Gottland by Mariusz Szczygieł

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In Bohumil Hrabal’s mesmerizing novel Too Loud a Solitude, the narrator, Hanta, has been compacting paper in Czechoslovakia for 35 years: through WWII, the Communist regime, book bans, movie bans, and unspoken blacklists. But he mourns the Great Books hidden inside each compacted bale, and his apartment is filled with the ones he can’t bear to compact. A hammock of books sags above his bed as he sleeps, and the only clear path is from the window to the bed to the bathroom, where the books often fall, “catching him with his pants down.” “Inquisitors burn books in vain,” he says. “If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” Yet he saves the books. As a character in Mariusz Szczygieł’s Gottland points out, “in our country, anything that isn’t written down doesn’t really exist.” The books have to be written before they can point anywhere, or catch anyone with her pants down.

In Gottland Szczygieł, a Polish journalist, has set out like a modern day Brother Grimm to record the twentieth century’s “mostly true stories from half of Czechoslovakia” before they’re silenced forever. Like one of Hanta’s haphazard bales, Gottland is composed of an array of material, seventeen longer and shorter stories: the eccentric, Ford-like shoemaker and “experimental capitalist” Tomàs Bata; the actress Lida Baarová who sleeps with the club-footed Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels—who, himself, sleeps with “thirty-six performers of lead and supporting roles”; the sculptor charged with creating a 100-foot granite monument to Stalin, and the crew that must tear it down three years later, when Khrushchev imposes de-Stalinization; Kafka’s aged, reclusive niece, who tells Szczygieł when he finds her, “In this situation I’m not going to pretend I’m not here.” The stories reveal the terrifying repression of Czech writers, filmmakers, pop stars, and citizens, and the fear and silence that haunts the Republic long afterwards: Czechoslovakia’s real “monument to Stalin.”

Reading Gottland is like reading a beautiful, absurd, half-completed connect-the-dots, and Szczygieł provides a useful timeline on which to plot the various anecdotes, worth a quick review: before World War I, the Czech state is known as Bohemia, and is part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From 1918-1938, Czechoslovakia is an independent country. During World War II, most of it is annexed by Germany. From 1945 to 1989 the Communist party rules, with varying degrees of oppression. (The Prague Spring, 1968, was an attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face,” and was swiftly crushed by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops. A period of intensely repressive “normalisation” followed.) In 1993, the country splits into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 2004, the Czech Republic joins the European Union.

Mariusz Szczygiel

Mariusz Szczygiel

The stories in Gottland are told chronologically and point both to the larger historical context for each story and to its present-day implications. And capitalism offers its own insidious and surreal cover-ups and silences. “The Movie Has to be Made” flips back and forth between the life of Zdeněk Adamec, an outcast 19-year-old student who sets himself on fire in 2003 in Wenceslas square, in imitation of Jan Palack’s 1969 protest of the Soviet takeover, and the fascinating story of Jarka Moserová, the world-travelled artist and plastic surgeon who treated Palack. She goes to the United States as a student in the late 1940s, but chooses to return to communist Czechoslovakia. (Lest we think those poor communist countries: while in the U.S., Moserová was nearly arrested for being a white woman sitting in the back of the bus with a black friend, until she yelled, “I am not black, but I am from Czechoslovakia!” Oppression wears many hats.) By 2003, Moserová has become a senator. She tries to run for president with an agenda of honesty and trust, but is never taken seriously—and Szczygieł leaves us to contemplate her cursory connection to Zdeněk and the pervasive sadness and apathy among the Czech youth. In his suicide note, Zdeněk writes, “Other people aren’t interested. They’re indifferent.”  Just three days after his suicide, Szczygieł writes, “messages appear saying: ‘Zdeněk, you’re right!’” All the flowers and candles put out for him have been hidden behind a car. The policeman on watch has never heard of him; he only knows that a “biopic about Hitler” is being made nearby, and Zdeněk’s stuff was in the way.

Szczygieł tells each story with sympathy and good nature, and his open, animated prose is dexterous enough to contain the contradictions inherent in the Czech dilemma as it develops over the twentieth century: the distorted world that emerges when fear has driven people to extremes for half a century. “The last fifteen years of independence are just an episode in their lives,” a friend tells Szczygieł of the older generation. The section entitled “Kafkárna” is the story of a word that both exists and doesn’t exist, the unwritten term for Czech citizens’ implicit knowledge of what can and can’t be said, under the circumstances. The section, it turns out, is a summary of the 1992 Czech novel In the Footsteps of K., which Szczygieł paraphrases for us because the novel, itself, never sells—it is, in fact, kafkárna.

The countless bewildering and darkly comical misperceptions capture the present-day Czech Republic as a capitalist theme park built on top of an old communist theme park (the United States might be a capitalist theme park on top of an old capitalist theme park). A young writer believes that Charter 77—the civic movement and petition for human rights initiated by Václav Havel—is the name of a band, and that there aren’t any books about them in the stores because they don’t have good publicity like “the band Anti-Charter.” There is a 2003 staging of The Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa’s trouble is not with becoming a beetle, but “how he’s going to go to work in this state.” In Prague, Kafka’s face is printed on mugs, T-shirts, and sugar packets. And the title of the book, of course, refers to the museum dedicated to folk singer, womanizer, and Anti-Charter signatory Karel Gott, where visitors can peer at his flatware. It goes bankrupt after three years.

“This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible,” Czech filmmaker Jan Procházka, whose life is destroyed by the spying of the secret police, writes on the script of The Ear. Gottland delectably tosses fact, fiction, jokes, and heartbreak onto the playing field; one feels there is something distinctly Polish about it—the way one feels when reading Ryszard Kapuściński or Wisława Szymborska—thanks in part, no doubt, to the expert translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It is Szczygieł’s roguish eye for detail that makes the stories stick. He tells us that when Tomàs Bata visits the United States to study the factory system, he brings exactly 688 questions; that Bata hangs rules on the factory walls: “RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE”; that when Bata the younger returns after years abroad, the people shout, “Come and oppress us, Bata!” In other stories, he describes an actress as so frightened that she has “an attack of diarrhea” and quotes a Czech farmer delightfully saying his ducklings are “like dandelion clocks.” “No explosive materials may be placed inside Stalin’s head,” Szczygieł tells us. He tells us that Hitler, irritated with surreptitious Czech resistance, says, “The Czechs are like cyclists—they hunch their upper bodies, but pedal below!” He tells us the topic of Zdeněk Adamec’s chatroom: “I’m fat and I haven’t got a girlfriend.” He describes a Prague Spring newspaper cartoon in which “one guy says to another at a café table: ‘There’s nothing to talk about. It’s all in the papers.’”

He tells us that one bookseller lists Gottland on his website as “Gxxxxxxd.” Let him! Szczygieł reveals a Czech resilience and spirit and humor through minutiae that point to the whole, that are already travelling with us “like the noodle soup we take to work,” as Hanta would say. Gott is in the details.

Sarah Trudgeon lives in Miami. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The London Review of Books, The Nation, and The Paris Review. More from this author →