Books interview: Jirí Pribán

The author and professor of sociology and philosophy of law discusses Vonnegut, pre-communist histories and the EU’s present and future

March 1, 2018
Jiri Priban

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
As a young kid, I loved all books about nature from animal atlases to Gerald Durrell’s novels. At the age of 14, I was given Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions as a birthday present, and this became cult reading among my high school friends. After all these years, we still quote from it and laugh a lot whenever we meet during my visits to Prague. I was deeply affected by Vonnegut’s combination of absurd humour and shaken humanism.

Your new book explores ‘the Czech question in post-national Europe’. Which books inspired your interest in Czech history and politics?
I grew up in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, which was officially described by the ruling communist regime as the period of “normalisation”. For my generation, interest in the country’s history was a way of challenging the official ideology and its lies. We rummaged in our parents’ libraries and second-hand bookshops for history and politics books published before 1948 or during the brief period of the Prague Spring in 1968 to get a picture different from the communist regime’s historical dogmas. Thomas Masaryk’s The Making of a State: Memories and Observations, 1914-1918 profoundly influenced me precisely because it depicted Czech national history and self-determination as part of the universal progress towards democracy and republicanism. By the way, its title in Czech is The World Revolution.

What would you recommend as good accounts of recent Czech history?
Those interested in oral history must read Velvet Revolutions by Miroslav Vaněk and Pavel Mücke, which includes several hundred interviews covering the variety of experiences of post-1989 societal transitions. I also should mention two excellent recent biographies of Václav Havel, one by Kieran Williams and the other by Michael Žantovský.

Which books do you feel are most illuminating about today’s and tomorrow’s Europe?
Books about Europe do not make jolly reading these days: Ivan Krastev’s After Europe is one example – provocative, controversial and engaging. Claus Offe’s Europe Entrapped deals with the most critical issues facing the European Union and still retains some hope, despite depicting a gloomy picture of economic, political and social divisions and weakening democracy in contemporary Europe.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Books always make the biggest part of our family Christmas presents. My oldest daughter was given Umberto Eco’s Chronicles of a Liquid Society, her younger sister received Karl Jaspers’ Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, and the youngest one David Walliams’ Bad Dad.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Apart from several academic books and collections, I am looking forward to J. M. Coetzee’s Late Essays: 2006-2017, Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House and Simon Schama’s Belonging: The Story of the Jews, 1492-1900.

Jiří Přibáň is professor of sociology and philosophy of law and director of the Centre of Law and Society at Cardiff University. His latest book is The Defence of Constitu­tion­al­ism: The Czech Question in Post-national Europe (Karolinum Press).

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