Ivan Jirous obituary

Czech poet and artistic director of the dissident band the Plastic People of the Universe

Perhaps the most important encounter in the stormy life of Ivan Jirous, the prolific poet, essayist and leader of the Czech cultural opposition, who managed the psychedelic rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, was a conspiratorial meeting with the future Czech president Václav Havel. It happened in March 1976, eight years after the hopes inspired by the Prague Spring had been ground to dust by the Soviet invasion.

By this time, Jirous, who has died aged 67 from internal haemorrhaging, and Havel were leading figures in separate communities of dissent. Jirous represented the raw, emotional power of a ballooning underground music scene; Havel represented the intellectual community of banned writers and academics who already enjoyed international recognition. When the two met for a night of drinking and conversation, they forged an alliance that helped pave the way for the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It also inspired the 2006 hit play Rock'n'Roll by Tom Stoppard, who was fascinated by the convergence of these two approaches to dissent. He called Jirous – who is a key offstage character in the play – one of the most interesting personalities in the country's modern history.

A few days after this historic meeting – possibly as a direct result of it – Jirous was arrested in a police sweep, along with 19 members of the musical underground. Havel rallied his fellow dissidents and unleashed an international campaign to free them. Though they could not prevent Jirous from going to jail, all but seven were released, and those who were sentenced served less time than expected. That success inspired the Czechoslovak civil rights initiative, Charter 77. Spreading the document was considered a political crime and many key charter members, including Havel, were sent to prison, but later played important roles in the country's transition to democracy. During the 70s and 80s, Jirous was jailed five times, spending a total of eight and a half years behind bars. He was finally released in November 1989.

Jirous was born in Humpolec, a small town in central Bohemia, at the time still under Nazi occupation. His father was a local official whose favorite hobby was the construction of palindromes. Shortly after the communists' takeover in 1948, Jirous's aunt was arrested and imprisoned as a "bourgeois exploiter". It turned the impressionable boy against the regime for life.

As a teenager, he was a brilliant student, but outspoken and often in trouble with the school authorities. In 1963, he moved to Prague to study art history at the Charles University, while moonlighting as a staff writer for a visual arts newspaper, Vytvarna Prace. After seeing the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, he became convinced that because music was less censored than the written word, young Czech music fans were more in touch with the free world and thus were, potentially, a more radical force for change than intellectuals. He threw in his lot with the emerging Prague rock scene, and in 1969, joined forces with a popular new band called the Plastic People of the Universe, designating himself their "artistic director". As a young teacher in Prague I had become good friends with Jirous and in 1970 he invited me to join the band. I was later deported for my involvement.

Thanks to his determination, and his nose for loopholes in the regulations, the band survived many attempts to shut it down. By the mid-1970s, it had become the centre of an underground scene big enough to attract serious attention from the state security police.

By this time, Jirous's wicked tongue, prodigious thirst for alcohol, and aggressive demeanour (his nickname, "Magor", means "a crazy man") led to frequent clashes with the authorities. He was first imprisoned in 1973 for 12 months for causing a disturbance in a bar. While he was inside, the underground kept on growing, undeterred. When he got out in 1974, he wrote a manifesto defining this phenomenon as a "second culture" and those who lived in it as wishing to "live in truth". It was an idea that Havel would later take further in his influential essay The Power of the Powerless.

Jirous began writing poetry seriously while in prison, and his first major collection, Magor's Swan Song, was published in illegal editions while he was still behind bars. In 1985 it won him the Tom Stoppard prize, awarded each year to an author of Czech origin. He published more than a dozen books of poetry, letters, essays, polemical writings and stories for children. In 2006, he was given the Jaroslav Seifert award for his lifetime achievements. Remarkably, his poetry reveals a man with a tender soul and a deeply felt religious faith, qualities not always evident in his unpredictable public persona.

More than a thousand people attended his funeral mass in the South Bohemian town of Kostelní Vydri. Among them was Alexandr Vondra, a young dissident in the 1980s who is now the Czech minister of defence. "For us, Jirous was just as important as Havel," Vondra told me. "Without his uncompromising stance, everything would have been a lot worse."

In 1966 Jirous married the poet and art historian Vera Varilova, who wrote lyrics for the Plastic People. They divorced in 1975 and the following year he married the painter Juliana Stritzkova. with whom he had two daughters, Frantiska and Marta, both of whom survive him, along with a son, Daniel, from another relationship. He is also survived by his partner, the singer-songwriter Dása Vokatá.

Ivan Martin "Magor" Jirous, poet and cultural activist, born 23 September 1944; died 10 November 2011


Paul Wilson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Heda Margolius Kovály obituary
Other lives: Survivor of the second world war whose husband was executed in Czechoslovakia in 1952

Ivan Margolius

13, Dec, 2010 @6:23 PM

Article image
Jiří Bělohlávek obituary
One of the great Czech conductors hailed for his luminous interpretations of Janáček and Martinů

David Nice

01, Jun, 2017 @4:58 PM

Article image
Alice Teichova obituary
Economic historian who escaped both the Nazis and the crushing of the Prague Spring and became the University of East Anglia’s first female professor

Richard J Evans

21, Apr, 2015 @4:38 PM

Article image
Otakar Vávra obituary
Influential Czech film director with a talent for self-preservation

Ronald Bergan

06, Nov, 2011 @6:42 PM

Article image
Ivan Passer obituary
Director who was part of the ‘Czech film miracle’ in the 1960s but made his masterpieces in Hollywood

Ronald Bergan

17, Jan, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Jiri Dienstbier obituary
Witty journalist who became first Czech foreign minister after the Velvet Revolution

Peter Avis

24, Jan, 2011 @6:48 PM

Article image
Vaclav Havel, former Czech president, dies aged 75

Dissident playwright who led velvet revolution and became first post-communist Czechoslovakian president dies

Julian Borger

18, Dec, 2011 @11:37 AM

Article image
Stalin statue site reveals chilling remains of Prague labour camp
Archaeologists have discovered foundations of the previously unknown structure in the city’s Letná park

Robert Tait

28, Mar, 2021 @8:45 AM

Article image
Josef Škvorecký obituary
Nobel prize-nominated Czech author known for his series of semi-autobiographical, jazz-soaked novels, including The Engineer of Human Souls

Paul Wilson

09, Jan, 2012 @6:00 PM

Article image
Zuzana Růžičková obituary
Czech harpsichordist and Auschwitz survivor who was determined to bring her instrument out of the museum and into the modern world

Pamela Nash

15, Oct, 2017 @1:04 PM