Jan Kraus: “No one is going to disparage me!”
Written by: Monika Mudranincová & Klára Smolová
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
Deified and despised. An intelligent, quick-witted and witty artist who became a tribune of the nation. He brushes aside the current establishment, and tries to bring political satire to life. And people listen.
You’ve been an actor, a playwright, a director, a moderator, and a commentator. What’s closest to your heart?
My favorite thing is changing roles. And most of the time it happens by chance. My entire family emigrated, so we communicated by writing. My work as a commentator was based on my writing. I was interested in politics and political issues back in the time of the communist regime. I was a master of the phrases of the times, and I used them to argue my case when the police apprehended me. I shouted on the street that they should understand the conclusions of the latest session of the Central Committee, and that I would like them to be taken into consideration as they went over my papers (laughs). The theater was also created by chance. Thanks to my momma, an amateur actress, I became a member of a drama club, and I was a terribly busy pioneer who was “borrowed” for various events. The thing I like best about theater is its ability to reflect the latest happenings and the state of society. All this also led me to write the play.
So you have exhibitionist tendencies?
I don’t know, but I like to dig at the boundaries of social customs that I deem sick. The bourgeois are the subject of my relentless attacks, because they’re dangerous. A bourgeois person screams, “Conform, behave correctly, don’t interrupt, wear a tie!” while he steals and lies. He tries to drag you down to his level. And our post-communist society is ultra-bourgeois.
Your criticisms step on a lot of people’s toes. So you probably don’t have many friends. Does that bother you?
It’s a matter of choice. Any time you express an opinion you gain enemies. So many local artists remain obdurately silent. If you ask them about Iraq they decline comment. Either they don’t know where it is, or they don’t know what’s happening there, or they’re afraid of speaking their minds. But it’s not important if my opinion is right. People should talk about things whether they’re true or not, because there should be a minimum of taboos. We live in a society where the media are servile to those in power. I think this is perfectly analyzed in the book, The Power and Impotence of the Media, in which Rupnik says that they (the media) are servile, perhaps because they expect inside information as a premium from politicians. He utters a very clever idea: that inside information in politics is of zero value, as only public statements are important.
You say that “politics is something people should get involved in at the end of their lives, when their desire to accomplish something in life has already been satisfied.” Don’t you think it will take at least one, or more, generations to change that?
Absolutely. It’s good to understand that. It was painful for me to come to this realization, because I thought things would move faster. As they say, habit is second nature. And that applies to more than habits, it involves social mechanisms and schemes. And the greater the people’s will is to do away with it, the sooner it will happen. The problem is, people don’t have the courage.
If we look at the political situation in, say, France or the US, we can see that there’s nothing unique about us, wouldn’t you agree?
Sure, people steal a lot everywhere. It’s a world-wide problem – even the monarchs were profiteers. But we have to be clear about one thing: politicians must not be connected to the media; they should be terrified of them. The media must stand unambiguously on the people’s side, and any racket should be issue number one for them. The normal world must be detached from politics, but politicians influence the market, and that’s a catastrophe. For example, Telecom. When it wasn’t sold, it belonged to the state, and look at the situation with the internet here. It’s a political responsibility, and someone has to say to the politicians, “You’re responsible for our being made idiots of, and we’re behind because of you!” But the media are the voice of the citizenry, and when they shut up, so does the citizenry.
What do you think a citizen should do to avoid exposure to the disparagement of politicians and officials?
No one has ever disparaged me. No one ever will. When I was fifteen, my rule was to address anyone in the familiar who addressed me that way. You can’t imagine the results. A waiter would say, “what’ll you have, kid?”, and I’d say, “bring me a svíčková, buddy.” And he’d gape. When I went for my draft physical someone said, “Kraus, kid, where’s your questionnaire?”, and I replied, “here it is, pal…” (laughs). He was thunderstruck. This doesn’t mean I’m overly self-confident, it’s just normal to not let anyone treat you like dirt.
What about going into politics, instead of criticizing from without?
No, no. Parliament – it’d be like going back to school. Rummaging through paragraphs? I’m too good for that. There’s plenty of time for politics, it’s entertainment for old-timers. Then it’s good for you, since you don’t have any venal desires. Also, you don’t get as angry, you’re more calm. So you might say that just before you die, you’re in an ideal state for a political career. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to go into politics, it’s meritorious when it’s done honestly. But as we can see, the parliament isn’t anything but a mirror of ourselves. That’s what we are. It’s painful but true.
Why in your opinion is modest mediocrity valued more highly than a sharply outspoken personality?
Havel recently said that he has a strong ambition to present the state citizen as a model. A state citizen is a person who pays taxes, goes to work, keeps quiet, votes… in short, he causes no problems. He holds his tongue, produces, and obeys. Havel is right on the money. This is where we are after fifty years in a pathological environment. Defective models will be passed on for years. Cleansing will be slow, if it happens at all. As I say, if it isn’t amusing, no one will live here. Why should they? People can multiply anywhere.
What does freedom mean to you?
Freedom is a daily condition, when I can express myself, in terms of both content and manner, and I can affect what I want to affect. But I’m limited by the law. Freedom is a very broad term, compared with what we enjoy here. Here everyone is a subordinate – be circumspect, don’t open your mouth, it’s not worth it. Everyone is in debt and has to consider how they will pay it off. So their framework of freedom is even more limited. If I had to pay with my freedom, I simply wouldn’t take out a loan.
You took part in the campaign for Czech accession to the EU. In a month we’ll be a full member. Are you satisfied?
This is the right time for the EU. We live in a country that’s still isolated – not in terms of geography, but rather in terms of psychology, intellect, and habits. I hope the fatuous politicians will very soon realize that national identity can be demonstrated either through culture or through uniforms. From the way they now support culture, it looks like they’ll opt for uniforms. Culture is in a sorry state here. There is a certain post-communist irreverance towards art, which is confused with show business. They say culture should compete on the market, and if someone wants money to stage an opera, they argue that Lucie Bílá doesn’t need it. That’s mind-boggling.
What did you think about what was happening in regard to our Euro Commissioner election?
With respect to this little nonentity, you can see what problems we have. Kužvart went to the EU and discovered they don’t speak Czech there. It will surprise many more politicians to learn that Czech isn’t an international language. Telička is better prepared for this work than almost anyone else. He spent two years in the communist party, and that certainly doesn’t make him look good. But he’s more than made up for that through his service to the state. And the president says that his communist party membership characterizes him, even though his own party is full of Bolsheviks.
How would you describe yourself in a few words?
Jan Vladimír Kraus. For your entire life you have but one trademark – your name. That’s why it’s inscribed on your grave.