|FEBRUARY 1, 1999
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|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
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
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
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.