This week, Kafkadesk spoke with René Georg Vasicek, born in Austria just shortly after his parents defected from Czechoslovakia following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. A former jack-of-all-trades at the Czech cultural centre in New York, René established himself as a writer in the U.S. His first book, a cosmic experimental novel, was just published in January.
Hi René! Could you briefly tell us about your background?
Who am I? What am I? I am a quantum being. I zig. I zag. Every day I wake up and feel like somebody else. I was conceived in late December in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, a few months after the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was born in Austria, the son of Czech defectors. I was raised in a machine shop near the sea in the pine barrens wilderness of eastern Long Island. Now, for the last quarter century, I have lived in New York. I studied law. I studied English. I am a writer, a garage philosopher, a cosmic thinker.
You worked for some time at the Czech cultural centre in New York? What was the nature of your job there? Any particularly memorable anecdotes?
I was a jack-of-all trades at the Czech Center in New York. Bartender. Driver. Doorman. Translator. Art installer. Cargo pickup. My official title was Production Manager. I even had a business card. The only one I have ever had in my professional life.
I once escorted Czech New Wave film director Věra Chytilová (Daisies, 1966) to an interview at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. We took the subway. As we stood on the platform, waiting for the downtown 4 train, she said to me in Czech, “Well… the metro here is pretty disgusting!” At another screening, the filmmaker Karel Kachyna (The Ear 1970) told me (hours after observing me struggle with a butter knife and a loaf of peasant bread) that I had a highly unusual style of slicing bread.
Another time, at one of our weekly meetings, the Director of the Czech Center said he had a special task planned for me. Cryptically, he hinted, “Think about your grandchildren!” I was to be the official elevator operator when President Václav Havel visited us. I had to press the call-button at precisely the right moment, the Director warned! Czech and American Secret Services inspected the building before Havel arrived. Something was wrong with the elevator, they said. Havel had to take the stairs. So my role of official elevator operator was reduced to the smiling man next to the staircase, waving to Havel and First Lady Dasha where to go. Our eyes met. Havel smiled. I smiled. Years and years later, I like to think, in that brief encounter, perhaps the dharma was transmitted.
You studied law but eventually ended up embarking on a career as a writer. How did that happen?
Law school was a disaster for me. I gave myself only four days to recover from living in Prague for a year before jumping into it. My head was totally elsewhere. I was an artist. Legal jargon reduces human beings into plaintiffs & defendants. Bohumil Hrabal studied law. Kafka studied law. There is a tradition of writers abandoning the law. I became one of them.
After I graduated law school, I moved into Manhattan with my girlfriend. After I failed the bar exam five times, she said enough is enough. We started a writing group. We got married, applied to MFA graduate writing programs and quit miserable boring jobs. She got into Columbia, while I got into Sarah Lawrence College. We stayed in our railroad apartment. Our Belgian sheepdog Sonja shuttled back and forth between my wife and I as we sat at opposite ends of the apartment, typing away. It was a beautiful and scary time: there was so much uncertainty. I doubt my wife and I thought it would take twenty years to publish our first books. She won the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award for her memoir Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me. Her book came out in August 2019. My book The Defectors was published in January 2020. A few months apart. Perfect timing.
What was the trigger to write The Defectors?
Being a human being at the dawn of the Third Millennium is what triggered The Defectors. I needed a way to process what is happening to people. I had to create an imaginary being to do so. I called him Zig. Perhaps one day fans of The Defectors will be called Zigheads! Somewhere I read Thomas Pynchon (author of Gravity’s Rainbow) talk about how he discovered a book called The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, a philosopher who coined the term “cybernetics” in 1948. Ever since I was a kid on Long Island, I was surrounded by machines at my Czech immigrant father’s machine shop. I was fascinated by and terrified of machines. They can kill you. You can imagine my delight when I learned that “robot” is a Czech word from Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R written in 1920, a hundred years ago! The Defectors is my desperate attempt to remain a human being.
Tell us something about the story line (no spoilers!) and what you sought to achieve with this book, your first novel I believe?
I must warn you. The Defectors is an experimental novel. Plotless existence is what most human beings experience. Unless, of course, your reality is manufactured by Netflix.
Each episode of The Defectors is my attempt to put chaos and disorder into Pandora’s Box for you to open, dear reader! Each episode (and there are thirteen of them) is a thought experiment. I see the novel as a particle collider. Explosions and implosions. Event horizons. Black Holes. Supernovas. Wormholes. Only the reader of a novel can travel faster than the speed of light. I want you to catch a glimpse of something beyond the Observable Universe.
Who/what are your favourite Czech authors/books that you’d recommend to anyone living or interested in the country?
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, “The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become”. It intrigues me how so many of my favourite writers explore this trope, Czechs and beyond. Bohumil Hrabal, Samuel Beckett, Witold Gombrowicz, Clarice Lispector, Angela Carter, Thomas Bernhard, and Anna Kavan. “Reality examined to the point of madness,” is how the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai describes his fiction. I am also a big fan of SF writer Philip K. Dick who has been described as “a kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet”. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the inspiration for the 1982 film Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford. I also really like Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which Andrei Tarkovsky adapted for his apocalyptic 1979 masterpiece flick Stalker.
I read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude and Jáchym Topol’s Angel Station in the original Czech. Everything else I read in English. I recommend Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Closely Watched Trains. More recently, I was deeply impressed by the fantastic imagination of Michal Ajvaz in The Other City and The Golden Age. The form of Patrick Ouředník’s Europeana intrigued me. I must also mention two Prague novels by the German-speaker Paul Leppin (1878-1945): Severin’s Journey into Night and Blaugast blew my mind. Beautiful Gothic renderings. You must investigate.
You mostly live in the U.S. Do you often come to the Czech Republic? If so, what are your weak spots for the country your parents emigrated from?
If you can believe it, I have not been to the Republic in eleven years! My youngest son, age seven, has never met his Czech relatives in Southern Moravia. My eldest son, age thirteen, just barely remembers the electric trams of Prague. That said, for my mother’s 75th birthday, we are planning to visit this summer. I am eager to see my sons’ impressions of Czechia!
Thanks René! Anything else you’d like to add?
I am collaborating on a graphic novel project called The City of Machines with Noah Hulsizer, a good friend and talented illustrator in Portland, Oregon. An excerpt of the project appears online in the literary journal Palooka. Readers of The Defectors will discover an episode called “The City of Machines” which is a short story we adapted and expanded into comic-book form. It was fascinating to watch my imaginary being Zig take on shape and form in pencils and ink. Utterly exhilarating!
Here’s a couple of links to read the first episode of The Defectors on the publisher’s website; a description of The Defectors on the publisher’s website; The City of Machines at the literary journal Palooka; and finally René Vasicek’s own authors website!