Martin Reiner: An entire century is imprinted on one author's fate

Researching the life and work of Ivan Blatny felt like a criminal investigation to me

Stefan Totev

The story of a poet forced to flee his motherland because of the totalitarian regime, a poet who spent years in a psychiatric facility in Britain, actually reflects 20th century history, writer Martin Reiner says in interview to Europost.

Mr Reiner, will Bulgarians be able to see their own fate in the story you tell in The Poet?

I am glad that the first foreign release of my novel is in Bulgarian. There are many parallels to be drawn between the development of societies in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Initially, I thought that this book is intended specifically for the Czech reader but I have come to realise that the fates told in it resonate with people across Eastern Europe, the countries from the former communist bloc. The story of a poet forced to flee his motherland because of the totalitarian regime, a poet who spent years in a psychiatric facility in Britain, actually reflects 20th century history. The book has been extremely successful in the Czech Republic, which caught even me off guard. The fact is it has sold 10,000 copies, which is an unbelievable success for such a book.

You put an enormous amount of work into your book, as evidenced by its sheer volume. How long did it take you to write it?

To be exact, I researched the material for 28 years and wrote it in seven years. A friend of mine reminded me something I had forgotten - in a 1998 letter addressed to him, I wrote that I would write a novel about Ivan Blatny. I actually wrote seven other books in the intervening years before The Poet came out. I am eternally grateful for that to God, in whose existence I have little doubt. Ivan Blatny was a banned poet in Czechoslovakia. The first time I ever heard of him was four years after my high school graduation, despite studying Czech language and literature extensively. There are still many people in Brno, the city where I was born and still live, who knew him. I was able to track them down. The whole process felt like a criminal investigation to me, which is why I, justifiably, describe my book as a crime novel. Ivan Blatny has been a major influence on my work too. Melancholic Walks (Melancholicke prochazky), a collection of poems dedicated to Brno, is his most famous work. The poems in it were very different from anything else I had read in the 1990s. Later, I helped move his archive from England to the Czech Republic and digitise it. Not long ago, I published selected works from his archive - 460 poems. My interest in Blatny grew over time. The Perestroika reformist movement spread in Czechoslovakia in 1985 and I joined the section of people who called for change. We were not dissidents, per se, but we wanted for the communists to go away. There were whole clubs dedicated to the cause in Brno. In April 1989, in one such club, I gave a three-hour talk on Ivan Blatny. There I was, wet behind the ears, passionately talking about a banned author to an audience full of artists and dissidents who knew him personally, and women who were his lovers. Ivan Blatny travelled to England with a delegation, in which he was included as a very talented young poet, and he decided to stay there. No, he was not a particularly brave person, I would even say that he was a coward in his personal life. But to make that radical decision, he had an abundance of information. He travelled in circles that were better informed compared to regular people. His mentor Vitezslav Nezval, one of the greatest 20th-century Czech poets, was a ministry official. But after Ivan Blatny defected to England, many of his friends took a critical stance and condemned his actions. What would have happened if he had stayed in Czechoslovakia? For this, my novel offers different versions.

Do you feel some type of connection to Ivan Blatny?

He is a great figure but we are two completely different people. I am a pro-active person, I always make the first move, it is just the way I am. Ivan Blatny was an extremely passive individual. But his ways hold a certain charm and magic. By him not taking action against the things that were happening to him, the entire 20th century was virtually imprinted on Blatny's fate. While I was writing the book, I couldn't imagine what he did in a psychiatric clinic for 20 years in light of the fact that he was not insane. His best friend there was the TV set, even when it was not on. As I found out from Blatny's psychiatrist in England, when he was not occupied tending to carrots in the garden with the rest of the patients, the poet spent his time with the TV.

Were you able to meet Ivan Blatny?

Yes, I met him. It was an extremely important meeting for me, although it would hardly have been one for him. Even though the book is very big, I did not tell about that many events. For example, in 1989 I and my wife went to England. The nurse who discovered Ivan Blatny took us to him. It was an autumn evening, he was watching TV and was very displeased that someone was imposing on his time. At that point, I had been working on his biography for three years. I had a list of 52 questions, thinking that if I got the answers, I would know everything about him. As it turned out, I knew more about his youth than he did. By the 13th question I had started to feel bad. The whole thing smacked of interrogation. It was depressing and he was entertained by the fact that my wife was taking photos of him, her camera constantly flashing. Later, I decided that if it was possible to travel to the West prior to 1989, I could certainly go a second time. Then the November events (the Velvet Revolution) happened and I took part in them. By the time I could go back to England, he was already dead. I got a present from my friends for my 40th birthday - a picture from a famous Brno artist depicting me standing behind Ivan Blatny. The problem was that he looked the way he did in 1989, while the image of me was from 13 years later.

Close-up

Martin Reiner had been putting together the pieces of great Czech poet Ivan Blatny's life for more than 30 years before he could finish the novel The Poet (Basnik), a true event in modern Czech literature. The book became a bestseller and grabbed the biggest Czech awards for literature. At the end of 2018, Reiner came to Sofia to take part in its Bulgarian premiere.

Ivan Blatny is a blank spot in the memories of several generations, an injustice Martin Reiner is setting out to fix with his book. The image of the bad boy of Czech literature, and along with it a plethora of writers and artists of the period between the two world wars, is brought back to life for our perusal. Blatny emigrated in 1948, driven away by the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Fleeing a world constantly torn by contradictions, he sought refuge in a psychiatric clinic. Found by accident by a British nurse years later, Blatny got his revenge. The communist regime had pronounced him dead but his poems had received recognition and set the course for the genre's development for decades to come.

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