An Explosion of Sensitivity

In the psychiatric hospital in Bohnice they did not look surprised when I asked for permission to enter Pavilion 23. It is a closed ward for patients suffering from bipolar disorder. The same pavilion where the writer Ota Pavel (1930–1973) died.

If a ranking of the most beautiful Czech books was made, the Death of the Beautiful Deer (1971) would certainly be in the lead. In this small collection of short stories, reprinted many times, the well-known sport journalist and reporter described the happiest moments of his life, spent in childhood with his father and “mummy, who had my daddy for her husband,” and two elder brothers in a ferryman’s cottage by the Berounka river. This is how Mariusz Szczygieł writes about it: “This is a book I have been buying for years in bulk quantities and giving to friends. For it is the most antidepressant book in the world.”

Ota Pavel got ill when he was 33. No one described it better than himself:

“I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman—the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fur, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog. As I was leading the cows and horses from the barn, the Austrian police arrived. They handcuffed me and took down to the valley. I abused them, I ripped my shoes off and walked barefoot through the snow like Christ led to the Cross.”

People speculated on the reasons of the writer’s disease for many years. It was claimed, for example, that he suffered psychological trauma because of the behavior of German fans. Jiří Margolius, his pupil from the hockey school, recalled in 2000: “Ota used to say ‘my brain got cloudy, as if the whole fog from the Alps came down.’ But what really came down were German hockey fans. They were screaming like mad, as Germans do around the world, because that’s the only way they know. Ota, who was sitting next to them, in that one moment heard the screams of Gestapo officers breaking into his home and Hitler screaming in the radio, and he saw all these war atrocities which befell his family.”

In fact, it was quite different. On February 8, 1964, after the lost match against Sweden, Pavel ran into the locker room of Czechoslovak hockey players. Jumping with joy, he congratulated the athletes on their bronze medal. They won it despite losing the match, for they got more points than Canada, which took fourth place. But the players did not know about it; they thought that the journalist was mocking them. One of them screamed: “To the gas chamber with you, Jew!”

Pavel just smiled and left the locker room. The next day he went to the mountains to “burn off the fog.”

Initially, everyone thought that he had “chosen freedom,” as fleeing to the West was then called in the communist bloc countries. Only his wife and his closest friend, the writer Arnošt Lustig, did not believe in his escape. They guessed that something had happened. Pavel had a nervous breakdown already in the 1950s during his military service. He returned mentally exhausted from an American tour of the football team Dukla Praha in 1962. For the next two years he was working on his first book. The non-fiction story Dukla among Skyscrapers was to appear in February 1964.

The book was already on the shelves of bookstores when the phone rang in Lustig’s Prague apartment. Pavel was calling from Austria, from a psychiatric hospital. He whispered into the phone that he had met doctor Mengele in Innsbruck.

He knew that Lustig had also met Dr. Mengele once. On a ramp in Auschwitz.

Lustig informed his friend’s wife and his own friends from counterintelligence. The matter was serious. Pavel was a reserve officer and editor of the military magazine Czechoslovak Soldier. Counterintelligence had been looking for him for several weeks. If he were sane, he would go to prison for many years.

The formalities took a couple of days. There were some hiccups along the way. The ambulance transporting Pavel from Austria was involved in an accident just before the border crossing. The writer got out of the car unaided. On the surviving photographs you can see him standing aside and looking at the crashed ambulance. In sunglasses and a hat, he looks like a secret agent.

On the next photo he poses with his wife and Lustig. They are all smiling.

Doctors at the military hospital in Prague confirmed cyclophrenia, as the bipolar disorder was then called. They prescribed electroshocks and pharmaceuticals. Such a treatment could not help much, but it was the best available. Pavel was hospitalized for a total of 16 times.

“You sit alone in a chair for entire weeks, months, years,” he recalled his stay at the closed ward. “This first period was not terrible for me personally, it was terrible for my loved ones, who watched me. Actually, I felt blissful and I did everything with passion and conviction. Sometimes it was even enjoyable. It is beautiful to be a blessing Christ.

The worst thing is when they give you drugs and bring you to a state when you realize that you are crazy. Your eyes are clouded with grief, you already know that you are not Christ, but a poor man who lost his senses, that is the thing which had made you human. You have to sit behind reinforced bars, although you have killed no one and hurt no one. You are sentenced without trial. People outside are living on and you start to envy them.

Only a miracle can get you out of it. I waited five years for this miracle.”

And that miracle did happen.

In 1967, Dr. Pavel Groff, a young psychiatrist from a clinic in the Prague district of Bohnice, suggested to the writer an innovative method of treatment using lithium. Groff got acquainted with this method during his internship in West Germany. At that time, only a few doctors around the world suspected that this rare element, then used among others in nuclear physics, could have properties stabilizing the nervous system (today it is commonly used in treating the manic-depressive disease, and Kurt Cobain sang about it in his song “Lithium”).

This is how Ota Pavel described the treatment using lithium cations in a letter to his brother, Hugo Pavel: “One day a miracle happened. A MIRACLE. My doctor came holding in his hand a new, wonderful drug. And then he shook my hand and let me out of the clinic.”

It was in August 1967. In the autumn of the same year, in about a fortnight, Pavel wrote a short story “Carps for the Wehrmacht.” The first among the seven which make up the Death of the Beautiful Deer.

He had been thinking about that book for a long time. “I know that now only work can save me,” he wrote in February 1967 to his brother. He bought a new typewriter and one month later confessed to his brother: “My innermost desire—if my health allows—is to write about ordinary life. About Old Powder, about Little Frank from ‘The Secret Agent,’ about the hermit from Skryja, a volume of short stories about our Daddy and Mummy.”

At first the book was to be called My Daddy. In December 1967, seven hours a day for a full week, Pavel asked his father about his childhood and youth, about his pre-war career of a salesman of refrigerators and vacuum cleaners for the Electrolux company, about his love affairs and fistfights, about the occupation, concentration camps, and his frustrated faith in communism.

His father also told him how in 1943, when Gestapo came to take his eldest sons to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he went to pick up some venison on the beloved Berounka. Deer meat saved their lives, for they had subsisted on bread with onions. Nevertheless, after the war his father never went back there.

These conversations resulted in eighty pages of notes, an inexhaustible collection of anecdotes and family stories. Without this journalistic mate- rial Death of the Beautiful Deer would never have been born. “I have fun with it, but it is also quite a drudgery,” confessed Pavel in a letter to his mother. “I am to write about Dad and Dad is a Jew, I can’t make him look like a coward and I can’t make him look like a daredevil, it simply has to be powerful and true. Some things about which I wanted to write, for example that he was in the French Foreign Legion, I omitted, and some things I inflated a bit. Well, I don’t know what he will say about it, he will probably berate me.”

Pavel’s father did not read the book. He died two months later.

After Dr. Groff’s treatment the writer practically had no relapses for two years. He felt well enough to make several trips abroad with his wife in 1968 and he wrote more short stories and articles. He had to take medication, and he resigned from regular newsroom work (since 1966 he received a disability pension). When he felt that he was not well, he called his doctor and spent a week or two in Bohnice. But the best cure for him was water, angling rod, and fish.

Once he disappeared for three entire months. It later turned out that he was on the Berounka helping the local ferryman. He lived in a wooden shed. All he ate was the fish he caught.

He probably did not know that fish accumulate small amounts of lithium in their bodies.

In May 1969 he spent a week in Paris at the invitation of a sports magazine. In the autumn of the same year he completed Death of the Beautiful Deer and submitted the manuscript to the Československý spisovatel publishing house.

The disease returned as a result of stress associated with the publication of the book. Pavel knew that he had written a masterpiece. All his books appeared after he had fallen ill. All of them were successful, but this one was exceptional. Unlike the three previous ones, it did not speak about famous sportsmen, but about his loved ones. About their “ordinary life.”

He waited two years for it. Censors demanded changes and abbreviations in the text. The excised fragments included the one about the “wonderful drug” from the first version of the Epilogue, the poignant story about the illness and searching the memory for the happiest moments making life worth living. Eventually the Epilogue appeared in the posthumously published book How I Came to Know Fish (1974). The reason was trivial— Pavel Groff (like his brother Stanislav, author of pioneering studies on the LSD) “chose freedom” in America after 1968.

“When I felt better, I thought about what was most beautiful in life,” wrote Pavel in the Epilogue. “I did not think about love or my wanderings around the world. I did not think about the night flights across the oceans or about playing Canadian hockey for Sparta Praha. I went fishing again—in streams, rivers, ponds, and weirs. And I realized that the most beautiful thing I experienced in my life was this.”

He worked to the very end, despite his relapses. After the Death of the Beautiful Deer he wrote his non-fiction masterpiece, the biographical story about the famous ski-jumper Jiří Raška (A Fable about Raška, 1974). He also wanted to write his memories of childhood.

Slávka Kopecká, the editor of the sevenvolume collected works of Ota Pavel, met him in the early 1970s in Buštěhrad near Prague. The writer asked the young journalist to collect information on the small town in which he survived the German occupation. “He was interested in the smallest details, for example, he asked me to check how many prostitutes and brothels were in the town during the war. And another time he wanted to know the number of fascists and collaborators,” says Kopecká. “I had no problem with establishing the number of prostitutes. It was more difficult with collaborators, for they vanished.”

In February 1973, Ota Pavel spent a whole day in Buštěhrad. “The weather was awful, but it was worth it,” he wrote later to Kopecká. “I saw the mill of the Koniceks. So many memories, the first short story for the book on my childhood I am working on, ‘Buštěhrad railway,’ is about that mill. Please send it back to me when you have read it.”

He attached this short story to the letter. Called “The Long Mile,” it was one of the most beautiful he had ever written. It was published a month later, on Saturday, March 31, 1973, by the Lidová demokracie daily. In the early morning of the same day the author again found himself in the psychiatrist hospital in Bohnice.

Already on Thursday he complained of a headache and fatigue. He had been working on a newspaper article for several days and he completed it in the afternoon. In the evening he called his doctor who prescribed him new drugs.

On Friday he said to his wife: “I am going to die soon anyway.” His wife called the doctor and he told them to come to Bohnice the next day. His brother Jiří visited him in the evening. They agreed that that he would take them to hospital.

He could not sleep at night. He felt worse and worse. He could not breathe. He was gasping in his bed. His wife sat with him through the night, on the sofa under a blanket. He was thirsty, but no longer able to hold a glass. Since he started taking lithium, he drank 20 bottles of Kofola (the Czech fake Pepsi) a day. He put on weight, he looked like a sixty-year-old. He was not yet 43.

In the morning his wife and brother had to help him come downstairs. In the car he was silent. In Bohnice they were received by a physician who replaced Dr. Groff. He put Pavel in the closed ward and went home. After all, it was Saturday.

We don’t know what happened later. Jiří Pavel claimed that a nurse gave his brother an injection to bring down fever.

At two o’clock in the afternoon the phone rang in Pavels’ Prague apartment. Ota Pavel’s son passed the receiver to his mother. The doctor said that her husband had died of cardiac arrest a few minutes before.

“Dozens of times I wanted to take my own life, when I could not take it anymore, but I never did it,” he wrote in the Epilogue. “Perhaps I subconsciously wanted to kiss the mouth of the river one more time and to catch silver fish. It was as a fisherman that I learned patience and my memories of fishing helped me to keep on living.”

And today his books help others to keep on living. I discovered that in Bohnice.

A long corridor, the doors to the patients’ rooms slightly open. In every room there are beds, a small table, bars in the windows. Men in pajamas pacing the corridor. The closed ward is on the ground floor and the open ward is one floor up.

Going down, I passed a nurse. Later I put down in my notebook: “The nurse carried books from the library for patients, several books, the one on top—Death of the Beautiful Deer.”

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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