‘Karel is out,’ she says. ‘You know he works during the day. I mean of course’ – she blushes – ‘he does his real work at night.’ Work: bricklaying. Real work: writing. ‘You know, if you earn your living by writing, it’s regarded as quite suspicious, and, well, almost unworthy.’

Now here is a room full of writers, few of whom do anything so . . . unworthy. They sit around, feet in slippers, drinking wine and swapping jokes about Chernobyl. They have just produced the best journal of new writing in Czechoslovakia. It took about twenty minutes.

This is how it’s done. Once a month they meet for a small ‘party’ at somebody’s flat. Instead of flowers or wine the guests bring twenty copies of their latest text. (Most are carbon copies. It is a recognized fact that twelve is the largest number of legible copies achievable at one typing. Twelve is therefore the samizdat unit of reckoning – the writer’s dozen.) The editorial meeting then has only one task: to decide the order of texts and type the contents page, also in twenty copies. This done, the texts are arranged in order in twenty blank cardboard folders, with the contents page on top, and – presto! – you have the Czech Granta. For the purposes of literary criticism it is a journal called Contents. For the purposes of police search or legal defence it is a miscellaneous collection of typewritten papers in a blank folder. If students want to sit up half the night typing further copies, that is their own business. (They do.) If Czech exiles in the West want to reissue Contents in print (they do), how can the writers prevent them? And if people want to bring these printed copies back to Prague, what on earth can the poor writers do?


A Family in Nanjing
Cuba Revisited