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English and Film Studies


Here at home, we hold no love towards émigrés. We didn’t like them before, and we don’t like them now. Not that we don’t concern ourseles with them, we just simply really don’t like them. Seemingly it’s some kind of tradition here [...] They can go ahead and complain, but since they have no political rights, let them whine, they pose no threat, as long as at home all is quiet.1

This comment by Jiří Bigas, made in his 1998 opinion column aptly titled ‘The Relationship with One’s Own Émigrés is a Test of National Maturity,’ encapsulates some of the problematic perspectives on the return of Czech émigrés after 1989. Under the Communist regime of 1948 and 1989, an estimated 550,000 people, or 3.5 per cent of the population, emigrated from Czechoslovakia.2 After the Velvet Revolution, thousands of these émigrés returned, with high hopes of returning ‘home’. Now, fifteen years later, relatively few of tehse individuals remain in the Czech Republic; they have left again, disappointed by the disillusionment or discrimination they encountered. The negative attitude towards returning Czechs, ranging from dismissal to latent xenophobia, has been characterized as the ‘anti-émigré trauma of Czech politics’.3 For a long time, Czechs were neither willing nor ready to express themselves on this sensitive issue. For example, Jiří Gruntorád, director of the samizdat archive Libri Prohibiti, saw himself as archiving painful memories which could not be adequately articulated in the contentious political climate of the 1990s:

Every generation has its trauma. Your mother remembered February [1948], your grandfather, the battle of Piava, and now we transmit stories of dissidents. I guess it doesn’t interest people now, it irritates people. I have the feeling that it is unfitting, immoral even, to talk about it yet.4

Almost a generation has passed since the fall of Communism. Perhaps it is now time to address some of the contentious issues of recent history and revisit the traumatic subject of returning Czech émigrés. Drawing on Czech opinion of the 1990s and the statements of émigrés, I will briefly sketch out the main issues of the experience of the émigré return. My analysis however, will explore an aspect that has been almost completely overlooked in this debate: literature. I turn to literature in order to better understand the experience of Czech émigrés, before and after 1989, in its complex cultural, psychological and socio-historical dimensions. In particular, I focus on the ‘painless’ representation of the émigré experience by émigrés that largely informed their reception by Czechs in the Czech Republic after 1989. I posit that the suffering of emigration and return has been repressed in Czech exile literature and I examine the effects of this seeming absence of pain. What happens when the suffering of emigration is kept silent? How does one interpret the muted distress in Czech exile literature? When Czech émigrés could safely return home, was the hardship of emigration erased? How did émigré writers return home in their fiction? These are but some of the questions driving this retrospective reflection.


This article was originally published in Slavonic and East European Review, 85(1): 47-78. © 2007 Slavonic and East European Review. Reproduced with permission