Pavel Kosatík (1962)
Graduated from the Law Faculty at Charles University, then worked as an editor in several publishing houses and in the newsroom of the daily newspaper Mladá Fronta Dnes, the weekly magazine Reflex and the business daily Hospodářské noviny. Freelancing since 1996. A recognized author of biographical and literary-historical books, focusing mainly on modern Czech history.
Chronology of books and films
I began writing in the 1980s. It was a dangerous time, more so for younger people, since one took to lying as a matter of routine. I consider it great and lucky that I was not taken in. I lived under that regime for 27 years, and had it gone on much longer I think it would have swallowed me up, too.
The key turning point was, of course, the year 1989. Even before this time I had been considering with my friend Ivo Pechar setting up a children’s book publishing house, and we kicked that off right after the 1st of January 1990. Under the banner of our Book Business Club we published some 20 titles before we went out of business (we were idealists), and among them, coincidentally, was my first book of comics Kamarádi z prérie (‘Prairie Pals’).
In the autumn of 1992, I started working in MF Dnes. I wanted to find out whether I could handle writing to daily deadlines and in front of people. The newspapers of that time may have been naive compared with today, but were not cynical. Anyone who wanted to was able to contribute to the newspapers, writing commentary, about sport, on culture.
In 1993, the first of my better known books came out, Osm žen z hradu, the biographies of eight First Ladies. I got the idea for the book right after the revolution from the writer Vladimír Kalina, who intended it as a pop-cultural take on things; my job at the time enabled me to meet a couple of good historians, which shifted the emphasis in another direction. As a book it isn’t particularly close to my heart, it was more about satisfying curiosity than anything of substance.
The ‘First Ladies’ steered me toward history, which I have stayed with. For six years (1992-1998), I spent time working with Michal Kolář writing up Jan Masaryk: while he was ferreting out most of the archives, I was doing most of the writing.
And meanwhile and in between, to keep the wolf from the door, I wrote a couple of other books: first the biography of Jaroslav Preiss, the Director General of Živnostenská Banka. At around this time (the mid-1990s), the concept of economic reform espoused by Klaus began visibly to fall apart, Preiss was an archetypal First Republic style patriotic banker. I sought to compare and contrast these two eras, The First Republic and the 1990s, and to clear up a few notions about just what times I was living in. Then came the death of Olga Havlová, whom I’d got to know as a journalist, when writing up the ‘First Ladies’. I was asked by Mladá Fronta to write a book about her. It was not a work of literature or an epistle, I based it on interviews.
When “Olga” came out, it touched a lot of people. In the first week I had calls from Slávka Peroutková (the 3rd wife of Ferdinand Peroutka) and from Pavel Kohout and I began collating materials for books on FP and KP in parallel.
German literature. German authors from the Czech lands always were a fascination to me, the timespan of the book was from the high middle ages, i.e. from the Minnesängers at the Court of King Wenceslas II and from Johannes von Saar, up till Kafka, Werfel and the generation of writers expelled from Bohemia in 1945. When I was writing the book, I considered the subject matter to be something Czechs had forgotten, or some kind of undiscovered Pacific Ocean of splendour, like one entire huge Czech (Böhmisch) swathe of additional literature.
In 2002, I wrote up in book form an interview with Madla Vaculíková, under a name which means ‘I am the oats’ – based on one of her sentences in her correspondence to Jiří Kolář.
Then I returned to writing up Peroutka. The first book I wrote about him dealt with his ‘latterday’ life, what he did for those other forty years after the Munich Agreement, and after the fall of the First Republic, which is generally considered his heyday. So after that I added a book about his previous life, touching on Masaryk, the Castle, the Friday-Men, The Presence journal, Lidové noviny, Karel Čapek, etc.
Departure 1948: while working on the ‘latterday’ Peroutka I got to meet a few older gentlemen, one generation younger than Peroutka, who went into exile in 1948 and once there tried to keep along his trajectory, in terms of publishing, and politically in his spirit. They were all people who established themselves in exile as intellectuals, carving out notable careers in universities and in political life. That book, compiled from interviews, I wrote jointly with Petr Hrubý, one of their number.
Published in 2004 came ‘Gottwald’s Men’, written with Karel Kaplan, being the profiles of Klement Gottwald and the party dignitaries around him, the greatest fiends the Czech Communist Party ever spawned. This was the only book in my life so far that pained me in its writing, I could not get past skin-deep with those people, and even now, with the passage of years, I don’t think I could get there.
Published in 2005 came the biography of Svatopluk Sulka, the pupil of Fernand Léger, but in most respects a painter wholly unknown to the public, something my book made no difference to.
In 2006, after four years, I finished writing the book Ústně více, o Šestatřicátnících / ‘More by word of mouth about the thirty-sixers’, which was a literary group founded by the then fifteen-year-old Václav Havel along with e.g. Viola Fischerová, Josef Topol, Věra Linhartová, and intellectual gurus such as Josef Šafařík, Jan Zábrana, etc.
And then in 2009 another book was published about Přemysl Pittr. This was the chap who in 1945 saved the lives of more than eight hundred Czech, Jewish and German children, at a time when the parents of those children were killing one another during the wild times of ethnic expulsion.
In 2003, the weekly magazine Týden booked me to do a historical rubric of one double spread a week, leaving me to decide on the content. I began to fill it with texts about various Czech mavericks and their maverick opinions, mostly on Czech history. I made a point of putting trivial texts alongside those considered canonical, and it soon became apparent that our thinking veers off course most when focused on something supposedly momentous. These texts that I wrote for Týden magazine I then revised in 2003, turning them into a book entitled České snění / ‘Czech dreaming’.
In 2004, Týden wanted the series to continue, which after a time and some revision became a book called Čeští demokraté / ‘Czech democrats’, portraits of people raging from Havlíček to Klaus, who at the time considered themselves, or were regarded as democrats. And the third year, 2005, when we closed off the series in Týden, it again turned into a book, České okamžiky / ‘Czech moments’. I had originally conceived the series just in terms of moods, it came out first in January, and for each weekly edition I came up with some anniversary.
That was the end of that, in Týden, and the three books that came out of it over time, which I dubbed the Czech trilogy, what seemed to me a tripod, spanning three genres: essays, biographies, and moods, it seemed to me to complement Czech goings-on somehow. But then it got a tad more complicated, when I was asked by Respekt magazine to do a series, which then became a two-page spread, and was being printed for a year and a half, so I then made it into another book Česká inteligence / ‘Czech intelligentsia’.
The second decade
Then, sometime in 2010, I got to know Věra Čáslavská. Broadly speaking, I consider 1968 a more important landmark in the history of this country than 1989: back then, society was reaching out in its ideas toward something more (I don’t mean just the reform Communists) than in 1989, by which time it did not reach out for much at all, people just took what almost fell into their laps from elsewhere, of its own accord. And that’s what Věra symbolizes for me, to this day,
2013 saw the publication of Tigrid. For me it was a logical continuation of the Peroutka theme, a second journalist to follow up the first among 20th century journalists. The story and the book itself got the better of me, I was not satisfied with the result, but I came to the conclusion I should publish my dissatisfaction, at least. The topic is one I definitely aim to revisit.
In 2015 we published Baronka v opeře, životopis Jarmily Novotné / ‘The Baroness of Opera, a biography of Jarmila Novotná’. This was an attempt to tell the history of the 20th century through Opera and female vocals.
Then came Emil Běžec / ‘Emil the Runner’, a book which on the face of it was thematically as far removed as it could be, the noble lady contrasting with the story of a quintessential labourer, but for me, both those lives came together and interlinked in how they featured ‘maximalist’ utmost dedication, lives that are almost carbon copies of each other, as they always seem to be, with its consequences, good and bad.
On Christmas 1997 I took a call from Czech Television, who had found out that I and Michal Kolář were working on a book about Jan Masaryk, and they told me that they wanted to mark the round-figure anniversary of his death (he died on 10 March 1948) by broadcasting two hour-long films, one about his life and the second about his perplexing death. The deadline was a bit precarious, we had just over two months’ lead-time, and that had to include everything, including preparing the screenplays. I think the only director able to take it on credibly at the time was Jaroslav Brabec. The shoot was done in many locations in Czechia and Slovakia; we also shot some footage in England, in many locations in America, etc.
České století / ‘the Czech Century’: was with Robert Sedláček, whom I first met in 2007 when he was gathering material for his TV film about Gustáv Husák. This was about the time my České okamžiky / ‘Czech moments’ was coming out, and we considered using its motifs to offer Czech TV some mood-setting films, but in the end we agreed about what we found the most fascinating aspect of Czech 20th century history; How we are so often astounded by the outcomes, how we would love to see more of the causes behind the politics, how those men (for women are, unfortunately, hardly ever part of it) make their decisions, how it all takes place, how those decisions get accepted, how one lot of them copies from another etc. i.e. what are the actual mechanisms that lead to the fact that eventually someone stands in front of the journalists and says: This is how it will be. That is to say, we offered to the Television a series of talking-heads films relating to eight dates that were key in our view, and they not only accepted, but when they saw how we shot the first two episodes, they commissioned one extra (about the breakup of the Federation in 1992).