this week's review
FEBRUARY 1, 1999

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A Prague Trilogy

Since her birth in 1911, my Great Aunt Vera has lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the first Czechoslovak Republic, the Third Reich, a Soviet satellite state, a liberated Czechoslovakia, and finally, since 1991, the Czech Republic--all without ever moving from her family home in Prague.

Located on the political fault line between eastern and western Europe for over 1,000 years, Prague has changed national identity dozens of times. But whether overwhelmed by superior forces (17th century Swedes), diplomatic treachery (Chamberlain's infamous 1938 appeasement of Hitler), or Soviet-backed coup (1948), Czechs have weathered the shifts by quietly--sometimes covertly--preserving their language, culture, and history.

The cynical acceptance of oppressive governments is best embodied by Jaroslav Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk, a Czech World War I draftee whose deliberate naivete and incompetence confounds his superiors. Svejk came to emblematize a distinctly Czech response to totalitarianism: a sly passive resistance which preserves individuality and gums up the works of the larger political machine.

Not every Czech was a Svejk. Opportunists abound in every society, and many eagerly toed the party line for fun and profit. Some, like future Czech president Vaclav Havel and the Plastic People of the Universe, were imprisoned for protesting more vocally. Others chose to emigrate, especially after the 1968 Warsaw Pact crackdown when things looked bleakest and, paradoxically, the government encouraged those unhappy with the regime to leave.

It is this question, to flee or not to flee, which dominates three books about Czechs who try to strike a balance between personal freedom and the restrictions imposed by living in Soviet-era Prague.

Too Loud A Solitude
By Bohumil Hrabal

Hrabal himself never fled his homeland, and so Too Loud A Solitude was published (in 1976) under the watchful eyes of government censors. As such, this lyrical first-person account of an eccentric bibliophile who spends his days compacting books in a dank basement is not overtly political, and this is one of its strengths. It is touching in its simplicity and grand in its implications. The oppression and censorship which keep our hero behind in his labors takes a back seat to the joy he derives from the select books he is able to salvage from the press and the colorful cast of characters who come to call on him his sweaty cellar, including an absent-minded professor, a pair of sultry gypsies, and the spirits of Jesus Christ and Lao Tzu. It is a celebration of the humble pleasures afforded by art, food, drink, and friends enjoyed in familiar surroundings despite the encroachments of outsider government and rampant technological progress.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera

Tomas is a brain surgeon who is demoted to washing windows after he publishes an article critical of the Soviet invaders. Instead of being humbled by this, he becomes more philosophical and even finds new ways to enjoy his compulsive philandering. In the wake of the 1968 crackdown, he and his wife Tereza opt for a life of exile in Switzerland where Tomas is free once again to practice medicine. Tereza, homesick and tired of Tomas's affairs, returns alone to Prague, from which she will never again be free to leave. Tomas, now free from both political oppression and the (largely ignored) limitations of marriage, must now decide whether or not to follow. This dilemma must have been keenly felt by Kundera, who himself left Prague in 1975 for voluntary exile in France. Much more than the tale of two lovers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores history, psychology, and metaphysics as it probes the questions of who we are and how we come to make irrevocable decisions.

by Bruce Chatwin

For years I assumed Utz to be the name of some farflung place to which Chatwin had traveled. I suppose I was half-right, because when the book was published (1977), the Iron Curtain had made Czechoslovakia as seemingly remote as Patagonia or the badlands of Australia, the settings for some of Chatwin's other fiction. But Utz is the last name of Kaspar Utz, a resident of Prague's historic Jewish Quarter who uses his dwindling political influence to retain control over his priceless collection of Meissen porcelain in a socialist state where private ownership is a crime against the people. Although porcelain is his life, Utz dreams of freedom across the border and decides to defect even though it means leaving his collection behind. He travels on a one-month visa to Vichy, France, but finds that through overabundance freedom has lost its flavor. Concluding that "luxury is only luxurious under adverse conditions," he returns to Prague, initiating an annual cycle of intended defections and inevitable homecomings. Chatwin, an English world traveler and one-time art buyer for Sotheby's, combines an anthropologist's acumen and an art historian's erudition to render both Soviet Prague and Messein porcelain in such a way that one illuminates the other.

fiction | non-fiction | art | comix | poetry
© 1999 robert zverina