Demetz awarded Prague prize

Peter Demetz (Photo: Prague Book Fair)

Peter Demetz (Photo: Prague Book Fair)

Emeritus Yale University professor and author Peter Demetz was awarded the Jiri (George) Theiner prize at the Prague Literary Festival this year.

George’s son Pavel, the prize organiser, said Demetz received the award because “all his life he has remained intellectually honest in his demystification of views which sometimes became popular such as the notion of magical Prague, rather stressing the reality of Czech history, as well as his life-long commitment to Czech literature in American and German environments and as translator of Frantisek Halas´ and Jiri Orten´s poetry”.

Theiner set up the prize in memory of his father’s work, as a former editor of Index on Censorship magazine he brought attention to Czech writing and writers during the communist era. He said: “Almost five years ago I discussed with the director of World of Books (Prague Book Fair), Dana Kalinova, the possibility of making this prize an important permanent fixture at the annual book fair. Looking back I realised that George Theiner´s reputation here was as solid as it was in other countries, despite the fact that he left in 1968.

The jury this year was chaired by Lenka Jungmannova (professor at the Institute of Czech Literature, Academy of Sciences), Martin Putna (literary historian, professor at Prague´s Charles University and critic), Jiri Gruntorad (guardian of the largest samizdat collection in central and eastern Europe, dissident persecuted in the 1970´s and 1980´s) and Ivan Biel (documentary film-maker and lecturer in Film Studies). Next year’s jury was also announced and will include Karel Schwarzenberg (a former Czech foreign minister, one of Havel´s closest aides and supporter of dissidents before 1989 whilst living in Austria), Michal Priban (academic at the Institute of Czech Literature, Academy of Sciences), Vladimír Pistorius (samizdat publisher who successfully made the transition into becoming a ´straight´ book publisher) and Jan Bednar (radio journalist and commentator, signatory of Charter 77, between 1985 and 1992 and who worked for the BBC in London).

Theiner said that they received between 35 and 60 nominations each year from all over the world. The criteria stated that the recipient (or organisation) had made a major long-term contribution to the promotion of Czech literature overseas, with an expectation that they have also made a contribution to freedom of speech and human rights in general. Other prize winners include Andrzej Jagodzinski, translator of Havel, Hrabal, Kundera, journalist as well as a leading member of the democratic opposition on Poland);  Ruth Bondy (an Israeli of Czech origin, survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen who worked as a journalist on the Hebrew daily Davar; and Paul Wilson (a Canadian who lived in Czechoslovakia as a young man before being thrown out in 1977 for collaborating with dissidents and, above all, the band Plastic Pepople of the Universe, translator of Skvorecky, Klima, Havel, Hrabal, radio producer, editor and writer).

Theiner said: “One of the most positive aspects that has come out of the activity surrounding the prize has been the link made between old and new Index on Censorship. It was a real joy to welcome to Prague at the first prize-giving the founding editor Michael Scammell along with some of his old colleagues such as Philip Spender, Haifaa Khalafallah and others. Four years later the present editor Rachael Jolley joined us and moderated a discussion following the award-giving ceremony on freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a reflection on the democratisation of society and freedom of expression in literature and journalism. It´s great to see that the bridge-building that George Theiner was so adept at is still going strong.”

This article was published on May 22, 2014 at