For many authors the acronym MFA refers to the Master of Fine Arts programs in writing that are currently so popular in the US, and that some critics argue create a stifling uniformity among aspiring scribes. For Tomáš Kafka, MFA instead refers to his employer, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As the current Czech ambassador to Ireland, there is little risk that Kafka’s experience is shared by many other writers, though another guest of the 2011 Prague Writers’ Festival happens to be the novelist and Greek Ambassador to the Czech Republic Constantine Kokossis.
Through Irish eyes
Kafka clearly likes his diplomatic work, and has managed to balance the literary and diplomatic aspects of his life. Being posted to Ireland has been a benefit to both, in fact, mainly by giving him English as another language. Previously, his linguistic universe was bound by Czech and German. He was extremely active in Czech-German reconciliation as well as carrying out some translations from German, including books by Bernhard Schlink and Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
More specifically, though, Ireland has given him insight into another small European country that has likewise had a contentious and even tragic relationship with a more powerful neighbor.
“I see some parallels between the Czech and Irish approaches, based on our fascination with history. Our histories were not something you could present as full of triumphant deeds. In order to avoid seeing history only as a source of sadness and defeat Czechs and Irish have established a small trick, which is cutting big history into smaller stories,” Kafka told Czech Position.
“The Czech Republic, actually no, Czech politics, is going through a very tough period,” Kafka said. Having come to Ireland in August 2008 in the wake of the Irish “no” vote on the Lisbon Treaty and continuing questions about new member states’ abilities to carry out reforms, Kafka has a very positive assessment of the international aspect of EU affairs. ‘There is no excuse for today’s society to let itself be influenced by unbalanced politics.’
“I am from a country that is on the verge of bankruptcy, but reforms are on the right track,” he said, expressing confidence in the international organizations standing behind individual European countries and seeing them as providing a small light at the end of the tunnel.
Besides the broader international sphere, Kafka believes in the independent outlook of civil society. “We should be able to live our lives and maintain our standards as citizens regardless of the current politics, whether they are succeeding or somehow stumbling. There is no excuse for today’s society to let itself be influenced by unbalanced politics.”
While Kafka understands how people could become cynical about politics, he thinks society cannot become complacent toward it. “Being cynical is nothing to be proud of. We have to fight against it.”
Messages in a bottle
“My version of poetry is not so common because I don’t derive my willingness, or momentum, to write from an abstract reader,” Kafka said. Instead he sends short poems as messages to specific readers, mainly friends — in Ireland, Germany and the Czech Republic. “It’s a kind of communication where the core business is to transform what I’m experiencing in real time, in the real world, into my own language based on rhyming.”
Kafka likewise compares his poetry to artificial preservatives in food, as a means of making his experience last longer. “So maybe it’s not always healthy,” he said, extending the parallel, “but it’s doing its job.”
“I am a relatively simple poet and am interested in the grotesque and this reality, and not in creating something so special or creating something that shows what’s behind our reality. One world is really enough for me. That is perhaps the difference between me and James Bond, that this world is absolutely sufficient for me,” Kafka said. James Bond’s family motto is “The World Is Not Enough,” which was also the title of the 1999 entry in the film series.
In a twist that could almost be characterized as Kafkaesque, Kafka was invited to the PWF based on English poems that the festival organizers assumed he had Czech versions of. “So I was obliged to translate them into Czech to come participate in an international literary festival back in Prague. That’s globalization,” Kafka said with a laugh.