himself of his hang-ups. ‘I have profited enormously’, he reflects, ‘and have recaptured my native awareness.’

Overall, Vaculik’s novel attempts to portray the hopes and fears of the ordinary people of the country. Through the journalist’s eyes we see individuals frightened to step out of line lest they get the sack, men who can only find employment six months of the year, working people unable to meet ends meet, ‘sweating women co-operative workers who have been tossing hay and have themselves been tossed by society’.

And the society itself is ‘intersected by a vertical collectively, concerning which the silence is so complete that one might doubt its existence. Yet how real it is. And how it dictates to us, and how harsh it is to us, and there is no escape from it and to disobey it is impossible.’

This is a fascinating book, although the flow-of-consciousness style does not always make it easy to follow. But the author’s honesty explains why he clashed with both Novotny and Dubcek, why since 1969, he has been refused the right to earn his living by any means at all, and why now he faces the threat of arrest.

Last updated on 16 November 2009