Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygieł (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones). $25.95, 288 pp.
Gottland is not a novel, but that proves difficult to remember. The book, playfully subtitled Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia, is technically a work of reportage, and its author, Mariusz Szczygieł, one of Poland’s best-known journalists. Most of Gottland’s tales, however, seem better suited to Soviet science fiction—or even Russian absurdism—than to actual European history. Szczygieł, aware of his essays’ incredibility, alludes to it not only in Gottland’s subtitle but also in a more blatant disclaimer to his readers: “From here on, most of what we know . . . should be labeled with the first sentence from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which goes: ‘All this happened, more or less.’”
In a series of dispatches from this tantalizing world of “more or less,” Gottland chronicles the history of the Czech Republic in the twentieth century. Each of its seventeen chapters focuses on one or more individual figures—Tomáš Bata, a self-made billionaire; Lina Baatová, an actress who became the lover of Josef Goebbels; Karel Gott, the wildly popular crooner who lends his name to the book’s title—all of whom were caught up and tangled in the unfortunate net of their country’s history. During the last century, the Czech Republic was occupied first by the Germans, then by the Russians, and now by the specters of those years. In his nuanced portrait of a nation, Szczygieł poses questions as critical to literature as they are to history: how should one act when oppressed? To what extent is compromise necessary, justified, or cowardly?
The Czechs compromised; like many small nations, they had very little choice. The alternative was annihilation. “This we know,” Szczygieł writes, “in order to survive in unfavorable circumstances, a small nation has to adapt. It has carried this down from the days of the Habsburgs and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.” The Czechs, Gottland testifies, have proved to be remarkably resilient—Hitler is said to have shouted in a rage, “The Czechs are like cyclists—they hunch their upper bodies, but pedal below!”—yet adaptation has had its price, and its scars are no less painful for being invisible. Moreover, these scars continue to be borne collectively, as though the Soviet era had imposed a hive mind that has yet to be completely shaken off. A small but telling example: in February 2002, Szczygieł reports, a Czech daily published an editorial about why its citizens “can’t abide heroes”: “Because we know heroism is possible, but only in the movies. And nobody lives in a void.” This, in fact, seems to be the greatest collective grievance of the Czech people, and likely of all people trapped in bad times: they were robbed of their ability to be individuals, constrained instead by someone else’s brutal narrative.
There is another Vonnegut aphorism that would have been appropriate to Gottland: Mother Night’s “We are what we pretend to be, and so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Most of the individuals Szczygieł examines in his book were forced into some kind of compromise, and though many also resisted, we cannot help but notice a depressing pattern. There is no way out that does not involve betrayal, self-annihilation, or madness (one woman remarks that the mental hospital was the only place where anyone was truly free to speak with impunity). The best people suffered most, resorting to various types of Kafkaesque escape: disappearance, or more often, suicide.
Faced with such a bleak history, Szczygieł could easily have written a bleak book. But his great accomplishment is to have illuminated these Czech stories with such insight and humor that we end up laughing in spite of ourselves, laughing in outrage and disbelief.
One of the funniest and most bizarre stories is contained in the chapter “Proof of Love,” which deals with the disastrous plan to erect “the world’s largest statue of Stalin on a hill above the Vltava River in Prague.” In 1949, the fifty-four top sculptors in the country are forced to take part in a competition to design the statue; most of them intentionally submit designs they know will be rejected. One unlucky sculptor, Otakar Švec, attempts to make the same mistake, deliberately plagiarizing a pre-war idea he hopes will be dismissed as bourgeois—and unexpectedly finds himself the winner. The building of the statue proves enormously difficult, criticism begins to be voiced from both the people and the government, and Švec increasingly finds himself “a prisoner” to his monstrous project.
The entire endeavor seems cursed. The model for Stalin himself, a minor actor from the Barrandov Film Studios, apparently drank himself to death: “Nobody knew his name, but the whole of Prague called him ‘Stalin,’ and his psyche couldn’t take it.” A few years after that, Švec’s wife commits suicide, unable to bear either the pressure from the authorities or her husband’s drunkenness and affairs. In the end, Švec takes his own life as well, though that fact, as well as the sculptor’s name itself, is suppressed for some time afterward. The statue itself, finally erected in 1954 and meant to last forever, is demolished and obliterated from historical records in 1962. As Szczygieł pithily quips, “Eternity lasts eight years.”
The story, simultaneously hilarious and tragic, compares to the best of absurdist, dystopian novels. The details seem too good to be true—when we read that a taxi driver notices that one of the granite figures behind Stalin, a partisan girl, appears to have her hand on the fly of the solider standing behind her, can we really believe that we are not in the world of brilliant fiction? We owe that pleasurable-yet-disturbing sense of surreality to Szczygieł’s style, which manages to be exciting as both literature and reportage. He is a thrilling storyteller, narrating the scenes in present tense, with an expert blend of action, psychological insight, and pathos. Szczygieł rarely inserts himself directly in the narrative (instead, he usually hovers over the text as an ironic, though sympathetic, authorial presence), but when he does, his comments never fail to be either delightful or arresting. Even while describing these manic Soviet plots, which we may find ridiculous from our safe distance of nearly sixty years, Szczygieł never loses sight of the human cost of totalitarian ambition. He is unusually sensitive to how the regime wormed its way into human minds:
. . . in a situation where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” “or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
“THERE WAS NO TALK about it.”
“NOTHING WAS KNOWN about it.”
“That WASN’T ASKED about.”
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.
As Gottland shows, this communal feeling of helplessness was due to the shocking amount of control exerted over citizens’ daily lives. Outside of censorship, the Czech communist authorities asserted their power through the cruel regulation of private, intimate time: a famous singer, Marta Kubišová, describes how she was often arrested around two in the afternoon, an hour before her daughter was supposed to finish school. The police often intentionally detained Kubišová until evening, enjoying the knowledge that her daughter would have to wait at school for hours.
Death was no less free of regulation than life: one sad chapter concerns the fate of the screenwriter Jan Procházka, an ardent supporter of the Prague Spring, who died in 1970 after the government published falsified records of his conversations and disgraced him. The chapter begins novelistically: “It was getting harder and harder to bury someone. Suddenly burial had become unbelievably complicated.” In the opening scene, Procházka’s widow and children are trekking wearily through the Prague cemeteries, trying to find one that will accept their loved one’s body. Only one gravedigger is willing; the grateful Mrs. Procházka assures him she will bury her husband at night so that “the funeral won’t bother anyone.” The funerals of dissidents were either not allowed to be announced in the papers, or scheduled for impossible hours—at 6:30 in the morning, or late in the evening, when the authorities would block off the main roads and force attendees to take endless detours through neighboring villages.
In 1968, Jan Procházka had famously announced that, “Man did not spend ages learning to talk only to end up with no right to speak,” and was afterwards known as “the people’s darling” until his house was bugged and his career sabotaged. In a twist of irony, shortly after the Soviet invasion, Procházka wrote the screenplay for a film called The Ear about a couple who find tiny “ears” (radio receivers; bugs) in their home. The right to speak is their undoing, unaccompanied as it is by the right to privacy. Szczygieł calls the story “a complement to Kafka’s ideas” and the whole Czech Republic “the land of Kafka,” where, as that author wrote, “in a political trial the fact of the defendant’s birth is already a crime in itself.”
Szczygieł eventually tracks down the director of The Ear, a former friend of Procházka who was forced to renounce him after 1970. The director casually mentions that his apartment is a former morgue; “but there aren’t any ghosts,” he adds, “because if there were, the dogs would refuse to live here.” Though the remark is made almost in passing, its metaphorical significance is chilling. Couldn’t most of Europe, particularly as it was in the aftermath of the horrible twentieth century, be referred to as a converted morgue? And considering this violent history, why aren’t there ghosts? Shouldn’t there be?
Perhaps they, too, have found a way to escape or disappear. One, at least, has nearly managed it: “Mrs. Not-A-Fake,” as Szczygieł calls her, also known as Vera S., daughter of Ottla Kafka and niece of Franz. An extremely old woman who never answers her phone or her mail, Vera S. lives in Prague, constantly accosted by journalists but never replying to any of them. Through what seems a miracle, Szczygieł secures an audience with Vera S., only to watch her deflect, demure, and disappear before his eyes. Hers is a very Kafkaesque strategy of escape; she simply vanishes, not-a-fake and not-yet-a-ghost.
Gottland could have been called Kafkaland; the country certainly seems to belong more to its most famous writer than to any deity. But Gottland’s title refers not only to a general God but more specifically to Karel Gott, a beloved singer with a decades-long career, and his museum, also called Gottland, a palace of kitsch in the middle of Prague. “A world without God is impossible,” Szczygieł explains, “so in the world’s most atheistic country, which is the Czech Republic, the sixty-seven-year-old star plays an important role. The role of mein Gott.”
The role of my God—both a holy figure and a curse, an expression of disbelief. Szczygieł’s book succeeds in resurrecting old ghosts who did not deserve to be forgotten, but more importantly, it asserts at least this minimum right, the right to mein Gott, to object. Gottland is a project of anti-silence, for we should not have spent so long learning to talk only to be left with no voice.
In the book’s final chapter, “Gottland’s Life After Life,” Szczygieł admits that when it was published in 2006, he did not think that anyone would be interested in his work: “a representative of one marginal nation writing about another marginal nation is unlikely to be a success.” But shortly afterward, in 2009, Gottland went on to be the surprise winner of the Prix du Livre Européen, which celebrates works that foster a sense of European community. Two marginal nations received their due, and since then Gottland has been translated into several languages. We are very fortunate that English is finally among them. Although, regretfully, I cannot read Polish, I did read the French translation by Margot Carlier (the edition that secured the European Book Prize), and can at least report that Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ English rendition is just as funny, just as shocking, and just as riveting. Szczygieł’s highly distinctive style seems to translate well, and we can hope that it continues to be translated: his voice is invaluable, in English and elsewhere.
I mentioned before that it is difficult to remember that Gottland is not a work of fiction. If the book reads like a novel, perhaps that is because we believe that novels can convey better than non-fiction the texture of the past. Szczygieł’s work, to its credit, proves that assumption false: Gottland represents not only admirable storytelling but admirable history, too. For all its humor, the book takes its subjects and their sufferings seriously, compassionately; it evokes empathy for its characters as a novel would. It is not by accident that most of these characters are artists and writers; Gottland, the work of non-fiction, reminds us that no matter how much of an imagination these people had, it was never enough to compete with the truth. As Jan Procházka wrote of his screenplay, The Ear: “This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible.”
Madeleine LaRue is an Associate Editor & Director of Publicity of Music & Literature. Her criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, and Asymptote. She lives in Berlin.
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