Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe

[posted by Alice]

The Cafe Irreal in 1999

Yes, I know, The Cafe Irreal Coeditors have been ignoring this blog shamefully of late, but that’s about to change.

First off, a little history: In June of 1998, G.S. Evans and I uploaded what we called Issue 0 of The Cafe Irreal to the internet. That was a long time ago in internet years, and it’s worth noting that next year we will celebrate our twentieth anniversary of tending this small but influential webzine. Though Issue 0 itself no longer exists (it was basically a call for submissions), you can get a very good idea of what The Cafe Irreal looked like back then — built with all those awkward old HTML 4 tags, some animated gifs, and a boundless enthusiasm for the irreal — by going to this Second Issue page.

Now flash forward almost twenty years: We have a responsive HTML 5 site that uses more static graphics, but we still have boundless enthusiasm for the irreal. And that’s why, to celebrate our upcoming twentieth anniversary, we are launching our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe. It actually began on February 1 of this year (hey, I had to read something to comment on before I could make this announcement), and it will conclude on February 1 of next year when we present our twentieth anniversary issue. Look for commentary on collections of short fiction — and maybe some plays — by contributors to The Cafe Irreal, beginning on February 9 February 10, 2018.

Vaclav Havel’s Film, Odchazeni (Leaving)

(posted by Greg)

The film version of Vaclav Havel’s play Odchazeni (Leaving) – directed by Havel himself – premiered here in Prague a few weeks ago. I hadn’t had a chance to see the play, which Havel wrote in 2005 and which has been the only play he’s written since turning to politics in the wake of 1989. I was quite interested in seeing the film, in part because Havel’s political career, to the surprise of those who knew his earlier work, has taken such an “establishment” turn. He has not only fully backed the policies of the world’s sole superpower but, in addition, the politics of some of its most conservative, and powerful, political groupings (such as the neoconservatives). Thus, he fully backed the United States invasion of Iraq, the stationing of American soldiers and radars on the soil of the Czech Republic as a part of a Star Wars anti-missile system (and opposed the holding of a referendum on the issue), and has refused to condemn the American policies and practices in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. How then, would this film, which was about the chancellor of an unnamed country leaving office, as Havel had just done, play out, given Havel’s continuing accommodation to the kind of establishment forces that he treated so ironically in his earlier plays? Curiously, in the play, no accommodation is made to these forces at all. It is in fact quite savage in its treatment of all the compromises and deceptions that one must make to keep one’s position in the world of establishment politics. Havel does this quite brilliantly, and the fact that he utilized the best traditions of Absurdist Theater and the Theater of the Grotesque to accomplish this goal was quite gratifying for an irrealist such as me.

But the film does raise the question as to whether Havel, who continues to this day to play the same political game (now in the role of the revered ex-President statesman, very similar to what the protagonist in Odchazeni, Chancellor Vilém Rieger,  was aiming for) that he so savagely condemns in the film, might not be a terribly conflicted person.

Some News from Prague

[posted by Greg]

Last week I had the good fortune to attend and read at one of the two book launch parties for the monumental anthology The Return Of Kral Majales: Prague’s Inter­national Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 (ed., Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010), whose 960 pages detail and present the literary and artistic activities of the English-language community in Prague — perhaps the most coherent, successful, and self-aware English-language expatriate community of the last fifty years. Both Alice and I have pieces in the anthology, and there are several translations originally published in The Cafe Irreal that are also included. In fact, the whole thing got me thinking about Prague, its influence on us, and our irreal project, and so that is something I will be writing on soon, and at length.

And, speaking of Prague and at least one of its influences on The Cafe Irreal, Franz Kafka, I finally made it to the Divadlo Komedie’s presentation of a stage version (in Czech) of The Trial. This play, which has been running since 2007 and won awards that year for best staging and best actor, made me think of something John Updike wrote some years ago when he first saw the film version of his novel Rabbit Run. He recalled how impressed he was with the quality of the film but he said that, even as he was watching it, he wondered why the filmmakers didn’t just drop the pretense of making a film from his book and make their own original film; it was obvious to him that having to fit the film into the strictures of his book had hurt the film, while at the same time the film completely failed to capture any particular aspect of his novel.

In the same way I was left wondering why the producers and director of Proces didn’t just write their own play about a guilt-ridden and socially estranged guy having to deal with an arbitrary process of judgment. If they had, I wouldn’t have entered the theater with expectations based on having read Kafka’s work and so wouldn’t have been so disappointed by what they had made of his novel; I might have even praised the play for having had a rather Kafkan theme. But of course they didn’t write their own play, they chose to essentially rewrite Kafka and then go out and print up a bunch of flyers that boasted about it being “The Trial by Franz Kafka.” And so I wasn’t expecting, as such devices were very much eschewed in Kafka’s work, the play’s use of the classic song “Stand by Me” to emphasize the loneliness of the characters (talk about giving us something we can comfortably anchor ourselves to!), the emotional outbursts of the tormented, and ultimately suicidal, Joseph K. (also called, in the play, “Mr. K”), or a periodic personal, first person narrative delivered by him (so much for the narrative distancing of the original).

And this brings up another point: if you add a lot of your own material, dialogue, and so on, as they did here, can you really put forth the play as being “by” Franz Kafka (even beyond the fact that Kafka wrote a novel, and not a play, called The Trial)?

A little while ago I wrote in a post that when we watch these various remakes of original material, we need to set aside our expectations of the original and just focus on the new version, rather as if it had sprung up out of nowhere. But quite frankly I’m getting tired of having to do this; perhaps the people doing these remakes should save us this trouble by eliminating the middle man. They’d have more artistic license and give us something new. And this, I would argue, is especially true for remakes of works that have strong irreal elements, as those elements are easily washed out once more standard dramatic devices are introduced.