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Twisted Spoon Press

PO Box 21 - Preslova 12, 150 00 Prague 5, Czech Republic

Book details:
Letters from Prison


by Milan Šimečka

translated from the Czech and Slovak by Gerald Turner


I now sit down to write with a touch less discouragement. They've told me I can write once a week, which has cheered me up a lot. There is now a lot more hope that you'll receive some of my letters after all. Apart from which, as you know, my defense counsel came to see me. On the Prosecutor's advice I am to send my letters to him and he will forward them to you. I'm accordingly sending a covering letter to the Prosecutor's office along those lines. So I can start off on a rather more hopeful note.

Mind you, autumn isn't really the most hopeful season of the year. Almost every morning Ruzyne [prison] is covered in mist and I can see the leaves turning yellow on the few trees here. I only know about last summer from the papers. I know you went bathing a lot and that it was terribly hot again in our attic apartment. Otherwise I don't know a thing about the summer. My cell is strangely unaffected by the weather. It is not just cut off from human society, it is cut off from nature, too. As if it were somehow out of this world.

Apart from a lot of other things I have come to understand here, I have fully come to realize the enormous importance of nature in human lives. I now understand the vital role it plays in the health of the human personality. For months now I have listened to talk in which various inward yearnings of all my different fellow-lodgers have surfaced. And for months I have waited for someone to say something to do with nature, to voice a longing for the peace of summer, sun, water or even a garden, but have heard nothing of the sort the entire time I've been here. There is not even a reference to nature in any of the different tales I've heard. As if nature were completely divorced from the lives of those people and played no role at all in them. As you might imagine, the most recurrent yearnings concern beer, food, women, tape recorders, discotheques, civilized adventures, etc. And suddenly it occurs to me whether this lack of any feeling for nature has a causal connection with their social and human disorders.

There you are, and as I ponder this my mind goes back to the sad visions of Rousseau and Thoreau, and even Marx's theory of alienation, and in fact all those warnings about how alienation from nature can play havoc with humans. And what I once took to be slightly exaggerated and nostalgic notions about the lost harmony of man and nature now sounds to me like a specific and tangible cause of the malignant disorders of our civilization. I also no longer consider those various friends of nature that we would meet on our travels as oddballs but as champions of humanity. I'm even beginning to think that even the average Joe who takes the cable car up to Lomnické sedlo and is bowled over by the view of the valley is already on the way to victory in his battle with life. And maybe it's a hard and fast rule that you only meet good people on the ridgeway between Prasivá and Chabenec [in the Tatras]. This definition is not altered by the fact that you are liable to get your skis stolen. That's another matter.

I'm possibly saying things we all know, but the awful thing is that we regard them as part of our general knowledge of the world. Except that I hear tales of hopeless human situations, and there are more and more of them, and I'm already beginning to formulate a simple theory which might be backed up by sociological research and unshakeable statistics: Save nature and you'll save the human race. But this theory is not worth a thing unless ... Nonetheless, family allowances should only be paid to parents who take their kids into the woods at least once a month to observe the strivings of ants with them.

But for heaven's sake, I wasn't intending to write to you about my theories. Originally I just wanted to tell you how therapeutic it is for me in the peace of the night to recall ecstatic moments associated with nature that still make me tingle as much as they did then. And thank God there were plenty of them. It is sheer delight to be back again in that half-ruined village high above the sea. Do you remember, Eva? We were visiting some Slovenian painter whose children were asleep on sheepskins on the stove. And after a few glasses of red wine we climbed up onto some ramparts and from there you could see the lights of fishing boats reflected on the surface of the sea, otherwise invisible in the darkness. And above them shone the Mediterranean stars. In addition I could feel beneath my feet that ancient turf, trodden perhaps by some Roman slave as he went for water. Everything — nature, my consciousness, and the whole of human civilization — fused into a single moment of rapture. But the main thing is that it all came back to visit me in my cell, and I wallowed in that memory like in a feather bed. And I couldn't even smell the latrine.

I already wrote to you that if at some future moment — which I don't think about for the time being — we'll be together and allowed to go wherever we like, you'll have no difficulty in dragging me away from my books and work into some ordinary woods with ordinary trees and footpaths I know by heart. On the contrary, I'll dash off as soon as I can to see a slug crossing a path, leaving behind itself a slimy trail. For a long time we kept a spider here, a leggy creature by the name of Joanna. I would watch it move around the ceiling. For hours and hours it would hang from one spot. One day it disappeared. It probably crept into some hole behind the light. I expect spiders enter a state of physical and mental torpor for the winter. If I could learn to do it too how blissful I would be. But I don't know if I'd really want to.


They've changed the time here, too. It was bright this morning but the evening will be that much darker, not that it makes any difference here anyway.

I've already thanked you many times for your letters and written various comments on them, which you never received. I was taken by many things in those letters. Such as ordinary tenderness, for instance. A pity that Petr never read my thanks for what he wrote me. He seemed a new person in those letters, more mature, philosophical, and emotionally open. I often read those letters over and over again and their atmosphere transports me back all those months. They are like the remaining pages of a calendar.

I discussed those letters with you and I still would be able to. When Milan confesses his dread of the laziness and torpor of summertime, I can see him before me with that eternal restlessness in his eyes, afraid he'll miss something. I'm lucky to have a different mental constitution. What would I do with that sort of restlessness here? There really is nothing to do here and time passes like some totally useless attribute of space. I already hate it as a philosophical category. It's like glue; it sticks to my fingers and my soul. I suddenly perceive it as a living creature with a slimy, indolent body that lounges around here, filling the narrow space until it's impossible to breathe. When I was small and got a fever I would always wake from my sleep in a state of terror because some swelling mass, dark and alive, like the belly of an antediluvian creature, was rolling on top of me. Only now do I realize that that creature was time. Only now have I come to know that monster intimately. It is actually an enormous leech that feeds on the time of our lives, both mine and no doubt yours too, my love. Because you know best of all that we have time in common. It's your leech, too.

But let's think about something more human. Milan's beloved looks at me out of the photo with large eyes. I have incorporated her with you into my former world. And I am happy inside that they experience their love so intensely. It would be lovely if I could run with you in the last of the summer wind and be as fast as he is, and share that feeling of being in a glass bell. What is wind?

Milan, you divulge some of the petty jealousies that assail you. This new civilized jealousy that only causes a slight scratching of the heart has its uses. It prevents one from becoming complacent in love. But full-scale jealousy is a real swine that roots around in human relations with its snout and makes a total quagmire of them. I have been through petty jealousies in my time and enjoyed them. However, your mother might tell an unhappier tale about them.

Nevertheless, son, it has been my view for a good few years now that jealousy is a challenge to one's intellect. It's a test that a strong intellect should cope with. What does a man lose by the fact that the woman he loves is attractive to others? Nothing. On the contrary, he gains. Go ahead and admire her. At the same time you're admiring me because this woman loves me. The rest of you merely make her life more pleasant. Naturally that only applies to relations between civilized individuals. I'd be ashamed to relate such esoteric matters in a cell where tales are told of sexual promiscuity so complicated that it is difficult to make head or tail of them. Sometimes I truly start to forget that there exists another world that has its own moral standards. More than one world, in fact. But I much prefer the one illuminated by reason. And in that one the jealous person is an object of pity. At the end of the day, jealousy always betrays a secret sense of inferiority. Not sexual, but intellectual. I'm not sure whether that fits in with the Freud you're now reading, but all my observations of life convince me of it. When I was being escorted here, my ill-informed guard tried to persuade me that my wife would inevitably be unfaithful to me, quite simply because that's what all women are like. And he told me a hundred stories from life to prove it. I just nodded, because even if we had been bound for the furthest corners of the earth, I would have never managed to convince him that there was another reality apart from the world of his stories. It is deciphered from primitive shorthand into an articulated pattern, and I won't allow anything from that sequence to be removed or overturned. Sometimes, son, I think it's preferable to die rather than abandon that pattern. Because once one has achieved a pattern of reality based on reason and education, the only way one can descend into another reality is through human degradation. But that is another philosophy. And all this on account of a reference to jealousy!

© Twisted Spoon Press
© Milan Šimečka
Translation © Gerald Turner


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ISBN 9788086264035
172 pp.
14.5 x 20.5 cm
softcover with flaps
14 B/W photographs
RRP: $12.95 • £8.50

release dates:
UK: January 2007
US: April 2002

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