Living With the Torso While Dreaming of the Whole

I was born in 1976 in Bratislava in what was then the CSSR, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. I am part of the generation that is called Husák’s children, which was our equivalent of America’s baby boomers. I opposed the division of Czechoslovakia, as did my brother, my parents, and my friends. However, the powers-that-be weren’t interested in the opinion of a fifteen-yearold although, as I soon discovered, it wasn’t my age that was the problem. Those who divided the republic didn’t care about the opinions of adult citizens with the right to vote either.

No referendum was held since everyone knew that the outcome would have been a resounding ‘no’. To this day I regard the disintegration of my homeland as a loathsome fraud politicians have perpetrated on our citizens, and as a flagrant violation of our constitution.

Nevertheless, I am ultimately glad to have had this experience and that it happened. It was a world beyond saving, a lost world of yesterday, lacking a centre and a unifying idea. Attempts to salvage it would have been tantamount to trying to salvage a ghost.

And the way it was done has given me a good grounding in the practices later ushered in by Mafioso capitalism, which these days ties our countries together much more closely than the federation did in the past.

I am often reminded of the disintegration of Czechoslovakia during book tours of Germany, particularly the former GDR. The eastern regions of the newly-united country used to be the object of envy for many of us in Slovakia. Envy is not a very virtuous sentiment but I admit to it openly. Back then, I thought that generous financial injections from the more affluent brother would guarantee an easy and speedy path to prosperity and establishment of civil society. While we were stuck with our korunas, their value diminishing with every passing day, the “DDR-ons“, as we used to call them, filled their pockets with strong Deutschmarks. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite has happened.

As I travel the rebuilt roads of the Federal Republic’s eastern provinces, I notice restored buildings and city squares but rarely any people; if I do see any people, they are mainly elderly. Endless subsidies have created a beautiful surface that conceals emptiness at best and horrifying secrets at worst—huge unemployment, mass flight to the West, and bitterness, but also anger, violence and racism and sometimes even extremist right-wing terrorism.

Following the divorce, Slovakia found itself in a disastrous economic and political as well as intellectual situation, since the cultural and academic elites that had launched the Velvet Revolution couldn’t handle the taking of power, voluntarily handing it over to thieves disguised as Slovak Hurrah Henrys, a mistake few of them are willing to admit to this day.

For a while the country seemed to have embarked on the Belarusian path. For a couple of years the economy literally ground to a halt. The currency lost value. Things went from bad to worse until the state was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. I have to confess that as a young man just growing up, I was shocked by this development. I felt a sense of unfairness, uprootedness, uncertainty, and betrayal.

Although the Czechoslovakia of my childhood had been a totalitarian country, compared with much of the world it had offered a decent quality of life and a relatively advanced infrastructure. And suddenly I found myself living in a country that was on the verge of total collapse on several levels. In addition, such companies and services that still just about managed to function, were being robbed at the speed of light.

Slovakia sank to ground zero, becoming a defeated country. Yet today I realize that this collapse was exactly what the country needed and that the GDR made a mistake by avoiding it.

Now I see the experience of being brought to our knees not only as a historical breakthrough but also as a change of paradigm for Slovak identity. We have emerged from it as someone different. We have taken responsibility. Not for everything—we have yet to come to terms with our own history, and in this respect the former GDR has gone much further—but we no longer had anyone else to blame. And people started slaving away, whether at home or abroad.

Ironically, it was the Czechs who were most taken aback by Slovakia’s rise and considerable success. They had expected their eastern neighbour to fail and I suspect that many of them anticipated our failure with glee. Looking back, the clichés, lies and outrageous things the Czech media had said about the Slovaks before and after the break-up, no less than what the Slovak media had to say about the Czechs (all excellently documented by Anna Šabatová), make the mind boggle.

I will never forget The Bus, an article by Czech writer Ondřej Neff, that appeared in the daily Mladá Fronta Dnes on 12 June 1992. It refers to Slovakia as an appendage, a “trailer“, slowing down the Czech bus that was well on its way to Europe. The ungrateful and lazy Slovaks sit in the back, with holes in the tyres, drinking borovička, the Slovak gin, preventing the driver by means of threats or spurious arguments from speeding away on the modern highway.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had always regarded Czech culture as my own but suddenly it felt as if instead of an opinion-forming daily I was reading the Slovak fascist-leaning Zmena. Ever since then, I have abhorred nationalism, be it of Czech, Slovak, or any other provenience. It is the most dangerous disease, afflicting the educated as much as the unsophisticated.

The experience of the break-up has strengthened my belief that the nation is a construct or, as the Germans say, erfundene Gemeinschaft. I write in Slovak and regard myself as part of this tradition although my family tree is far too complex and murky, and even though I actually don’t mind one way or another. I don’t seek things that might separate me or that might, God forbid, make me superior, but rather things I have in common with others.

I don’t wallow in nostalgia and do not yearn for the return of Czechoslovakia. What I regard as more important for both countries is the renewal of trust in democracy and the rule of law: the end of “partocracy”, an investigation into corruption and the links between the Mafia and politics.

I still consider myself a Czechoslovak. I love the cities of Brno, Ostrava, Opava, Pilsen and Prague, just as I love Vienna, Lviv, Wrocław or Berlin. I am sad that my books now have to be translated for Czech readers but am grateful that they are published at all. And although I have to explain to audiences the meaning of some basic Slovak words that differ from their Czech equivalents, I have made it a principle to read from my books in my native tongue.

In former Yugoslavia, where the consequences of the break-up were incomparably worse, people have reached the point where they pretend that the Serbo-Croat language has never existed, and classic books are being newly translated into both languages so that no one is obliged to read anything in the language of the enemy.

“Austria-Hungary is no more,“ noted Sigmund Freud on Armistice Day in 1918. “I don’t want to live anywhere else… I shall live on with the torso and imagine it is the whole.“

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