I know that Karel Kryl (1944-1994) had always thought of himself more as a poet, rather than protest song singer and songwriter. He told me this himself. Nevertheless, in the minds and hearts of the members of that small nation in the centre of Europe, known these days as the Czech Republic, or perhaps Czechia, as it now appears on the Google maps, and which in his time, together with the neighbouring Slovakia, still formed the state known as Czechoslovakia, he remains just that. A legendary songster. However, Kryl is much more than this, as people are beginning to realise. The Czech nation had one major bard in the 19th century; his name is Karel Hynek Mácha. Now, in the 20th century, another Karel, the Czech eqivalent to Charles, has joined him!
So what about Karel Kryl being called the Czech Bob Dylan? The label could perhaps fit, but only loosely, as there are a few not insignificant differences. To start with, he didn't live long enough to perhaps receive the Nobel Prize, though I can't think of many who would be more deserving. Another thing that comes to mind is that the protest song writers and singers, like Dylan, have scarcely ever had the opportunity of looking down the barrels of guns of real tanks, driven by the physically manifested enemies, by the wolf that had “the innocent lamb desired“, as in the text of the song Kryl wrote and recorded on the day of invasion in August 1968, by the armies of Warsaw Agreement of Czechoslovakia. The song he composed was recorded the next day, and it was played on air by the defiant moderators of the Czech Radio, who kept moving the broadcasting studio from place to place to defy the occupants, for days to come. As a result Kryl had become famous overnight. Over the coming years, he became much more than that. It is hard to think of anyone who would better fit the label of being the conscience of a nation!
I had met Kryl for the first time more than two years before that, in around 1966. With the group I belonged to at the time, which otherwise was mainly performing what could perhaps best be descibed as political cabaret, we had been rehearsing something different for a change, a spoof on operetta. It was a fun thing ─ for instance, dressed like characters from the Bartered Bride, we would do scat singing a la Ella Fitxgerald. We had shown some excerpts at the “National festival of the small theatre forms“, as it was called, which was taking place in our town of Karlovy Vary (also known as Carlsbad). One of the foremost exponents of poetry and also of the theatre of the absurd, Miroslav Kovářík, was also there with his production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. At the time he was also running a theatre of poetry in Litvínov, and after seeing us perform he came to us with a proposal.
According to Kovářík's plan, we would do a text appeal, a kind of performance often held in those days, during which newly written texts were read or songs sang in front of live audience. We liked to do text appeals, because it was a good way of testing people's reactions to what would be future productions ─ particularly when followed by a fruitful debate with members of the audience, which we always encouraged. Our Litvínov performance would form the second part of the intended programme ─ in the first a singer of protest songs from Teplice would appear, named Karel Kryl, whom Kovářík had recently discovered. We had never met him, never even heard of him, but we trusted Kovařík enirely.
Done as agreed upon. We had arrived to the venue at Litvínov in the afternoon, to be able to rehearse a bit on the to us unknown stage. Another rehearsal was already taking place. On the stage was a young man of smallish stature in a chequered shirt, with an acoustic guitar in hands, engaged in a lively conversation with Kovářík and the lighting technician. Mirek acknowledged our presence by waving his hand to us, while the guitarist began to sing, in a strong baritone voice:
V ponurém osvětlení gotického sálu
kupčíci vyděšení hledí do misálů
a houfec mordýřů si žádá požehnání
vždyť prvním z rytířů je Veličenstvo Kat
In gloomy light of Gothic hall the grocers terrified
Avoiding the looming brawl, their missals open wide
A blessings admonitioner the horde has in their sights
He's the Noble Executioner, the first amongst the Knights
My jaw must have fallen down quite a bit, because even after a few verses it was obvious that we were in presence of a somebody who was going places!
After the rehearsals we all went to a nearby pub, where over a few pints of beer we got to know each other a little better. It comes to mind that most of the significant philosophical debates we ever had with Karel Kryl had taken place in pubs, and always over a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Because of this I feel particularly blessed as his translator; a few would have had the advantage I have of having met and discussed matters with Karel in his natural environment. At the time none of us could have predicted that this guy with his small frame was to become a legend, but when he talked one always listened to him, as he had plenty to say.
The whole text of the song about His Majesty the Hangman song appears seperately in another section, together with some other translations. I believe it to be the only true rendition of the song in English, meaning that it was done as a song and poem should be translated, in similar rhythm and rhyme. If Kryl could sing in English, which few Czech singers could do convincingly, he should have been able to do it. There were several other English texts to be found on the Internet (there is hardly any Kryl song of which no English translation would appear anywhere), but all that I’ve seen were just translations in a prose, or kinds of synopsis. To me, it was a challenge. This was to be the first of Kryl's songs that I must attempt to translate! I‘d tried to do Karel‘s song some justice, and in process discovered how difficult it was doing it in the right way. The hardest part was translating the phrase “Veličenstvo kat“, which literally means His Majesty the Executioner. The problem is that a one-syllable word for executioner in English just doesn‘t exist. Hangman with two sylables comes the closest.
The Hangman was the first song I heard Karel sing. Even now I think that His Majesty the Hangman, if not outright the best, certainly belongs among the top few as best that Kryl had composed. Afterwards he would appear with our group sometimes, so I have heard it several more times; the last time about twenty years later, when he arrived in Brisbane while touring the Czech communities in Australia. Meanwhile, we had both left Czechoslovakia. Our last meeting on its soil took place in late August 1969, only a few days before we were both ready to leave the occupied country for good. We had run into each other on the stairs in front of the Prague Radio station, where we both had some financial claims. I had told Karel that next week I was flying to London; he told me that in a few days he was going to some festival in West Germany. He might not have entirely made up his mind about leaving the country yet, but it must have crossed his mind at that point. I was by then quite convinced that I was going to stay in the UK. All this was hanging in the air, but none of it was said aloud. The times were such that such things were nor discussed openly, as one could not trust anything or anybody. There might easily have been listening devices nearby; either of us could accidentally let something slip when under the influence … simply, one could not risk it. To all purposes, my story that I told everybody was that I was going on holiday to England for three weeks. Karel's was that he went to the festival. When we met again, nearly twenty years later, we remembered that meeting and we had a good laugh about it.
This was in 1987, when Kryl was on a short tour of Australia, where he performed for the Czech communities in the major cities. He lived in Munich at the time, where he was employed by the station Radio Free Europe. Before and after his show at the Czechoslovak Club in Brisbane, we were sitting at the table having a beer (what else?) Present was also the painter Pavel Forman, the older brother of the famous film director Milos Forman. Karel was staying with the Formans while in Brisbane. When I told him what I had learnt not long before, that Rudolf Staník, with whom we had both emptied uncounted number of beer mugs, had suffered a stroke that had left him half paralysed and in a sanatorium in Prague, he said sombrely:
“Yes, Vojen, all we get from our former homeland these days, is the bad news. And I’m afraid that it‘s not going to get any better...“
We agreed then that on his next visit in Australia, which he planned in two or three years time, Kryl would stay with us. As it turned out, this was not destined to happen. Within a couple of years Karel's pesimistic prediction turned out not the be true, the unbelievable had happened, and the communist regime had fallen. When the citizens of Prague gathered in their thousands on the Wenceslaus Square at the peak of the so-called Velvet Revolution, Kryl was there, singing at the popular demand. A little later, however, shortly before his fiftieth birthday in 1994, the sad news of Karel Kryl’s sudden death of a heart attack had reached me. It was indeed a great privilege to have known this remarkable man, now generally acknowledged to be the nation’s most important bard in the 20th century!