Egon Bondy, Czech Writer and Critic, Dies at 77
Egon Bondy, a poet and philosopher whose idiosyncratic cocktail of whimsically demented verse and profoundly subversive metaphysics lubricated the underground movement that helped topple Communism in Czechoslovakia, died on Monday in Bratislava, Slovakia. He was 77.
The Czech News Agency, which reported his death, did not give a cause.
Mr. Bondy wrote some 60 books, most printed secretly and few published in the West. But his greatest fame came when the Czech underground band the Plastic People of the Universe used his morbidly funny poems as song lyrics. One concerned constipation. Another listed all the drugs that Mr. Bondy, a hypochondriac, ingested.
The group, which was hounded by the government for endangering the morality of the young, secretly recorded these lyrics on its first album in 1973 and 1974. Its title, in English, was “Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned.”
In 1976 the police raided a Plastic People concert and arrested the band on charges of “organized disturbance of the peace.” The raid angered Czech dissidents, including the future president Václav Havel; they issued a manifesto, Charter 77. It kick-started the chain of events that led, 12 years later, to the Velvet Revolution and to Mr. Havel’s assuming leadership of the country.
In an interview last year with The Independent, a London newspaper, Mr. Havel, now the former president, hailed the band’s “special mystical, magical flavor, a very Prague flavor.” He called Mr. Bondy “a remarkable eccentric.”
He continued: “He’s been part of our scene for 60 years. He was a Maoist, a Trotskyist, an emigrant, a police informer — a phenomenon unto himself.”
With his opposition to Communism despite his commitment to what he considered pure Marxism, his philosophical sophistication and his cultivated crassness, his anti-Americanism and his suspicions about his own government’s motives, Mr. Bondy, who also embraced Buddhism, defied easy description. But few discussions of the ferment in Czechoslovakia before Communism’s fall fail to include him.
Pavla Jonssonová, a Czech writer who was a high school student in the late 1970s, said in an interview with Czech Radio in 2003 that her generation venerated Mr. Bondy. “As a revolutionary philosopher and poet, he combined everything that we expected of a hero and a literary hero at that,” she said.
She said his short story “Berta” showed his grasp of things Czech: “The entire history of our nation for the past 90 years,” she said, “has been one of licking wounds and surviving in the shadows of the gallows.”
Mr. Bondy was born Zbyněk Fišer (he later adopted Egon Bondy as a pen name) on Jan. 20, 1930, in Prague. In the late 1940s he was active in a Surrealist group, and in the late ’50s studied philosophy and psychology at Charles University in Prague.
Beginning in the 1960s, he published prose and poetry as samizdat literature, works covertly published and disseminated. He printed a 14-volume samizdat history of world philosophy. Much of his other work attacked the Soviet-backed regime as stupid and horrible, but always from a Marxist perspective.
“Czechoslovakia was governed in a Stalinist style that was not Marxism,” he said in an interview with Monthly Review, a Socialist magazine, in October 1991.
Samizdat, as well as secretly held Plastic People concerts, were part of a fiercely percolating artistic movement. Mr. Bondy became a close friend of the noted Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who had a character named Bondy in the novel “The Tender Barbarian” (1990).
The fall of Communism hardly subdued Mr. Bondy’s political voice. He accused the new regime of being a “banana republic” for Western capitalists, and the United States of making a vaccine to kill everyone but white people. He criticized the new Disneyland for featuring a fake castle in the land of real ones.
In 1993 Mr. Bondy moved to Slovakia to protest the division of Czechoslovakia into that country and the Czech Republic. He said the motivation of the split was to benefit the new capitalists of Prague at the expense of poorer Slovakians.
Past articles about Mr. Bondy say he had a wife named Julia, but articles and dispatches about his death contain no information about survivors. Once, when a friend asked him to be godfather to his child, he said he would gladly be Marxfather.
Douglas Martin (The New York Times, 15. dubna 2007)
Egon Bondy. Dissident „literary hero“
Egon Bondy was one of the Czech Republic's best-known literary figures, being at once a philosopher, novelist, poet and the lyrical inspiration for the seminal underground rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, who named one of their albums Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned as a simultaneous tribute to both Bondy and the Beatles.
He was born Zbyněk Fišer in 1930 in Prague, the son of an army general, and studied philosophy and psychology at Charles University in Prague, graduating in 1961. He deliberately chose his Jewish-sounding pseudonym in the 1950s as a reaction against the wave of anti-Semitism of the time. All his life he was an outspoken Marxist, opposed to the Stalinist Czechoslovak regime but also critical of contemporary Western-style capitalism.
His writing was first published in samizdat in the early 1950s in the journal Půlnoc ("Midnight") which he founded with Ivo Vodseďálek. Initially influenced by Surrealism, the work later incorporated elements of "total realism", a term Bondy used to describe - in fiction - situations from 1960s-1970s Czechoslovakia which were so absurd that they could only be explained in plain, simple language.
He also coined the phrase "second culture" in his 1974 science-fiction novel Invalidní sourozenci ("Invalid Siblings"), as code for the underground cultural movement of the time. In this dystopian work, set in the year 2600, the leaders of the future society used the term "invalids" to describe the artists and intellectuals who were considered to be outside of a "normal" society run by Communist Party officials and the army.
The Plastic People of the Universe were formed in 1968, just after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. They were inspired by the Velvet Underground and the Beatles and took their name from the song "Plastic People" by Frank Zappa, with their music presenting a heady mixture of psychedelic jazz and Western rock.
Speaking of his involvement with the group, Bondy explained: "The Plastics started of their own accord to put my poems to music and they liked them so much that at the beginning of their mature creative period they basically formed the groundwork for their repertoire."
Following the invasion, the Kremlin attempted a programme of "normalisation", a repressive clampdown which meant the Plastics lost their previous professional status and were forced underground. In 1976, the band organised a festival in the town of Bojanovice, shortly after which the secret police arrested 27 people, including all members of the group. The resulting trial led to the formation of the manifesto-cum-protest movement, Charter 77, based on criticism of the government for its lack of respect for human rights.
The writer Václav Havel, who later became President, was a leading member of the movement and supporter of the band, allowing them to use his country home as a safe haven and for making recordings. Over the next 12 years the government position became increasingly untenable until, in 1989, the Velvet Revolution saw the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia, brought about directly and indirectly by members of Charter 77.
Thus, Bondy and his involvement with the Plastics had eventually led to the overthrow of the state which had for so long repressed him and which he so much despised. Nevertheless, he even reserved some criticism for Charter 77 itself for its lack of democracy, as figures from within the movement were taking over power in the nascent democracy.
In 1994, in protest at the division of Czechoslovakia, Bondy emigrated to Bratislava in Slovakia. He received Slovak citizenship and taught philosophy at the University of Brno, with emphasis on Marxism and Buddhist religion, on which he had previously published a monograph, Buddha, in 1968.
Bondy produced more than 50 works of poetry, prose and philosophy during his lifetime. However, before the 1989 revolution these could only be found in limited-edition mimeographed magazines circulated in secret between aficionados. Some have since been reprinted and also made available in Polish, German, Italian and French. An English translation of one of his philosophical works, Útěcha z ontologie (Consolation of Ontology), was published in 2001.
Pavla Jonssonová of the Anglo-American University in Prague commented on his work: "In the late Seventies young people were so excited about sharing the documents of Charter 77 and distributing various forms of the samizdat writers, be it Havel, Vaculík or Gruša, but especially we loved Egon Bondy . . . for us the most exciting figure because as a revolutionary philosopher and poet he combined everything that we expected of a hero and a literary hero at that."
Marcus Williamson (The Independent, 17. dubna 2007)
Egon Bondy. Writer who cast a satirical eye on officialdom during the years of the Communist oppression of Czechoslovakia
The poet and philosopher Egon Bondy was a cult figure in the underground culture which operated defiantly in communist Czechoslovakia. A reclusive, bookish man, fond of complex treatises on the great religions of the East, he was an unlikely focus for the thousands of younger Czechs who sought an alternative to the sterile official culture served up by state functionaries.
But when Bondy’s mordant poetry was turned into lyrics for the popular rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, his fame spread. The group, persecuted by the communist authorities (and recently remembered in Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ’n’ Roll) named their first album Egon Bondy’s Unhappy Hearts Club Banned.
Bondy remained an instinctive outsider as the Czech underground spread its wings and the more politically focused group around Václav Havel emerged. His lifelong political adherence to a kind of maverick Marxism was hardly the dissident norm.
And when Havel became President of Czechoslovakia after the revolution against Communist rule in 1989, Bondy became an ever more peripheral figure, fiercely critical of the creation of a market-oriented society and the absorption of the Czechs and Slovaks into Western security structures such as Nato.
He was born in Prague in 1930 as Zbyněk Fišer. He was the son of a general in the Czechoslovak Army, and adopted the pseudonym Egon Bondy as the Soviet-backed Communists took power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. By then he was already active as a writer and surrealist poet.
His youth was dominated by the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, and his political views were on the far Left. But he saw the Czechoslovak Communists in power as a kind of clique, and his poetic style moved rapidly to what was termed “total realism” (the name of a 1950 Bondy collection), a frank exposure of the Stalinist attempt to turn lies into truth, black into white, and experience into official amnesia.
By the mid1950s his poems had taken on a bleak, almost nihilistic tone. “And though equal we shall be in rotting/ The walls of Prague castle shall see one word: nothing/ Nothing government nothing democracy and nothing liberty” (from Remnants of an Epic, 1955) Bondy studied philosophy at Charles University in Prague and sustained himself with a variety of jobs, including night watchman. Meanwhile, he and his close associates, who included the writer Bohumil Hrabal, pioneered samizdat publishing in the 1950s, circulating homemade publications in reponse to the official publication bans imposed on many writers.
He was briefly able to publish some of his philosophical essays openly during the thaw of the Prague Spring political reforms of the mid1960s. But once the Soviet-backed invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had ended that thaw, Bondy’s work was forced back underground.
In the 1970s he suddenly gained much more prominence when members of the rock group The Plastic People of the Universe adopted Bondy as a kind of guru. Their concerts in out-of-the-way pubs or country venues, and samizdat recordings passed from hand to hand, were an important focus for the thousands of Czechs who sought a cultural space free from suffocating state control. And the group relished singing sarcastic Bondy lyrics cocking a snook at official slogans about, say, peace-loving communist foreign policy (“Peace, peace, peace, just like a piece of bog roll”).
Bondy also articulated vividly in other writings the pessimistic yet defiant mood of those who wondered whether they would ever escape the fate history seemed to have imposed on the Czechs. “The entire history of our nation for the past 90 years,” declared a character in his short story Berta, “has been one of licking wounds and surviving in the shadow of the gallows . . . And through all those generations we have kept on working . . . we have preserved our inner life — even if it seems that our people are living at peace in the darkness in which the government has submerged them”.
The jailing of members of the Plastic People and several of their followers on trumped-up charges in 1976 led directly to the creation by Havel and others of the Charter 77 human rights group. Bondy was subsequently critical of what he saw as the takeover of the underground by the group around Havel.
He retreated during the 1980s towards his philosophical writings, specialising in Far Eastern thought, and also took part in the independent philosophy seminars held secretly in homes in Prague and elsewhere with the aid of visiting academics from the West.
After the revolution against Communist rule in 1989 much of Bondy’s poetry, novels and philosophical writings could finally be published openly. But his literary popularity waned rapidly once more commercialised cultural tastes came to the fore in the new Czechoslovak state.
And Bondy, still true to his more or less Maoist or Trotsky-ite political views, was bitterly critical of what he saw as a wholly undesirable restoration of capitalism and spread of pro-Western views. In a characteristically nonconformist act he responded to the disintegration of the Czechoslovak federation during 1992 by moving to Slovakia, where he took out Slovak citizenship and campaigned against his new country’s decision to join Nato.
Whatever their opinions of his political views, however, many Czechs and Slovaks of the underground generation retained fond memories of Bondy as a voice both “crazy” and “brilliant” who somehow articulated a mood of audacious independence amid the pessimism and enforced conformity of the communist era.
(The Times, 18. dubna 2007)
Egon Bondy. Dissident Czech writer and lyricist for Plastic People of the Universe
In the west, Egon Bondy, who has died aged 77, was best known as an era-defining lyricist for the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czechoslovakian rock group. He even featured on a Plastics' album title, Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned (1973-75), which was originally circulated on tapes and first appeared commercially in 1978 in France. The Plastic People meanwhile took their name from a song on the Mother of Invention's 1967 album Absolutely Free, and the band provides part of the narrative thread for Tom Stoppard's 2006 play Rock'n'Roll.
In his homeland, Bondy was known as a prominent and prolific writer - he published more than 60 titles, many in secret under the Stalinist regime - a philosopher and poet. He published many samizdat volumes on philosophy, many republished in the 1990s, including a work on Buddha. As a Marxist, Bondy was fiercely critical of the regimes imposed on his homeland by the Soviet Union, and went on to denounce the US and the western capitalist-dominated "banana republic" that had emerged after the fall of the Berlin wall. In 1993, the "Velvet Divorce" had split Czechoslakia into the Slovak and Czech Republics. This was against the will of the majority of the population of the former Czechoslovakia, and Bondy moved in protest to the poorer partner in the old marriage, Slovakia, denouncing the split as a Prague capitalist plot.
Born Zbyněk Fišer in Prague, he was better known under his nom de plume, Egon Bondy. He fell into postwar surrealist circles, had his first book of verse published in 1952, and from 1957, studied philosophy and psychology at Prague's Charles University.
The Plastic People of the Universe formed in September 1968, a month after the Soviet-led invasion suppressed the "socialism with a human face" of reform Communist prime minister Alexander Dubček. The Plastics were heavily influenced by New York's Velvet Underground and Prague's psychedelic Primitives Group whose Ivan Jirous - alias Magor (Looney) - became their much-imprisoned manager.
In 1970 the authorities revoked the Plastic People's professional licence because of their music's "negative social effect". Years of harassment and personnel changes followed. Bondy's importance to the band coincided with its decision to increase the percentage of Czech-language material. His work, much of which was settings of his earlier poems, dominated the band for most of the 1970s with its tales of vomiting, constipation, pill-popping, alcoholic over-indulgence and graveside visits.
In March 1976, more than 20 people, many of them musicians including every member of the Plastic People - but not Bondy - were arrested. Sentences were handed out for "organised disturbance of the peace", with Jirous getting 18 months.
The incident led, on January 1 1977 to the Charter 77 petition. Among the Charter 77 movement's founders was the future, post-Stalinist Czechoslovak president Václav Havel. It began as a protest against that police clampdown on the Plastic People. It developed during the Husak years of intense repression as the voice of opposition.
In January 2007, the Plastic People finally made their British debut at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was a defining occasion for Anglo-Czech cultural relations. They played four of Bondy's works and encored with a four-part Bondy segue. It was an exceptional evening - and doubled as the prelude to the 30th anniversary of Charter 77.
Bondy died in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. His marriage to Jaroslava Krčmaříková produced one son. From 1963 until her death in 1994, he lived with Julie Nováková.
Ken Hunt (The Guardian, 20. dubna 2007)