“A Czech poet of Moravian origin”, as Jan Trefulka calls him, he is also a novelist, essayist, journalist, author of radio plays and literary academic (mainly in history and literary criticism), who celebrated his 86th birthday on October 1st 2006 while hard at work on his memoirs. Rotrekl’s life and works are testimony to a moral integrity as well as a unity of the artist and his art: Zdeněk Rotrekl can serve as an example to those of us who are less courageous, not to comply (even at the cost of sacrifices, which would prove not to be in vain) with any ideology which assumes the right to take complete control over man. Rotrekl died June 9, 2013.
He was born into a family which owned a gardening business in Brno, where he has lived for the greater part of his life and where he lives to this day. He lost his father early on, so his mother looked after the family. Rotrekl spent his childhood with her in a house which bordered on a very old garden (which he would later recall in his poems and prose) on Údolní Street, not far from Obilní Market. He soon became aware of the tripartite nature of the Moravian capital – a city of Czechs, Germans and Jews - a tripartite culture that was destroyed forever by two successive totalitarian regimes. During the Second World War he took part in the anti-fascist struggle (which later featured in his books), and afterwards he fought against the second totalitarian regime, that of the Communists, “before, during and after February 1948” as he himself says. At that stage he had already left secondary school and was just about to finish his studies at Brno’s Masaryk University where, as an active Christian Democrat, he took part in student political life. After 1948 he was not only thrown out of student politics, but out of the university entirely (he finished his studies in 1968 with a PhD). By then he had already published various texts in magazines as well as three collections of poems, he had participated in the wider editorial circle of the magazine Akord, the Moravian Circle of Writers as well as the Writers’ Syndicate. After being arrested in 1949 he received the death sentence on November 17th of the same year, but he was then pardoned and given a life sentence (they needed prisoners to work in the uranium mines). Rotrekl returned from the communist concentration camps (in very poor health) at the beginning of the 1960s – three months after the death of his mother, whose funeral he was forbidden from attending. He found employment as a labourer. During the mid-‘60s he got married and started a family (wife Marie and son Zdeněk). At the end of the 1960s he could participate once more in cultural life: he worked for Brno radio, the magazine Lidová demokracie (The People’s Democracy) and became “the editor for culture and Moravia” for the bi-monthly magazine Obroda, which had a popular-democratic bias. During normalization he became actively involved in several dissident groups - Rotrekl was a founding signatory for the Movement for Citizens’ Freedom (1988), in the spring of 1989 he relaunched the cultural magazine Akord (still in samizdat form), and he was involved in the publication of the Moravian edition of the magazine Střední Evropa (Central Europe), otherwise known as Proglas. Since 1971 he has been on invalidity benefit. After the events of November 1989 (in which he actively took part) he once again entered public life: he is a founder member of the Syndicate of Czech Journalists, the Union of Moravian-Silesian Writers and the Confederacy of Political Prisoners. He became involved in radio again and also worked with Czech Television on the biographies of imprisoned writers and writers under surveillance. He has received several prizes and awards, including the Jan Zahradníček Prize, the Order of St Cyril and St Methodius, the Order of T.G. Masaryk, the Karel Havlíček Borovský Prize and the Jaroslav Seifert Prize. Recently he has been collaborating with the publishers Atlantis in bringing out his Collected Works and he is now completing his memoirs. Following his first publications in the student magazine Jitro, Zdeněk Rotrekl made his literary debut with a collection of poems entitled Kyvadlo duše [The Pendulum of the Soul, 1940] and during the Second World War he also managed to write Pergameny [Parchments] (published in 1947) and Kamenný erb [The Stone Coat of Arms, 1944); only fragments remain from the manuscript collections of Žalmy (Psalms) and Pěvec florentský (The Florentine Singer) – most of them were lost during the secret police’s searches of his home following Rotrekl’s arrest. Jaroslav Med has written about Zdeněk Rotrekl’s early poetry and comments that the author “presents himself as a poet with a distinctly Catholic spiritual orientation, striving to reach, through expressive verse, a transcendental dimension to the whole of existence. The intellectual nature of Rotrekl’s poetry is emphasised by a definite “aristocratism”, symbolising nostalgia for the noble traditions of the past, for a life profoundly enriched by culture. It is due to this aristocratic aesthetic, which is vaguely reminiscent of the symbolic poetic world of Rilke, that Rotrekl’s dreamlike visions and wanderings back into childhood are filled with symbolist decoration and ornamental stylization. The poet considered this stylization – which in the structure of Rotrekl’s verse is supported by numerous poetic terms, transgressives, and inverted word order – as a defence against a social atmosphere dehumanised by war.” From 1945-1948 Rotrekl was mainly involved in cultural and political journalism (for example in the cultural and political publications Akord, Vývoj, Národní obroda, and the Prague edition of Lidová demokracie), from which it is worth mentioning his (and Strakos’s) polemic with D. Šajtar of the Mladá Fronta newspaper. From his artistic works, important publications include his first prose works (Sad [The Orchard]) in the magazine Akord), as well as his cycle of poems Děje (Actions) which can be ranked alongside Zahradníček’s Znamení moci (The Signs of Power) or Dvořák’s symphonies of the 19th century. In Stalin’s gulags, without any certainty that they would one day find a readership, he wrote the poems which make up the Malachit [Malachite] collection (Rotrekl returns to this theme later in the book Světlo přichází potmě [The Light Comes after the Darkness] ). It was with a more convincing artistic approach – also in part due to the time that had elapsed – that this theme was elaborated in the collection Hovory s mateřídouškou [Conversations with Thyme] which was not published until the author had been released. It is here that we find the strongest echoes of surrealism in Rotrekl’s work: poetry has become for him the key to personal sensory experiences, to memory and to his studies, the point of intersection between his actual physical being and a spiritual tradition. During the 1960s Rotrekl was once again very active in journalism (notably in the Brno edition of Lidová demokracie and in the aforementioned Obroda). Normalization, a period of enforced public silence, did not of course mean that Rotrekl was completely quiet: on the contrary – the ‘70s and ‘80s represent his most intense period of creativity, in which the author was producing poetry, prose, radio dramas, literary as well as more general cultural essays and articles. In his works he repeatedly returns to the theme of the old tripartite culture, as well as the traditions and presence, both spiritually and physically, of his home town (Nezděné město [The City Without Walls], 1971); he adds to the poetical heritage of his predecessors (Halas, Palivec) the attributes of a very modern and experimental verse (Stromy ptáci zvířata a podobní lidé [Trees Birds Animals and Similar People], 1973; Neobvyklé zvyky [Unusual Habits], 1974) – both of these collections prefigure the poetics of the book Basic Czech). He shows the present day in a palimpsest of old Christian traditions (Chór v plavbě ryby Ichthys [The Choir and the Voyage of the Fish Ichthys], 1976-1979), he examines grammar semantically in the collection Basic Czech (the most accomplished of Rotrekl’s experiments from the years 1979-83), and at the end of the 1980s (at the end of normalization) he wrote Němé holubice dálek [The Muted Doves from Afar] in which – reflecting the state of the contemporary world and society – Jewish culture received perhaps its greatest homage from a Catholic poet. There were two more significant collections of prose, as well as several versions of a future novel that also came out during normalization: Kniha apokryfů kouzel a zaříkávání (The Apocryphal Book of Magic Spells and Exorcisms, prose without a definite subject, experimental and rhythmical), and the collection Sad a menší prózy [The Orchard and other Prose], which traced the development of Rotrekl’s prose from the start of the 1980s, that is from the lyrical movement – poetry in prose – to the concentrated epic in the genre of the short story. At the same time there came out numerous radio plays (he began collaborating with Brno radio at the end of the 1960s as a result of the sudden change in the establishment, ending his involvement just as quickly with normalization). Deserving of mention is Popis pohřbívání mýdla a kostní moučky [Description of a Burial of Soap and Powdered Bones], which traces the fate of Jews during the Holocaust: it is a “polyphonic composition, a harrowing meditation on one moment that is considered to be enduring” (J. Blažejovský). In order to create a parallel dissident polity Rotrekl contributed to articles, essays and the creation of a literary theory: Skrytá tvář české literatury (1976) [The Hidden Face of Czech Literature] is in fact a catalogue of banned authors who (with the exception of Halas and Trefulka) mainly had Christian backgrounds. It is a compilation aimed at gathering difficult-to-access biographical details, although it lacks bibliographies and critiques of works. Towards the beginning of the 1980s Rotrekl also wrote a collection of essays entitled Barokní fenomén v současnosti [The Contemporary Baroque Phenomenon], where he touched upon one of his central themes - the presence of tradition in contemporary art and society. Rotrekl’s work in journalism took on greater importance at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s (due to the situation in politics, culture and society and his participation in the editorial staff of Akord and Proglas). However, even more important for the author was that he was now free to publish: 43 years after the publication of Pergameny [Parchments], he was at last able to officially bring out a book at home – the collection Básníkův skrytý čas (A Poet’s Hidden Time, which was compiled by Karel Coural). This book was followed by a better quality anthology of Rotrekl’s works consisting solely of poetry, entitled Sněhem zaváté vinobraní [The Grape Harvest under Snow, edited by Jan Trefulka, 1991]. Apart from the gradual publication of previously unpublished works or those which are still in manuscript form, the reader can at last also access new titles: collections of poems and novels. Cestovní klínopis [The Cuneiform Journey] unites different traditions which become intertwined and form different levels in a fragmented and elliptical text, which brings into close proximity elements that are seemingly heterogeneous and distant. It is like witnessing the development of a multi-faceted plot into which intrude different themes, intertextual references and sources of inspiration, bringing about a multiplication of the subject being expounded (of which one can say: another subject, another discussion). It is a highly intellectual poetry which requires the reader to be attentive and informed (as in most of Rotrekl’s other works). The novel Světlo přichází potmě [The Light Comes after the Darkness], which the author wrote when he was in his eighties, is Rotrekl’s longest epic text (in fact, the longest of all his works): the theme of the individual’s responsibility for his life and soul is placed on the stage of recent Czech history – and within this multilayered text realistic accounts are to be found alongside elements of grammatical and surreal prose. Brno publishers Atlantis have brought out this novel as the second volume in Rotrekl’s Collected Works. The first volume was published under the title Nezděné město [The City without Walls], which brings together several of Rotrekl’s poetic works; the third volume (Podezřelá krajina s anděly) [A Suspect Landscape with Angels] contains the author’s prose works and radio plays, in the fifth volume (Skryté tváře) [The Hidden Face] are works of literary criticism and essays, the fourth volume will contain memoirs (Hnízda ze stromu, který odchází) [The Nests from a Tree that is Leaving] and the sixth volume (Svoboda není dar) [Freedom is not a Gift] is a selection of Rotrekl’s articles. Zdeněk Rotrekl’s art is part of the experimental wave to be found in spiritual Czech poetry. Internationally, his predecessors include Paul Valéry, whilst František Halas, Josef Palivec and Ivan Jelínek can be cited from among Czech authors. However, Rotrekl also borrows from the linguistic experiments of Skupina 42 [Group 42] and from the generation of the 1960s (who also influence his prose work) as well as from surrealism. As for his articles and essays, he was part of the circle around the periodical Na hlubinu (Braito, Dacík, D. Pecka), Akord (A. Vyskočil, M. Dvořák, J. Zahradníček, J. Čep) and the Christian-Democratic periodicals of the postwar period (Chudoba, Tigrid, Koželuhová, Strakoš). He was influenced in his approach to literary theory by Arne Novák, and in the issue of personalist criticism by V. Černý. His central theme is the presence of tradition in contemporary life and people’s struggle for identity, freedom and spirit. Free from ideological cliches, his work retains a timeless quality.
This profile was last updated on June 11, 2013
Deutsch Zdeněk ROTREKL, Deutsch.doc
En français Zdeněk ROTREKL, En français.doc
Contacts and links
Atlantis (publishing house)