Five paperback volumes of his musings have become bestsellers, and a sixth hits bookstores next month. An Ostrava-based theater is preparing to dramatize his blunders, and prominent Czech actors twist their tongues in Tuesday night televised readings from Ostravak's blog. And as his popularity surges across the country, Ostravak has rescued his hometown's profile from ridicule. "People are no longer ashamed of being from Ostrava," says Marcela Stehlikova, the editor who, according to the official story, discovered him for her publishing house.
But the question on everyone’s lips is: Who is Ostravak? A literary-world pro having a laugh? A genuine post-communist failure? Nobody has an answer, because Ostravak has been meticulous in keeping his identity secret. "People have a chance to rev up their imagination at a full speed," Ostravak explained in an e-mail. "Wandering through my neighborhood they look around whether it's that drunk bum leaning on the corner, or that young girl pushing a baby carriage."
Strolling Ostrava's wind-swept streets in his footsteps, I could not resist the guessing game. At Jindricha, one of his watering holes, it could be anyone. "It's definitely none of the patrons," insists Iveta Mickova, a plump, no-nonsense waitress, thick gold hoops dangling from her ear lobes. The regulars, she continues, suspect a guy who keeps scribbling away while sitting alone puffing on his pipe. "See that guy with the bag?" she winks towards a slim, bearded fellow approaching from the street.
"I have been asked in at least three pubs. But I have nothing to do with it," says the suspect, who turns out to be a publishing-house editor who declines to give his name.
Would you tell me if it were you?
"Certainly not!" he said with a smile.
In Dilo, a beer bar where Ostravak's pals ran up his cellphone credit while he was in the men's room, I guzzled lager with a man who, by his own account is a communist-era spy turned post-communist shady dealer and private eye. "You're looking for Ostravak? I know him," he nodded knowingly before he shook his head. "You reporters have no clue."
My new friend, who would not let me print his name but volunteered he studied spying with “Volodya” Putin (an affectionate nickname for the Russian President who earned his stripes in the KGB) and Sasha Lebed (another prominent Russian politician) in the old Soviet days, leaned over to give me the plot. Ostravak is a drinking buddy of his from another bar, a real writer who pens the diary based on stories he hears in pubs. "I promised not to tell his name. I give you some hints, or even better I'll arrange for you to meet him one day."
But what about if he denies it? How do I pin him down?
"Oh, you reporters. Get his bank statements, his publisher's bank statements! Gotcha!"
A few blocks away, actors rehearse a supermarket scene from the Ostravak show on an intimate round stage equipped with shopping carts. "I was not looking for him," the show's director, Radovan Lipus, shrugs. "I enjoy this game. Once it ends, something nice will be lost. Why couldn't it remain a secret? Who minds?"