Taking the reader inside Communist and post-Communist Czechoslovakia, Second Exile reflects on moments of personal and political history. Jane and Ales explain how this unique dialogue in prose and poetry emerged
JK: He was recommended as a builder and then became a friend; he'd stay for coffee and talk. I didn't really respond to his stories with poems until I felt closer to him; for a poem there has to be something else going on. One, 'Monopoly,' started with our argument about Marxism - my nagging him about his hatred of the Bolshevics, against, as he puts it, my 'woolly liberal North London' attraction to socialism. It kicked into life when he told me a story about making a set of Monopoly in prison just as we were driving down London's Park Lane; there was so much wealth around.
Some realisations didn't click until I moved to Czech. 'Witness' had started when I heard a researcher talk about interviewing relatives of those who died in Stalin's Gulag; her shock that they still wanted to prove innocence. But I then found out that this process of victims feeling guilty, or being seen as guilty by their family, even extended to the Czech experience.
Early on in London, I saw a picture of the cinema in Prague that Ales' family once owned soon after it was given back to his mother. I couldn't fathom his excitement about such a dark miserable-looking place. But that image of gloom and forbidding architecture stayed and eventually, when we were living there, fed in to how I wrote about Prague.
PJ: Ales: did she show you those first poems? What did you think of them?
AM: She is very secretive. She gave me her first collection, but I remember mostly the poems that went into her second book, The Man Who Sold Mirrors. It was a belated literary seduction, me egoistically pleased, not having an idea of their real merit but feeling that they express a side of the stories from a slightly different angle. I immediately wanted to translate them so that I could start to understand. My first attempt was a love poem she wrote called 'Caffeine.' I liked her close attention, it made me feel loved. It's a bit like my grandson. He's three and can spend hours watching ants. I bet those ants feel loved.
JK: I showed him poems but warily. I did write a few about him in the collection published in 1997, Stealing the Eiffel Tower, but I changed the details, covered my tracks. He'd written poetry when he was a student and I suspected he didn't think mine were quite up to those.
PJ: Ales, did you always intend to write an account of your time in prison?
AM: I wrote a few pages about prison itself when I was still inside and it was smuggled out. I felt I'd dealt with it. Then, when I got my secret police files in 2002, I realised that I hadn't, and needed to. This coincided with being asked to contribute to an anthology for the 50th birthday of a prison-friend, a sculptor, Otmar Oliva. After that a friend of his who's a publisher would nag me about getting more down. But we were fairly distracted, pouring bronze or hanging around waiting and drinking Slivovice during Otmar's bi-annual castings, so I didn't take it too seriously. Nor probably did he.
PJ: Both of you - How did Ales prose account begin?
AM: I think it started when we went to Pardubice in 2002 to read the secret police files. I felt quite distraught after that. I needed to understand where my distress was coming from and that has taken all this time. More recently I'd become keen to leave behind some witness statement. I was around at a certain period of history and I wanted to get it down.
I've had to retrieve some memories that had been blanked. Whole chunks had gone: the terrible time after prison, being in London as an exile and trying to make money to survive with two step-children and sending money home to my own children. Looking back now it was difficult and I might have moaned and been unhelpful but answering questions about my secret police files ended up like therapy, it brought back the lost time.
JK: Ales actually did lose his memory completely for a couple of hours eighteen months ago and realised he should get on with it, put something more down in print. He'd been translating my poems into Czech and we'd been doing readings in both languages. At some point we translated a poem he wrote about Jan Palach but that seems to have got lost.
AM: When Jan Palach (a student at Charles university) burned himself to death in January '69 it made a huge impact on me and probably all my generation. His death and the funeral were somehow reflected in my later actions. That small poem ended up in the court file as proof of my hatred of the State. All the Czechoslovak newspapers described him as mentally unstable, lured into action by the Imperialists; that the Imperialists convinced him the flames would be cold.
JK: There was quite a lot already in English. I was in the habit of typing up his stories, asking him questions and putting them together. In 2002 when he'd got his StB, Secret Police, files and was starting a court case against the Ministry of the Interior he was upset and I wanted to know why so I made him translate all they'd written.
PJ: It is more than an account of your time in prison, how did you select the moments from your life to write about?
AM: It became a question of putting in the most important stages and influences. For example, my uncle, it's not just that I have his name and the emptiness in my mother's life without her younger brother, her only sibling. But if he hadn't died in a concentration camp, what might it be like to have him around? One of the first things Jane wanted translated was the booklet Grandpa made of my uncle's letters that were sent secretly (as well as the officially sanctioned ones) from Buchenwald.
I decided on the final poem to put in the memoir, 'Never Having Known the Heat', about choosing to go into the fire rather than staying in the frying pan, because that seems to sum everything up. We already had chunks - prison and the files and my uncle's letters. Some stories Jane had asked for more details as soon as she'd heard them, such as the anti-charter meeting in 1977.
Having the poems was crucial. I've always suspected that if I dwell too much on a memory, I rewrite it, but thanks to the poetry some things have got fixed. In 'Monopoly' I'm quoted saying that prison was my happiest time. It's true; I felt there that I was fulfilling some kind of destiny. I was 33, at the peak of my energy. I suppose I felt pre-destined because of that particular time in that country.
I've always felt my father used up all his courage in WW2. And I used up all mine while in exile in London after 1985. I enjoy having an MSc; it matters in Prague, you're treated better so I'm a snob about it but I'd always thought I could make a living doing anything, even manual work. After prison, and then in London, I started to lose confidence, became desperate.
JK: There were stories that I kept coming back to; his setting up of roulette in the university union, for example. It was fascinating to realise that when I went to a student conference in Prague in August 1968, he could have been one of those noisy beer-drinking men in the canteen, so attractive and so unattainable, living in a country that was totally strange. Even though it was before the invasion, the city was dark and gloomy and disturbing. I could feel the fear; we were warned to be cautious about what we said. He was studying in that place, and funding himself from gambling!
PJ: Did you always conceive of the book as this combination of prose and poems?
JK: The suggestion by the publisher in Moravia that he should write more about prison was always around, I suppose. Ales had made such a fuss when doing the essay for Otmar (his sister called him Maestro and he went on and on about dead-lines) that it became clear he wouldn't do it. Then after he lost his memory briefly and decided Gingko biloba wasn't helping, we thought this might be a good idea. He'd fill in the details behind the poems that weren't covered in the material I already had. I asked questions as I typed, trying to get it on the page keeping his tone and humour as accurately as possible.
AM: I had always wanted, when I translated Jane's poems, to add brief comments. So when the idea came to try and publish something it was assumed it would be a Czech and English publication, then it started to grow and it was no longer possible to keep it bi-lingual.
PJ: Ales, How much did Jane's poems prompt new memories and therefore more prose?
AM: It was more her never-ending interrogation. A poet evidently has to have full possession of a story before they twist it by the force of poetic licence. And it ends up as so different. It's like Otmar's sketches. They show more than I can describe, in quite a different medium.
PJ: Jane, as Ales's prose account expanded, new poems emerged - what starts a poem for you?
JK: I've always asked questions because his stories beg for more detail. There would have to be another trigger, though, for a poem. At first the poems would be set off, and still many are, by my feelings for him and are nothing to do with his history; if such a separation is possible. A poem might still be rooted in loving him but an event would happen that reflected something else, or there'd be an image. For example, we've both tried several times to follow the stream by our cottage all the way to the river. The more exact I was about the course of the stream, the more the poem, 'A Stream in Bohemia', began to get closer to the outrage I'd felt when Ales' told me the story of his arrest.
But at no point was I trying to get into his head. When we were clearing out the cottage of a neighbour, now dead, and found a red flag in the loft, it had a different resonance for me. At one stage, I fancied myself as a Marxist. So it's always my reaction, not a representation of his. Take the poem about our protest at Faslane in 2007, 'Trident'; he almost enjoyed being in a Scottish cell, I found it utterly terrifying, I couldn't breathe, was frozen, had a panic attack.
PJ: Jane, In some poems you make connections between Ales's Czech background and your Irish catholic background - not an immediately obvious comparison - personal? Political? Both?
JK: They are both countries that have been occupied, both small, both have strong literary cultures and both have big greedy neighbours. The Catholic inheritance is a different one in Czech, less constricting than it's been in Ireland. The Bohemian and Moravian countryside never had the poverty of Ireland and was much more industrialised. Once the Swedes had done their looting of Prague in the seventeenth century and the Austro-Hungarian Empire taken over, a resemblance can be seen to England's presence in Ireland, but far less vicious. The sense for Czechs of being 'raped' as a country is more recent history. Bitterness is reserved for the Nazis and then the Russians. So, yes, also personal in the sense that as I wander round Slabce, the one-street village where we live in the summer, or collect wood, or pick black currants and make jam (heaven help me) I feel a direct connection with my Mayo grandmother.
PJ: Ales, I found myself wanting to know more as I read the tantalizing glimpses of your life - has the experience of this project made you want to write at more length?
AM: I know I said I wanted to record things and get them straight but to be truthful this has all been dragged out of me by Jane so I can't say I wanted to write even this. My excuse would be to quote you, Pam, and say that millions of my other stories feel as if they are 'telling' not 'showing'. Jane would say that's just an excuse to do nothing or cover my tracks or perhaps forget all about it.
But in a way when I was working with friends on that student's newspaper in 1967, that was a decision to get stuff down. How many had been injured, expelled from university etc. Answering these questions of yours makes me wonder: who is my ideal reader? I think probably a historian. Which brings back a memory of when I was very small, about ten and in love; I put my confession of love into a container and buried it, in case I would die. I wanted such feelings preserved.
Anyway, part of my uneasiness with these questions is that there's never an easy answer. Jane first wanted to call the memoir 'I Don't Know' because that is always my initial response but, as Socrates said, "I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance."
PJ: What are you both reading at the moment?
AM: The Mystic Masseur by V.S.Naipaul. Set in the Hindu community, colonial Trinidad, no library so the hero buys and reads books by the yard, becomes known as a wise man but it's the sign mystic that makes his fortune. I recommend that, though not sure about the book. Massaging the troubled mind, loads of money?
JK: Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. Definitely recommend, an extended essay/ memoir around death and about that 'Nothing'. And Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. Terrific and melancholic (a Czech Jew so real you could touch him) and poetic, instructive, wise prose, though I was uncomfortable with the ending but maybe that's the point.
PJ: What are you both writing at the moment?
AM: Preparing notes for a possible new lawsuit, and my will.
JK: He is always writing his will. I'm struggling with a series of short stories, and poems, of course.
PJ: What would you say to anyone embarking on a collaborative writing project?
AM: They should both talk the same language!
JK: By that, I suspect Ales means that we spend a great deal of time in mutual incomprehension. However, it's great to have another voice. Even if it wasn't something like this, it's the relief of having someone else's mind on the problem and their opinion. A real bonus, except when they're stubborn, or hanging on to information until the last possible minute.
Second Exile, published by Rockingham Press, is available in good bookshops and online from Inpress
Note: Apologies to Ales for not including the accents on his name but it proved a technological challenge too far! Thankfully, the book cover image shows how it should be.