At the beginning of December 1988, I visited Czechoslovakia for the first time. I knew then about the case of Jiří Wolf, though it was not the prime reason for my visit. A month before, I had been in Stockholm, where my publisher, Thomas von Vegesack, is president of the International PEN Writers in Prison Committee. I told him that I had been invited to Czechoslovakia for the publication of a Slovak translation of one of my books, and he reminded me that Jiří Wolf was a prisoner ‘adopted’ by both the Swedish and English committees. Perhaps I could ask some discreet questions.
I got some information on Wolf from the PEN Committee in London and did indeed ask questions during my visit. I discovered, rapidly enough, that the opportunity to ask questions was limited by the general constraints on talking freely. Also, for most of my visit I was in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, while Wolf was a Czech from Bohemia. I spent just a couple of days in Prague. The fact remains that when I did ask questions, I got the same response: genuine, not simulated, ignorance. No one seemed to have heard of him.
My visit made a strong impression on me, in part because I had read the dossier on Wolf, and some of Wolf’s own words, just before my departure. Frankly, the country depressed me. I encountered a great deal of individual kindness, above all from my Slovak translator, Igor, a reservedly humorous man and a good friend, but I felt that I was in a land that had gone into internal emigration. It was cut off from its own best resources, and even the things that could be simply admired, like the beautiful buildings of Prague, seemed false and irrelevant.