Bohemian Rhapsodies and Prague Winter

Paul Wilson, Bohemian Rhapsodies, Torst 2012; Madeleine Albrightová, Pražská zima, Argo 2012

The questions: “What is a nation? Who belongs to it?” are so much more than just a matter of definition. It would be neither hard nor unfair to demonstrate the strong correlation between an intensive character of the definition and the number, scope and intensity of the conflicts, sometimes tragically violent, it entails. This gives, rightly so, nationalism a bad name, but sometimes obscures the value and importance of nationhood in its looser meaning, defined not by blood, not even primarily by territory and language, but by a sense of belonging, based on sharing a similar history, similar friends and similar values. Adopting this more extensive concept instantly makes a nation bigger, numerically and otherwise; to wit, two recent books about the Czech nation by authors neither of whom owns a Czech passport.

Ferenc Liszt wrote the Hungarian Rhapsodies in 1847, as an early fusion of classical idiom, folk tunes and gypsy music. Freddie Mercury wrote the Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975 as an elegiac encounter of ballad, opera and hard rock music. Paul Wilson had been composing his Bohemian Rhapsodies (Prague, Torst 2012) over forty years as a way of coming to terms with his adopted second country.

Paul is a Canadian, and for Canadians it holds perhaps more than for other peoples that it is more a state of mind than a nationality. Canadians, as if continually left speechless by the vastness of the country they inhabit, are somewhat understated, short on emotionality and expression, but infinitely polite, understanding and positive. We Czechs are the exact opposite. It is thus inevitable that the confrontation of the former with the latter should bring about insights otherwise inaccessible to the natives.

As an aspiring leftist ignoramus, one of millions such young people in the West of the nineteen sixties, Paul was wise enough to wish to compare the ideology with the experience of his own senses, something that comes as naturally to the Anglo-Saxon mind as it is difficult for a continental European, and made a trek to Czechoslovakia in 1967, in time to witness the wholesale rejection of the creed by pretty much the entire nation. Rather than become discouraged he became interested and stayed long enough for the Soviet invasion of 1968. This radical dose of medicine seems to have cured him once and for all of Marxist delusions but also instilled in him a lifelong loyalty to the country and the people he came to know. He stayed behind as an English teacher, a beer pub stammgast and an underground rock musician, not just any old rock musician, but a singer with the Plastic People of the Universe, until he was unceremoniously kicked out as an undesirable in July 1977, after playing with the Plastics for one last time. (It speaks volumes of Paul and Canadians that asked later about the STB informer posing as a friend who gave away the timing of the farewell concert but got the place wrong, he hopefully muses that perhaps the agent really wanted to mislead the police). Back in Canada, Paul stayed loyal to his bond with the other Czechoslovakia, becoming the almost exclusive translator into English of Václav Havel, Josef Škvorecký and other Czech writers. He came back right after November 1989, observed the tumultuous changes, translated Havel’s historic speeches, witnessed the division of the country, its rock-strewn path to democracy, prosperity and a Western outlook and marked an end of an era with his moving report on the week following the death of Václav Havel in December 2011.

The chapters of the book, which had appeared previously in The New York Review of Books and other outlets, do not aspire to a single narrative or a unifying concept. They are occasional, sometimes commissioned pieces of journalism on political subjects, but also on translation, music, literature, the psychology of Czechs and Slovaks and the heady mixture of isolation, trust, love and betrayal, defiance, despair and moments of ecstatic joy that comprised life on the dark side of the moon in communist Czechoslovakia. The thing that makes Paul’s journalism of one piece is the unfailing kindness, tolerance and understanding, with which he sees not just his friends, but also the largely passive and conformist nation and even some of its oppressors. This does not mean that he buys into the Czech mythology, lock, stock and barrel. There is the sense of detachment, an occasional shrug and mild, but unmistakable criticism of some of our customs, our ways of thinking, our arguments and our representatives. Even Václav Havel is not spared for turning out to be not entirely as formidable a politician as he was a dissident. There is a note of nostalgia in Paul’s writing for an era about which we should have no rational reasons to be nostalgic, something best understood by those who lived through it with a similar perspective. There are fine portraits of Václav Havel, his wife Olga, Alexander Dubček, the repatriated Czech-Canadian Edward Outrata and of many of the great unwashed in the underground. As testimonies on a place and times go, this is a fine book indeed.

One of the most useful though improbable practical measures to help the perpetually strained budget for education in the Czech Republic would be to use the most recent book by the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a high school handbook for the course Czechoslovakia 19181948. There in a nutshell is the story of one of the most momentous thirty years in the nation’s history by a writer who like no other living Czech combines the perspectives of a child of the country and a leading international statesman, a Czech-born American and a patriot of both countries, a direct though at the time rather small participant in the story and an accomplished academic, a Jew by birth and a Christian by upbringing and vocation. This unique combination of factors enables Madeleine – since she is emphatically on first-name terms with her native country – to combine the personal with the historic, the insider’s perspective with the observer’s point of view, and empathy with detachment.

Save for the personal history of Madeleine Korbel’s family, most of whom perished in the death camps of the Holocaust, with the rest finding refuge in England and America, the story of Prague Winter, named after the quintessentially Central European city where she was born, has been told many times but rarely if ever with the same understanding, insight and sense of fairness and balance. It encompasses the major events of the first half of the century, the birth of Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I, the flourishing of the new country despite the sometimes uneasy cohabitation of Czechs and Slovaks with ethnic Germans, Hungarians, and other minorities, the looming threat of Nazism, the country’s betrayal by its allies during the Munich crisis, the Nazi occupation and the resistance to it both at home and in exile, where Madeleine’s father Josef Korbel worked as a leading diplomat for the Czechoslovak Government in London, the Holocaust tragedy, the liberation, the precarious quasi-democracy of the first postwar years leading to the Communist putsch in February 1948, the death of Josef Korbel’s boss Jan Masaryk and the hasty departure, this time for good, of the Korbel’s family from the country.

In the absence of space to highlight many of the author’s valuable observations, her exemplary treatment of the post-war expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia can be offered as a pars pro toto. Like most Czechs Madeleine was brought up believing that the expulsion was an inevitable, just and legitimate retribution for the suffering brought upon the Czech nation by the racist, rabidly nationalistic ideology of Nazism and its fellow travelers among the Sudeten Germans. Nonetheless, as she became more knowledgeable about the modern European history and as new evidence came to light, she could hardly ignore the vengeful cruelty and violence of the “wild” expulsions, the glaring injustice even in the “orderly transfer” of innocents, so many of them elderly, women and children, along with the guilty, and the scant efforts of the victors to make a distinction between the guilty and the innocent. A leading international opponent of ethnic cleansing, Madeleine could not help noticing the parallels, but has resisted the anachronistic temptation to judge the events of sixty-five years ago by the standards of today. Along with the deplorable details of the expulsions she did not forget to quote Hitler´s words: “The Czechs will be… expelled from Central Europe,” and just as the seminal Czech-German declaration of the two national parliaments in 1997, she remained aware of the unselective nature of war, of wrongs committed on both sides, of causes and consequences, and of the mutual need for apology and reconciliation. As in every other aspect of the story, her outlook is inclusive, understanding and resolutely positive, something she could only have taken from the American part of her upbringing.

When Václav Havel floated the idea of Madeleine- for-president more than ten years ago, it was met with much incomprehension, shock and astonishment, some of it faked. People who have read this book will better understand his thinking.

Michael Žantovský

Michael Žantovský is the Honorary Board Chairman of the Aspen Institute Central Europe.

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