— Speech on the Opening Ceremony of Book World Prague
By Liao Yiwu, published: December 9, 2013
In the spring of 1994, not long after I had been released from prison, a friend brought me a copy of The Collected Works of Vaclav Havel through underground channels. It was the earliest Chinese translation published by Hong Kong Radical Press and translated by Zhang Yongjin. Up to that point, I had been living in total despair. Because of a poem protesting the Tian’anmen Massacre, I paid the price of being locked up in prison and was cut off from the world for four years, and, upon my release, I found I was totally abandoned by society.
In my prison without walls, I read Havel ravenously. I came to know Charter 77, and I came to know The Plastic People of the Universe and how their souls, Havel’s and the band’s, found each other in an underground bar. Havel, who preferred classical music, heard the distress of a nation in what was regarded as street music. Thus, he made appeals to draw attention to the misfortunes of the band. He pointed out that what was truly “harmful to the morals of society” was the regime that detained the band members. Havel said, every nobody has their own history, they should all be respected.
At the time, I myself was just like the musicians, an aimless nobody monitored by the police. I was like The Plastic People, mingling in bars, but I had no way to make the kind of music that would move Havel. I drowned my worries in alcohol, and performed in a state of inebriation. Deep in the night the bar would go from raucous to empty, and the remaining patrons, in twos or threes, were those who either had no homes or were forsaken by love, or sometimes both. Some had no home to return to, and others had no country to belong to. Havel, who is now already in heaven, would definitely understand this feeling of not having a country to call one’s own. In The Power of the Powerless, he described [the period] after the Prague Spring and how the people of the Czech Republic turned from mass patriotism towards mass materialism because of fear. How similar this is to China after the Tian’anmen massacre.
Because I had to survive, I drew close to the bar patrons and made idle conversation with them. My goal was to earn money through performance. The first song I played for them was often free. After evoking their emotions, I would pretend I was going to leave. I knew they would pull me back and plead for another melody. And so, riding on their downward emotions, my flute would become increasingly sad and depressing. I would then make the best of it by collecting three times what I normally would. Along the way, I also heard the stories of many people.
My youthful years before going to jail gradually elapsed, or more precisely, my life was chopped into two sections. My real life started from the second section. It was as if I was in jail straight from birth, and then played flute in bars, falling into the company of farmer-emperors, human traffickers, escort girls, fortune tellers, fugitives, alcoholics, embalmers, etc. Inside or outside prison, I had always been one of them.
I hoped to meet Havel, who would later become the president [of the Czech Republic], but it was not possible. I did meet Liu Xiaobo though, who was often in and out of jail himself. He would occasionally page me while I was busy performing to insist that I go to receive his fax. Much like Havel, Liu Xiaobo was addicted to faxing political documents to everyone, pitting himself against a dictatorship. I didn’t pit myself against anything; I just signed my name to whatever campaign. Meanwhile, my literary career thrived under these ridiculous situation of flute-playing and name-signing.
So many years have gone by. Havel has died, Liu Xiaobo is in jail, and I am standing here, being called an author who has borne witness to this shameful era.
For goodness sake.
Berlin, May 9, 2013
(Translated by Jack, with permission from the author.)