It was 1992. Communism was over and I was in Berlin selling computer games at the PX with private Ricky Ruez from the Bronx. The base was closing and all the Americans were going home. Business was slow. I was sprawled out at the till doing the crossword in the Herald Trib while Ricky sat at the computer terminal playing Wing Commander when in walked these two officers. They must have just come from the gym or a jog. They wore shorts and one had on a West Point T-shirt. You could tell right away they were assholes.
“Here it is,” said West Point. “This is the game I was telling you about: Fists of Fury. It’s phenomenal.”
Neither Ricky nor I looked up. I kept on with the crossword. Ricky continued playing Wing Commander. Then West Point swung around at me.
“Hey you! Are you working this shop, or what?”
I put down the paper and slowly, lazily looked at the officer. “What can I help you with, sir?” I said.
“They pay you to read the paper?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t notice you come in.”
“You didn’t answer my question. I asked you if they pay you to read the newspaper.”
“No, sir,” I said. Like I said, a real asshole.
“Then you better get on your toes, newspaper boy. And the same thing goes for you, ace. You two are slipping. Hop to it.”
West Point chucked Fists of Fury on the counter, paid and left with his jerk friend of his. I whipped out a pack of Kools from my pocket.
“That’s it,” I said to Ricky, because right then I decided I had to leave. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to Prague.”
It wasn’t exactly Prague that I desired. It was just that I was sick of hanging around Berlin right as everything was closing down and being forced to smile at West Point pricks and keep them friendly. A change was what I wanted most of all. So it was Prague.
“Prague?” said Ricky, like it was some kind of weird disease. “Listen to me, newspaper man, you can forget Prague. I want you to be informed. I want you to know where it’s at. That’s why I’m telling you, there ain’t no place like America. Land of the free.”
Ricky was about my age, early twenties, married, two kids – which was why he was working in the PX part time when he wasn’t in the field. You wouldn’t know it from the way he played Wing Commander all day but Ricky was a hustler – he had all sorts of plans and schemes and dreams for when he returned to America. To get ready for his new civilian career he took correspondence courses at the University of Maryland, Mannheim extension. (“Distance learning, my man, it’s the wave of the future”), he carried a briefcase to work (empty except for a copy of PC World), he read self-help books (“Lesson number one: look good; look good and you will feel good. Lesson number two: drink lots of water.” ) Ricky was full of wisdom, and he loved to share his wisdom with me.
“Take Bill Gates,” said Ricky. “The man doesn’t even have a college degree and he’s a multi-damn-billionaire. Or lookit Mike Milken: made millions, got busted and still made millions just for fuck’n up. It’s the American way, my man.
“Success,” said Ricky. “You got to picture it in your mind’s eye. You go to be asking yourself this question all the time: what does success mean to me? To me, man, success means playing golf and sitting on my front porch drinking ice tea. That’s what I see myself doing as soon as I get back to America. Gonna move to the suburbs. And you? What about you, newspaper man? What do you see yourself doing?”
I had my ambition too – an ambition of sorts. I wanted to write. What about, I wasn’t sure. But I needed to get to Prague first. Inspiration would come to me in Prague. Prague was the only town for a writer.
“I don’t know, man,” I told Ricky. “What’s a seven letter word for a wide-brimmed chapeaux?”
“Shit,” said Ricky. “I got the perfect job for you – guard. You’d have all day to read the newspaper. What’s in the newspaper that’ so interesting, man? Must be some pretty damn good reading. What’s in there today? Another story about them German neo Nazis? You know what, newspaper man? All Germans are neo Nazis.
“What about your wife, Ricky?”
“She a neo Nazi too,” said Ricky.
Now that the Wall had fallen and my parents had gone back to the States with the rest of the army families, I had temporary digs with Jim Sullivan, an old friend from Wall days and a respected military historian whose specialty was the Soviet Union and the commie threat. Now that Communism was over and the military was pulling out Jim was without a job and spent his days mainly drinking whisky on the rocks.
It was a nice place Jim had. The house was in a villa quarter in the west of the city where most of the American officers lived. The ambassador’s mansion was next door. From my window I could make out the old Outpost Theater, where every weekend I used to stand with my hand on my heart for the national anthem before sitting down with popcorn and a coke to watch Sly Stallone kick commie ass.
A potted sunflower stood on the table. A basket of fresh brötschen, the morning papers. Jim’s German wife, Karen, poured the coffee. She moved hastily between the kitchen and the dining room, bringing milk and sugar. Jim sat back in his chair, lit his pipe and said:
“Dang it. Twenty-five years we’ve lived in this godforsaken country and to tell the truth I’m looking forward to the day we leave this kraut town. It’s the whole mentality. The bureaucracy pisses me off.”
A wistful look came into Jim’s eye as thoughts turned to America: fly fishing in Montana, high school football games, Fourth of July barbecues. Now that the Wall had fallen Jim was thinking about moving home. Karen, however, had other ideas.
“Nein, nein, nicht mit mir,” she piped testily. She was German and this was her home.
Jim rapped his pipe on a cut-glass ashtray. “We’re moving to America, so get used to the idea. We’re moving the hell out of this miserable kraut country. We’re moving to Montana, darling. God’s country.”
It was Merle who told me about Prague. Merle was a military brat like me, an American, more or less (at least in name), who spoke English with a vague European inflection and peppered his speech with Berlin slang. Merle was one of the ‘Lost Battalion” – Americans who had been too long in Berlin, so long they had lost almost everything that had once made them American. People would ask Merle now that the Wall had fallen when he was going back. “Back to what?” Merle would say. “Where’s back?”
At his father’s insistence, Merle did a stint in college in the States, but he couldn’t handle the scene in ‘Amiland’, as he put it and as they say in Berlin, and so he came back and got a job as lifeguard at the Berlin Brigade swimming pool. Everyone went home and pretty soon Merle was put in charge of the pool. One day a dubious character showed up and introduced himself as an army colonel and said he wanted all the scuba equipment for an expedition to uncover a sunken WWII bomber in a lake outside Berlin. Merle gave him the gear, no questions asked, and never heard from the guy again. They couldn’t fire Merle because he ran the show now that the whole team had gone home. Merle spent his days blasting Del the Funky Homosapien on the pool deck and annoying the last remaining pool guests. People would come up to him and ask him what he was doing in Berlin. “I don’t know,” Merle would say. “I guess I’m just lost”.
Evenings after work Merle would stop by from the pool and we would go to the Twilight Lounge. The Lounge was a sports bar owned by an ex-Air Force guy from Chicago. It was your typical crappy sports bar. It had two TV sets mounted on the wall, a wide screen in the back and those uncomfortable high tables every sports bar seems to have. Everything was plastic in the Twilight Lounge. Plastic tables, plastic chairs, plastic beer mugs. The patrons were mostly plastic – wannabe Americans with their goofy turned around baseball caps and letterman jackets with insane gibberish in English. And then there were the ex GIs, who played dice and hit on the girls in their mixture of bad German and exaggerated jive ten years out of fashion (“Hey, baby, Was ist los, baby? Willst du get busy mit mir?Aufwiedershen, baby”). We didn’t have much to do with these cats. Merle and I hung out at the Twilight Lounge only because of the Kicker tables.
In the States kicker goes by the name of ‘Foosball’ (pronounced foozball), and what it is, is basically a table (2’ 1/2” by 3’10 1/4”) with markings of a soccer field and eleven five-inch plastic figure on each side attached to metal rods. The object of the game is to kick a solid plastic sphere the size of a ping-pong ball into the opposite goal. The first team to score five times wins. The Germans used the game to rehabilitate war veterans after World War One. An American GI stationed in good ol’ West Berlin in the sixties brought the game to the States. You could say it was a juvenile pastime, kicking around a ping-pong ball with funny looking plastic men, and hey, there was a time when I would have thought so too. Then I started playing with Merle, and it bent my mind; I had to take another look.
Merle was the Kicker ace, Many people who knew him didn’t know this. It was one of his hidden talents. He had been playing since he was a kid and in the time being he had become an indomitable master of the aerial and the Texas T-shot. He had lightning quick reflexes and an amazingly supple wrist which packed a power that was truly astounding. His pull-shots and pull-kicks would destroy Kicker tables in a matter of hours. There was a Kicker table in one joint that had a splintered hole in it a half an inch thick because of one of Merle’s pull-shots. There were establishments that had banned Merle because of the abuse he had inflicted on their tables. That the Twilight Lounge did not was one of the reasons the Lounge became our Stammlokal, that is to say, our hang-out.
I can still recall the moment Merle brought up the subject of Prague. Nirvana was on the juke-box, the wannabe Americans were sitting at the bar with their cokes watching CNN on the one TV set and demolition derby on the other, Merle and I were playing Kicker against a couple of German kids in hooded sweatshirts, who were trying their best at a dexterous Louisiana shuffle defense to stop our persistent and vicious pull shots, wherein the middle man of our three forwards passes the ball to the winger, who slams it into the goal only slightly slower than the speed of light. It was a very complicated maneuver, not to mention outrageously exciting to watch, and a number of bozos had gathered round and were following our game with keen interest. Crouched over the table like a tiger ready to spring, Merle was telling me again, for the fucking upteenth time why the States wasn’t for him. His litany of gripes was endless.
“…and then there’s the hassle with buying booze in the States,” Merle went on. “I had no idea you needed a motherfucking driver’s license. I walked up to the counter of a 7/11 with a sixer of Bud and gave the chick my military ID. Bitch wouldn’t sell me the beer. Had to be a driver’s license she said. ‘What difference does it make?’ I said. ‘This is a mi-li-tar-y ID, issued by the US-federal-fucking-government. What the fuck? I fight for my country. I lead troops through desert sands in moments of danger and I can’t even buy a single goddamned beer? What’s this country coming to?’ ‘Course it was bullshit. Only reason I had the idea was ‘cause of my dad’s job. But so what? I’m pissed off, and rightly so. ‘Get me the manager!’ I say. Manager comes out and he’s all apologies. To him I’m like this Gulf War hero. He’s practically kissing my ass. ‘I’m sorry, sir, she’s never seen an ID like that before. Charlene, ring the gentleman up.’”
Intercepting a bad pass, Merle shot into the goal. Shortly afterwards, Merle picked up a loose cross and hammered it home, scoring again.
“And then there’s the completely fucked public transportation in Amiland. You can forget about taking the train anywhere in the States because it never goes where you want it to go. You’ve got to take the Greyhound, which is just fucking sleazy. When I first arrived in the States, man, I had to take the hound from San Fran to L.A. That was at night, mind you. Half way there the driver turns around and says, ‘’Scuse me ladies and gentleman, I’m going to take a little nap here, if you don’t mind.’ ‘Bwaaa,” I said. “Give me the keys. I’ll drive this motherfucking box!’ But, man, you can’t just do that in Amiland. The jerks won’t let you, because of the law suits.”
Merle scored yet again with amazing and sudden agility this time off an opposing defender. He continued on blindly with his rapid, monotonous rattle.
“And the way they party in college in the States. TVs thrown out of windows, furniture smashed, They had something called ‘swimming pool parties’ when I was there, and what they’d so is seal off the shower room with towels and fill it up with water. Then you’d swim around drinking beer and champagne. Crazy. In the States, man, at college they go nuts.”
And with that Merle found a gap in the enemy defense, and in a spectacular diving header, drove the ball into the goal thus rendering the score 5-0.
“Yes! Yes!” cried Merle, pumping his fist in the air. “We reign! We reign supreme! Behold our grandeur!”
After our stunning victory and dizzy with glory Merle and I repaired to a booth in the corner and nursed our beers. A drunk was heckling another drunk. A teenage punk with bleached hair, smudged mascara and black ripped stockings begged for money. “Spare a mark for the underground,” she said. We couldn’t. Not for the underground. The punk sat down and promptly fell asleep, dropping a lit cigarette from her hand. Then a Bangladeshi came in selling roses. He always came in around this time. You never saw anyone purchase these roses. The same thing with the Russian selling cigarette lighters.
“We’re not interested in your shit,” said Merle.
“Pity,” said the Russian. “Such nice lighters.” He picked up his wares and moved on to ply his trade elsewhere.
“That’s the new Berlin for you,” Merle said, gesturing around the Twilight Lounge. “This town’s over. Everything’s dying in Berlin. I’m sick of this town and I’m sick of this life. Tell you buddy, I’m making off for Prague. That’s where the action is. That’s where things are happening. All kinds of people are moving to Prague. They’re setting up jazz cafes and bookshop diners. They’re leaving America to escape their dead-end jobs and banal American consumer lifestyles. They’re going to Prague to write novels and poems, paint and compose. They say it’s our generational coming of age, the in place for the Generation X and that there’s a similar vibe as that which existed in Paris in the twenties. These people in Prague are excited by the new cultural and political attitudes of Post communist Czechoslovakia. They appreciate the slow paced lifestyle free of the hassles of American consumerism. They read Havel and Kundera, hanging out at expat bars and enjoying the unbearable lightness of being along with large doses of European culture and plenty of good beer. They are studying Czech, writing plays, starting bands, doing things they didn’t have the chance to do in the States. These people are looking for a movement, a change, life, history, a challenge. There’s no doubt about it, Prague is the place to be. If I have to fail let me fail in Prague, where the beer is cheaper and the girls are more beautiful.”
“You said it brother. The East is a-calling and new horizons are a-beckoning. Let’s go there. Right now. Tonight.”
It was nearing one. The lights flickered off and on. It was last call at the Twilight Lounge. The bartender snapped our table with his dish cloth.
“To Prague!” toasted Merle.
“To Prague,” I said.
“Ah, look, please!” says Tomáš, pointing to the statue of King Wenceslas. “Here is King Wenceslas, greatest man of Czech nation. Our legend is saying when is most katastrofal for our Czech people – more katastrofal than even now – King Wenceslas will come with his knights of Blaník. He will ride through Prague to Charles Bridge, and there he will stop. His horse will kick over a stone – tak – and under this stone he will find his sword – a magic sword. He will take this magic sword and wave it three times over his head – tak, like so – and crying: ‘Off with the heads of the enemies of the Czech nation!’ Pfsscht! All our enemies will lose their heads, and peace and freedom will come again to Czech lands. Fakt jo. Our legend is saying this.”
Tomáš and I walk down Wenceslas Square, past the currency exchange offices, stand-up diners, casinos and nightclubs, threading our way past the touts, tarts and pimps, the paraplegic gypsy guitar player and the gimp-legged sword-swallower. Somewhere around here Tomas stood listening to Havel address the people in ‘89.
“It would be impossible for me to describe with my small English the effect of all of us standing here in Wenceslas Square,” says Tomáš. “To be among all of those people. And everyone so quiet. And then suddenly the ringing of the keys.” Tomáš takes out his car keys and jingles them in the air. Tak, like so. “I am very lucky to be a part of such a historic event,” says Tomáš. “Such an event is happening once in a life only! Even when I am an old man I will look back with many happy memories on this historic day!”
Tomáš and I turn down Národní třída, pass the new K-Mart and Little Ceasar’s, which offers Crazy Chleb at American prices. We decline flyers for a Mozart recital thrust at us by a man in a periwig and rococo garb. We turn left and walk along the quay a while until we come to an old steam-boat with a thatched bar on the deck and a DJ booth on the roof. Tomáš stops beside the gangway and looks at his watch. He is supposed to meet his cousin here. Only it isn’t really his cousin.
Tomáš gives me the whole big long convoluted story, beginning with Tomáš’ Jewish grandparents who were rich and had a maid before the war. The maid remained loyal to the family even during Communism, and would put up Tomáš’ grandparents at her house in the mountains, and when the maid died, the daughter kept on the tradition, inviting Tomáš’ mother and little Tomáš to their house on holidays. The daughter had a son, and his name was Honza, and Tomas has known Honza ever since they were babies, and now that they are grown up, Tomáš helps Honza out whenever he can to return the kindness shown to his family during Communism.
“Because, you see, Honza is basically a kretin,” says Tomáš. “Now he has just come back from three months on a construction site in Hamburg, where he spent all of his money on alcohol and prostitutes. Now he is back in Prague and is looking for work. He would like to go to America, and this is why you will write Honza a letter of recommendation for the American visa authorities.”
“But Tomáš,” I object, “I don’t even know this Honza.”
“This is one,” says Tomáš. “You will know him.”
As we are standing there beside the gangway to the disco boat a young man looking like a third league soccer player (haircut short and spiky on top and long mullet in the back, obligatory Adidas track suit, gold stud gleaming in his left ear) comes up and slaps Tomáš on the back. “Ahoi!” he says, using the usual sailor’s greeting so absurdly popular in this most landlocked of countries, but for once rather appropriate considering the circumstances.
“This is Honza,” says Tomáš. “The kretin. You will see he has some defect in the brain, but he is essentially okay. Rozumíš, Honzo?” Tomas says to his cousin. “You understanding what I am saying, ty blbce? You are not so sophisticated like your friend Tomáš.”
“Yes, yes,” says Honza, smiling stupidly. “I am understanding English.”
“Sure he is understanding English. Listen to how good he is understanding English! He is not understanding! Do not lie, Honza,” says Tomáš, and gives Honza a hard punch to the arm.
“Now then. Repeat again, very slowly, what I am saying: I am not so sophisticated as my friend Tomáš.”
“Yes, yes,” says Honza. “I am knowing all the English words.”
“Motherfack you,” says Tomáš.
Tomas, Honza and I pay for our tickets and climb aboard the boat, settling down at a table on the roof with our drinks and basking in the late afternoon sun as it sets over the bristly spires of the Hradčany castle.
“So tell me, Honza,” says Tomáš. “Where is your job?”
“Co je?” says Honza.
“Job. Job. Are you finding a job in Prague? Rozumíš, you ox?”
“I have found a job.”
“What job then?”
“What are you driving then, eh?” says Tomáš. “Taxi?”
“Truck,” says Honza.
“And where are you driving this truck?”
“Germany,” says Honza.
“And what are you driving to Germany, ty kreténe? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Drugs? What?”
“Nevím,” says Honza. “They are telling me tomorrow.”
“Jesusmaria,” says Tomáš. “This is some top-secret shit.”
We continue in English for Honza’s benefit. Honza must learn English if he wants to go to America, says Tomas. So we speak in English about the difference between Americans and Czechs, American customs and Czech customs. Tomas prompts me with questions. What is the tallest mountain in America? What is the average height of the American skyscraper? How deep is the Grand Canyon? Is ice hockey a popular sport in California? Why is called a ‘hot dog’? Are there wild horses in Nevada? Are there still Red Indians in America, and are they living in teepees and still hunting the wild buffalo? I answer to the best of my knowledge. Every now and then Tomáš turns to Honza to see if he understands. Having grown bored by the conversation, Honza yawns and gets up from the table. “I am looking for some fucking girls,” he says.
“Yes, Honza,” says Tomáš. “Please. Go find you some facking girl. Tak ciao. You see what I am saying?” says Tomáš, after Honza has left and gone down below. “I am not saying he is a bad guy. It is not his fault that he does not have no education and that his brain damage makes him capable of abnormal behavior, which of course he is not responsible for. But this is who I must help. It is my responsibility. Because of what his family is doing for us. All because of Communism, those assholes. Now I must to make sure that he is getting a job and not some mafia job, but a normal job and that he is staying out of trouble in Prague. And this is not so easy. Because Honza, he is not like this,” says Tomáš, making a straight arrow gesture with his hand. “Sometimes he has a bit much to drink and he is getting very excited. Then he is getting into troubles. And it is always I who must to help him. Because if his mother is ever hearing that some shit is happening to Honza, then I will get in some big shit, you see? It is not easy. And now he wants to go to USA. And I think this will be best for Honza. He will not have someone like me to look for him. He will must to help himself. This will be good for him, I think. And good for me, also. I will not have to look for this idiot anymore.”
The boat steams up the Vltava in the direction of Beroun. We pass the Vyšehrad, the cliffside fortress, where some Czech hero or other once escaped his foes by jumping off the cliff with his horse. “Fakt,” says Tomáš – a true story. The sky is clear, and a balmy wind blows across the water. The kids down below are dancing to DJ Bobo. The strobes kick on. Dry-ice fog billows up from the deck. Another disco boat passes us by, going the opposite direction, back to Prague. Everyone cheers and waves.
Our boat chugs up the river. We drink beer, vodka, becherovka, slivovitz, and now it is time to forge the letter of recommendation in which I am the restaurant owner who employed Honza in my four star restaurant popular with foreign diplomats and international businessmen and moviestars. In the letter I praise Honza’s diligence, elegance, tact and charm. I mention several situations where Honza distinguished himself, in particular the time we had a gang of drunken Russian mafiosi who refused to pay their bill, and how Honza joked and cajoled with the Mafiosi, soothing the Russian hooligans into paying their bill. In conclusion, I write:
“I can guarantee Honza in every possible way. Honza is no ordinary boy. He is far more than just a gentleman. Though he has not studied much, Honza is sophisticated and a man of the world. He is ambitious and he will go far. I will miss Honza dearly.”
Tomáš and I reread our letter about Honza the wonder-waiter and we both agree it is good. For my efforts, Tomas buys me a whisky and we drink a toast to Honza and his success in America.
“To the kretin,” says Tomáš.
All of a sudden our attention becomes drawn to a scuffle down below on the deck. Standing up to get a better look, I can see Honza surrounded by a ring of spectators, holding a pink haired raver in a chokehold while banging his head against the gunwale.
“Honzo! Honzo! Nech toho! Pocem! Už je toho dost!” shouts Tomáš, waving his hands in the direction of the dance floor. “Come you idiot! Come here you stupid ox!”
But it’s too late. Everything happens at once, and before we can stop him, Honza has pushed the boy overboard. The crowd cheers wildly. The boat keeps chugging up the Vltava.
In the taxi home Honza sits repentant, his head buried in his crossed arms, whimpering pathetically as Tomáš hits him repeatedly over the head.
“Idiot!” says Tomáš. “Why are you embarrassing me, heh? What I am not doing for you, ty lumpe!I introduce you to American guy, because I am thinking perhaps maybe he can help you getting job in America, and this is how you are behaving! With this result! Ach, you are sorry now! Now you are sorry! Now you are hiding your face! But you outrage me at every moment! Why? This is what you do! Why? This is how you are repaying me for my kindness! What is this American guy going to tell when he goes back to America, eh? He is going to say that all the people he is meeting in Prague are chuligans! This is thanks to you, ty blbce!”
Tomáš takes out the letter of recommendation, tears it into shreds and throws it out the window. Honza buries his head deeper in his arms and moans, “I am sorry, Tomáši. I am sorry.”
“Oh yes, you are sorry now! But consider how you embarrass me! You are always making trouble, wherever you go. It is always the same.”
We ride on in silence. The cab driver speeds through the empty streets of Prague. Back at Tomáš’ parents’ place we watch a bit of TV, eat cornflakes with Tabasco sauce and drink a bottle of half-frozen Frankovka wine, while Honza tells us about the whores of Hamburg, and Jesusmaria, what for whores they were! And…they were all Czech.
THE MURDERERS of PRAGUE
“I am not cheerful,” says Tomáš. “I tell you why. It is my job. It is killing me. I am sick of working like a dog for three hundred dollars a month. So I am thinking I quit medicine. Maybe I become a pimp or open a sleazy nightclub on Wenceslas Square. I will drive a Mercedes S Class and have any girl I want.”
Tomáš is my landlord. He’s an orthopedic surgeon at a hospital near I.P. Pavlova. From time to time we go out for drinks. Tomáš tells me he can put away twenty beers and still keep his head. Some people are proud of running a marathon. Tomáš is proud of drinking twenty pints and still being good to go.
Tomáš and I walk up Mezibranská street, turn left on Jecena and then go up Karlova. U Nováků is on the corner, across from the city morgue. It is an old med-school hangout – the pub that is. Tomáš has been going there for years. He and his friends call it ‘U Děloha’, At the Uterus.
The Uterus is full tonight. Heavy-set men with walrus mustaches nurse frothy pints of Staropramen, while dogs scamper about fighting for scraps of food. The air is thick with smoke and the vaulted ceilings reverberate a low Slavic din.
“Not too many doctors here tonight,” says Tomáš. “Mostly it is the patients.”
Someone stands up and waves at Tomáš from a table in the back. He’s our age, twenty-five, twenty-six. A lit cigarette dangles from his lips. A glass of beer stands in front of him next to a pack of Marlboro Lights.
“Co děláš, ty svině?” he says – how are you doing, you old swine?
“This is Martin,” says Tomáš. “Martin is my best, oldest friend from university. He is cardiovascular surgeon. Martin is working at non-stop hospital Smíchov, the most richest hospital in Prague, the hospital for foreign diplomats, Czech sports stars and Ukrainian mafia bosses. So tell us, Martin, who are you having today?”
“Today we are having Ukrainian gengster,” says Martin. “Someone shoot him in the leg. However it is not so bad. But – Jesusmaria – he will not give us his gun. So we have big fight about this gun. ‘No one is touching my gun. It is mine. This is my facking gun.’ Blah, blah, blah. Okay, so in the end we let him keep his facking gun.”
“And what is this gengster giving you for a tip, eh?” asks Tomáš.
“Johnny Walker,” says Martin.
“This is not bad,” says Tomáš. “In America you are calling this a bribe, here, we call it tip,” explains Tomáš. “We are taking tips. Most of the time a tip is not meaning something. A patient is giving tip because he is afraid we will not help him. Sometimes tip is money. Most of the time is it cigarettes or alcohol. The worst are the peasants from the villages. They are thinking a bag of eggs is enough. One time I am even getting goose for a tip. It was alive goose.”
“And you are taking this goose?” says Martin.
“Of course, I am taking this goose. Someone must take it. It is unhygienic to have a goose running in the hospital.”
Martin takes a deep drag from his Marlboro and motions to the waiter to bring us beers. “But just imagine what for tips they are getting in Russia! Imagine all the tips Russian doctors are getting!”
“Maybe uranium,” says Tomáš.
“Or a Pershing,” says Martin.
“Pershing is American,” says Tomáš.
“How is it in America with the tips?” Martin asks me.
“Not like it is here,” I say.
“My Americhan friend,” says Martin. “This is why I am here. Here I have power. The power of life and death. If I want (if the tip is big enough), I can save you; otherwise: I am sorry, I must to turn the life-support off.”
“Really?” I say.
“Are you writing a story?”
“The New York Times: ‘The Murderers of Prague’”, says Tomáš sketching a lurid headline.
“’Doctor Death’,” offers Martin.
“That’s not the kind of thing I write,” I say.
“Good,” says Martin. “Because I know some Ukrainians. Ukrainians with guns.”
The Uterus is filling up. A party of construction workers in blue, plaster smeared work smocks next to us shouts heavy-weight jokes at each other, while their dogs are having a fine time, scurrying about under the tables fighting for chicken bones. An old alcoholic crone with a bulbous nose pays for a beer with a handful of hellars, while another post-Revolution martyr of progress sits in the corner cracking pistachio nuts and staring at his half-empty pint glass, whose minutely spaced foam rings tell of the incremental pace of his drinking. Next to him, a fat bald man in a Harvard Funds T-shirt is devouring a roast chicken.
“Look at that old dog over there,” says Tomáš.
“A classic cardiovascular case,” says Martin.
“And someone for me too, if I can just get him outside and give him a good push,” says Tomáš.
The waiter comes and bows at the doctors with an ingratiating smile before whisking away the empty glasses.
“Three vodkas, shéfe!” says Tomáš. “And bring us the best!”
“Yes, Mister Doctors,” says the waiter, and withdraws, returning a moment later with three shot glasses filled to the brim. “Prosim dokotore,” he says with a bow. “Here you are my doctors.”
Martin sighs. “Maybe I will now visit to the nurses’ dormitory. Marketa is there and she never says no.”
“I’d rather go to a bordello,” says Tomas.
“What is difference?”
“The whores are cheaper,” says Tomáš.
A party of dubious looking businessmen comes in, very drunk, suavely disheveled, silk ties awry, fumbling blearily with cell phones. Tomáš eyes them enviously.
“Vázení,” announces Tomáš – friends – “I am going to give up medicine. I have enough with being a doctor. I have enough of this shit job. I am thinking about this a long time and now I will do it. Prísahám! I swear it. I will become like one of them. A biznizman.”
“I congratulate you,” says Martin.
It is nearing midnight. We toast to Tomáš’ career decision, drink up, pay and move on, striding three abreast down Vinohrady hill to the river.
– WELCOME TO KAFKALAND –
I was walking through Prague with Professor K. It was approaching noon and armies of tourists from every corner of the globe, led by tour guides bearing flags and shut umbrellas loitered with their cameras and camcorders around the astronomical clock in Old Town Square, waiting for the turn of the hour. Loud techno music thudded from a nearby café, where a man dressed in periwig and knee breaches handed out flyers for a Mozart recital in one of Prague’s disused baroque churches. Professor K. muttered imprecations at the tourists, and then collected himself – for, as distasteful as the tourists were, he believed that Prague was strong and would overcome this latest invasion, just as it had withstood previous invasions before.
“Maybe all is not lost,” said Professor K. “We have outlived the Nazis, have outlived the communists and we will outlive this…this…whatever it is…for it is not capitalism – this lumpencapitalism.”
We continued our stroll through Prague, walking in Kafka’s footsteps, trying our best to avoid the seething tourist madness, professor K. pointing out places associated with the life of Kafka.
There, to the left, at the west corner of the square, in the sgraffito covered ‘House of the Minute’, for instance, was where Kafka lived from 1889 to 1896. At the opposite end of the square, at the, at the “House of the Three Kings, on the corner of Celetná street, was where Kafka spent the next 16 years of his life. And over there, in the rococo Kinsky Palace, was where Kafka went to school. In the same building – which today houses the “Franz Kafka Bookstore” – stood his father’s haberdashery. Etc. etc. Kafka’s whole life revolved around Old Town Square. He could never quite escape from its orbit. “The mother has claws,” he wrote.
We followed the path of the two protagonists of Kafka’a story, Description of a Struggle, leaving Národní třída and walking along the Františkova embankment, up to Kriz Square and along Charles Bridge, where Professor K. stopped in front of the statue of St Ludmila (eighth saint from the left), pausing to admire the tender hands of the saint.
“Kafka’s work is saturated by Prague, but I would say it is a Prague transformed,” said Professor K. ”Wagenbach – my esteemed colleague and close friend – calls it a ‘splintering of reality’. It is not just an atmosphere or a mood, but an altered milieu. Take for instance the end of Der Prozess – The Trial – where Josef K is being briskly escorted to his execution.
“He follows a nameless path over a nondescript bridge, and up to an anonymous hill to an unspecified quarry. Where is this? It does not say in the story. Yet we know it is Charles Bridge. The small island, which they pass with the park benches along gravel paths is Střelecký Island and the hill is Petřín. The quarry existed once. A school for the blind stands where Josef K. was executed.”
We climbed up Nerudova street, the high-gabled houses blocking out the sun, the stone Moors holding up the balcony of the Clam-Glass palace; great stone eagles supporting the balcony of the Italian embassy. A whiff of the Middle Ages, dark, funereal, seeped out from the keyhole in the heavy metal doors of an old church, as we climbed upwards to the Hradčany castle.
Looking down on Mala Strana – the Little Quarter – with its palaces and churches, chapels, shrines, charterhouses and statues, I became lost in a swirling canopy of terra-cotta roofs and verdigris domes, soft Baroque cupolas, Gothic towers, bizarre chimneys and garrets.
And above us to the left, the massive walls of the castle, containing St Vitus cathedral with its rampant arches, notched, flame-tongued spires and gargoyles.
“Anyone who knows Prague can’t help visualizing this castle in Kafka’s Trial,” said Professor K. “In fact, when The Trial was first published, the chapter ‘In the Cathedral’ was originally called ‘In St Vitus’. And there are a number of details supporting the attribution: the empty square around the cathedral, the silver sarcophagus of St Nepomuk, which Kafka perhaps had in mind when he describes K as noticing, “the silver statue of a saint” glittering in the darkness. But there are many things not in St Vitus. The painting of a knight leaning on a sword, which K. inspects with a flashlight, for instance,” said Professor K.
We entered the Hradčany – the castle – which looms over Mala Strana, like the impregnable fortification in The Castle. Not only did its outer appearance resemble Kafka’s description, but so did the interior, with its many courtyards and passageways suggestive of endless successions of stages, or hurdles to be overcome, in a futile quest in search of some kind of truth or mysterious apotheosis.
“How futile is his effort,” wrote Kafka. “Ever onwards he forces his way through the rooms of the innermost palace, never will he get beyond them, and if he does, he will have gained nothing; he will still be faced with the stairs, and if he gets beyond these, he will have still gained nothing; he would still have to get through the courtyards, then the second palace, and again more stairs and courtyards, and again another palace, and so on through the centuries.”
“In all likelihood, though,” said Professor K. “Kafka’s castle was a composite of many castles he had visited and encountered in Bohemia and Germany. In fact, according to the latest neo-positivist research there are no less than six castles which may have served as a model for The Castle. The Hradčany not at all. In Friedland, in northern Germany, there was one that could have inspired Kafka. Or, for example, there were a couple of very unheimlich castles from the time of Napoleon around Zurow, also in the north of Germany, where Kafka went in 1917 to recuperate from an illness. There is another in Wossek, the birthplace of his father, one hundred kilometers south of Prague.”
We passed through the last of the castle’s courtyards and walked down the castles steps to the river again, walked across the Vltava to Old Town Square, trying to recapture a bit of the mood, the ambience, the spirit of silent Prague of Kafka, a Prague of shadows and fog, archways and cobble-stones glinting under gas lamps – that strange and alien city of dark passageways, dense interweaving streets and alleyways like crevices, courtyard galleries with spiral staircases, houses slightly askew…
But it was useless. That Prague was no more. There were too many tourist shops and cafes with too loud music. And everywhere you turned, there was shops trying to milk the Kafka image for all it was worth.
There was, for instance, near Týn church a restaurant called “Metamorphosis”. A tourist shop offered a “Franz Kafka Coffee Set, which consisted of a pot and cups emblazoned with Kafka’s inimical handwriting. A man handed out flyers advertising a new Prague wax museum featuring a wax effigy of Kafka.
“Sheer nonsense!” said Professor K.
Just to show me the heights – or the depths – to which people had gone to make a buck off Kafka, Professor K. brought me into a tourist trap adjoining St. Nicholas church, which claimed to be Kafka’s birthplace.
On the walls were some expressionist drawings and there were various knick-knack for sale including Star of David necklaces, Kafka T-shirt and coffee mugs, a ceramic bust of Kafka, a ceramic Golem. Professor K. flipped through the guestbook in search of inanities.
“The book is more interesting than the museum,” someone had written. “Our teacher paid our twenty crown entrance fee, and that’s why we’re here,” wrote another.
“Today Kafka has become a decoration,” said Professor K. “A source of money. This unfortunately is the influence of the West. I regret it seriously. But the worse it yet to come. I will show you something truly appalling.”
And so Professor K. took me to a truly ludicrous exhibit – a Baroque church on a side street of Old Town Square that had been decommissioned long ago and was now done up as a “Kafkaesque” amusement park cum haunted house.
In the plush carpeted foyer a computer screen flickered on, and a bust of Kafka materialized, addressing us, first in German and then in English:
“Keep quiet. Step back. Do you want to melt into the shade of trees behind the draperies of windows into the vaulted bower?”
Suddenly a girl in a purple hooded robe stepped out of a doorway, intoning, “Welcome to the world of Kafka! World of absurdity and demons!”
With that, Professor K. and me were ushered into the realm of the Kafkaesque, looming angst, absurdity and expressionist gloom.
Descending a flight of stairs into the crypt of the church we entered “The Clutches of Bureaucracy”, a room with ominously looming filing cabinets, expressionistically titled in the manner of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligary.
Then we were led along a dark hallway echoing with phrases from Kafka, into “The House of the Metamorphosis,” where we watched a shadow play of a giant upturned cockroach kicking its legs frantically in the air, while more choice excerpts of Kafka were piped in, in German, Czech and English.
There was another Dr. Caligari-esque hallway swirling with dry ice fog bringing us by a kitschy rendition of the Jewish cemetery, where Rabbi Lowe and the Golem made their appearance.
Finally we entered the upper portion of the church, where the pews had been replaced by plush cineplex seats, and on a large screen hanging over the altar end we were taken on a cliché laden rollercoaster ride through the history of Prague, introduced to Queen Libuše, Charles IV, Rudolf II and Rabbi Lowe.
There were historical reenactments of battle scenes, gratuitous nudity, an image of the Golem morphing into Hitler, and suddenly it was 1938 and the Germans were marching through Prague, who then became Russian tanks and all of a sudden it was 1968. Finally rattling key-chains on Wenceslas Square announced the Velvet Revolution. Havel took a bow. The Stalin monument was blown to bits. Pan to a panorama of golden Prague.
Professor K. and I stumbled into the daylight.
“Is it not quite scandalous?” said the Professor. “Really I am quite speechless.”
A bit later I arranged an interview with the man behind this lugubrious display and he fully defended the show, said it gave people what they wanted.
Fortunately, the tourist attraction ran into financial problems and had to be closed half a year later.
Who knows what new expressions of Kafka kitsch lie in wait for Prague?
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE SAINTS?
It was raining hard as we pull into Litoměřice. I put up my umbrella and leave the station, walking through a run-down villa quarter, past decrepit turn-of-the-century villas with chimneys belching great, stinking plumes of yellow coal smoke. In the old town, low buildings flaking yellow paint line narrow, cobbled streets, leading to a long, rectangular square hemmed by high-gabled houses. Under the arcades in front of the town hall some people have gathered for a wedding, while in the center of the square, next to a plague column, some chestnut trees and a fountain with a fish spouting water, a family is waiting out the rain from behind the steamed windows of a pre-Revolution Skoda.
I climb a little cobbled lane which runs up a hill past a small rotunda chapel with boarded up windows. There are some ramshackle houses on either side of the lane, and a house with a bronze plaque saying here was where the Czech poet Macha died. Next to that, high walls and a wooden gate bearing an ecclesiastical coat of arms. At the end of the lane- the cathedral.
Sighing, the heavy door falls shut on the leather upholstery as I enter the church. The ceilings are high and covered with frescoes and stucco decoration. A dim, pale light filters in through the narrow church windows, and falls upon the stone faces of angels and saints.
I am not the only one in the church. An old nun praying in a pew towards the back, turns around and stares at me, then stands up and shuffles my way. She is short, shriveled and wears thick glasses.
“Deutsch?” she says.
“American.,” I answer.
“Wollen Sie die Heiligen sehen,” she says persisting in German. “Come,” she says “I show you the saints.”
The old nun takes me by the sleeve and brings me around the church, introducing me to the saints. There are saints on the left and saints on the right, some painted, others carved in wood, kneeling, praying, swooning in ecstasy, dying martyrs deaths. There are heavy clouds, groups of apostles, a Christ hovering in their midst, floating angles, an Ecstasy of St Teresa, the penitent Magdalen lying on a straw mat supported by an angel, winged putti, a pope and several saints interceding for the souls in Purgatory, St Francis in ecstasy. The nun points everything out to me in a curiously off-hand manner, as though all these figures are old friends who don’t stand much for ceremony.
“St Stephan, who is the patron of this cathedral,” says the nun. She pulls me aside and tugs at my arm, urging me to crouch down so that I can appreciate the painting better. I see nothing but smoke blackened canvas; a golden halo congealing out of the gloom.
Then the nun ducks under a velvet rope in front of the altar, pauses to genuflect and cross herself, and walks up the other aisle, pointing out more saints. In one of the side altars hangs a photocopy of a painting of St Anthony praying in the wilderness.
‘What about this one,” I say.
‘”St. Anthonius,” says the nun.
“Where is he now?” I say.
“Nevim. Gone.” More she doesn’t say.
She pulls me on by the sleeve and brings me to a metal door in the back of the church, where she takes out a bundle of keys from under her habit, and standing on tip toes, unlocks the door, swinging it heavily open and inviting me inside.
The chapel is comfortable, with plush red carpeting and a cushioned pew in front of a simple altar with a painting of Christ rising up into heaven, with pink clouds on either side and winged putti. An artificial candle flickers on the altar. In front of the altar hangs a red felt curtain. The nun lifts the curtain.
“Jesus Christ,” says the nun.
And there He is recumbent and life size, fashioned out of wood, wearing a crown of thorns. The dead Christ’s flesh is a livid whitish-gray offset by the bloody wounds. There is something about the Christ. He looks alive. The expression on his face. The agony. It is so real. The nun kneels on the cushioned pew and crosses herself , saying a short prayer.
THE VAGUENESS OF THESE TIMES FASCINATES Milan Knížák at the AVU
I first read about Milan Knížák in Merian, a German travel magazine, in their special Prague issue, back in 1994. “The President,” the piece was titled. “The rebel as dean – the unlikely career of Milan Knížák.”
I guess I was most impressed by the picture of Knížák himself, with his clashing, mix-and-match new wave style; jauntily tilted red beret; ratty green scarf tossed carelessly around his neck; old blue jeans held up by yellow suspenders bearing Chinese characters; a brown, orange and white striped shirt rolled up to the elbows, revealing a small tattoo (a youthful indiscretion perhaps)on his left forearm proclaiming the slogan Aktual – Knížák’s own Fluxus-inspired one-man movement.
Knížák comes off in the photo as a bit of an eighties relic, but endearingly so. The kind of Czech artist I was to meet more of during my time in Prague: still adopting styles ten years out of fashion in the West.
But no matter. Knizak carried off the style well. I was interested in these living fossils, representatives of a type that had fallen out of fashion long ago in the West, which seemed to be so plentiful in the Czech Republic – or East Europe in general, for that matter. I was interested in anachronisms. Prague itself was an anachronism, quite the opposite of Berlin (where I was coming from) – so mercilessly up to date.
Like Prague itself, Knížák was an antidote to all that was super fashionable and the complete intolerance towards anything that didn’t jibe with existing fashions; the narrow avant-garde mindset, the dictatorship of the hip you got in the West.
Knížák was a breath of fresh air from all of that. He flew in the face of the very notion of linear avant-garde progress, mixing a post-modernist mentality of anything goes with the stubborn individualism of someone who his whole life refused to conform. He was up-to-date and outré at one and the same time.
Knížák’s stance sent a message, not only to fellow Czechs, but to people in the West. He seemed to say to us: “All the things that you regards as important and pressing, your fashions of the moment, your notions of what is correct, yes, your precious zeitgeist, mean nothing. I go my own way.”
I could have written an interesting story about the life and philosophy of Knížák, his quest for artistic freedom under communism and resulting brushes with the police etc etc. However, it was really just about Knížák’s furniture that I wanted to write about when I approached Lou Charbonneau, the editor of Pozor Magazine with my idea of a story about the iconoclast Czech artist.
Everyone at the magazine seemed to look down a bit on art stories. It was all a bit beside the point. What Lou and everyone was after was the hard news scoop. Forget about aesthetics.
Sitting in the Led Zeppelin Bar on Hussitska street, the local bar cum betting shop, where all editorial decisions were made over a beer or two (or three…) I tried to pitch a story on Knížák that sounded edgy and interesting.
“It’s about the out-of-date being up-to-date,” I said. “The unfashionable, the outré. Post Modernism meets the Czech Third Way. This is what Knížák represents, and this is why he is so subversive. He destroys barriers and narrow mindsets, opening up the game.”
Lou sighed and took sip of his beer.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Your man Knížák is in the news at the moment – I know his because – unlike you – I read the Czech papers.”
“Oh yeah?” I said.
“Turns out this Knížák character was driving drunk back from Karlovy Vary and got in a car accident, two Germans were injured. One of them is paralyzed. There’s a big to do.Big court case and all. Your man says he’s innocent, of course; he wasn’t drunk; it was foggy out; the roads were slippery; it wasn’t his fault. I suggest you go to the AVU and ask Knížák some questions.”
The AVU was where Knížák was currently presiding over, and as rector, he was certainly one of the most unconventional art school directors in East Europe at the time. An outsider and a maverick who was bringing fresh blood to conservative structures, shaking things up and turning many people off.
I had missed those heady first years of revolution in Prague. Unlike Lou who dropped out of Columbia to be where the action was, I valued my university degree. At the same time I continuously kicked myself I wasn’t there to see the purge of the old regime firsthand.
A lot had changed by the time I showed up in 1994, but there was still a feeling of change in the air and the belief of limitless possibilities. You still caught a whiff of the moldy communist structures and the keenness for something new to take its place.
“The vagueness of these times fascinates,” Knížák had said during a commencement speech at the Prague AVU. I loved that phrase, and would use it over and over to describe East European post-communism.
For most people it was Havel, but for me it was Knížák – perhaps because of my background in fine arts – who symbolized the big changes in Prague around the time of the Velvet Revolution.
Knížák was a Czech legend, creative genius, artist, poet, designer, composer, bohemian (in all senses of the word). The Germans called him the “enfant terrible” of Czech art – though he was no longer young.
Born in 1940, in Plzen Czechoslovakia, Knížák initially had his sights set on becoming a musician. He studied at the pedagogical faculty in Prague – was expelled; tried his luck at the School of Applied arts – was expelled from there as well; he gave the Fine Arts Academy a shot – and was given the boot from there too. Finally, after a brief stint at Charles University, he was given the final chuck.
Undaunted, in fact, probably strengthened in his resolution of kicking against the pricks of stultified Czech society, he joined the Fluxus group and hit the streets of Prague with bizarre art happenings. His stated desire – taking a tip from Joseph Beuys – was to unite art with life.
This did not endear him to the police, who arrested him over and over. Then, taking advantage of the thawed atmosphere of the Prague Spring, he went to America, where he spent a couple of years traveling around and teaching at universities in California and Kentucky.
When he came back to Prague in 1971, he found the Prague Spring nipped in the bud, and a new hard-line regime installed in its place. Knížák’s status as an artist was again revoked.
In the years that followed, from 1971 till 1987, Knížák was made to work a number of menial jobs, including street sweeper and Charles Bridge tower guard. The police kept close tabs on him, calling him in for question, or else confronting him on the street – Knížák surmises – “several hundred times”.
Through it all, Knížák was never involved in dissident circles, remaining forever the lone wolf, aloof from the Havel crowd. Later he would describe himself in that period as a “lonely runner”.
Which isn’t to say that his vision wasn’t subversive. However it expressed itself aesthetically, rather in blatant political manifestos. For him art was life and life was art. He was interested transforming everything he came into contact with – his surroundings, the trappings of his every day life (from furniture to architecture, into something aesthetically viable. No doubt this was a reaction against the dreariness and monotony of life under Communism. It was his own private form of rebellion; an attempt at fashioning an alternative lifestyle, a parallel world in marked contrast to the bleakness that surrounded him, “striving,” as he said in his 1990 matriculation speech, “to retain at least a tiny bit of personal freedom, a part of our own world where the omnipresent power could not enter.”
Knížák designed a line of furniture called “Cocub” which was inspired by early 20th century Czech-Cubist furniture design (Czechoslovakia was the only country that could boast – not only Cubist paintings, but Cubist architecture, Cubist furniture, Cubist tea-sets etc.). He dabbled in interior design, wrote poems, composed music, painted, designed jewelry and clothing.
In Germany he made something of a name for himself with his eccentric furniture, neo-Expressionist assemblage paintings reflective of an indomitable sense of humor. In 1980 he was permitted to reside in West Berlin on a DAAD scholarship. The Galerie Wewerke in Berlin showed his work. He was given a big show at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and he showed at Documenta 6, not to mention exhibitions in Milan, New York and San Francisco.
Celebrated abroad and hated by the establishment at home (despite granting him the permission to reside abroad for a while), Knížák became the idol of the young art scene in Prague in the eighties. His furniture influenced a generation of young designers. Young Czech artists mimicked his agit-prop style. And then came the Velvet Revolution.
Students, intellectuals, artists took to the streets, overthrowing the official culture. Suddenly Prague was full of actions and happenings, many of which had a marked Knížákian cast to them.
For instance there was the young artist and firebrand David Černý, who came off as a young Knížák, achieving instant international media fame for painting a Soviet army tank pink – a stunt which landed him in jail for a stint.
Finally the old regime was overthrown. Havel was made president and Knížák was elected by student plebiscite as head of the Fine Arts Academy – the AVU. It was all a grand “happening” after the Fluxus manner.
In a speech in 1997, Knížák recalled those heady revolution months in 1989, with the students on strike, occupying the university an inviting artists in to figure out who could take over the moldy structures.
Shortly before Christmas, Knížák was invited to address the students. Despite the fact that he had been expelled from every university he had attended, including the AVU – or precisely because of this – he was asked to stand as candidate for president of the academy, and was elected.
Right from the outset Knížák set into motion his reforms, restructuring the teaching programs, initiating classes in new media, trying to implement basic principles of pluralism.
“One of my dreams was to set up a research center which would map and explore and reappraise precisely those fields of art which had been neglected by art history in the past, and which would react seismographically to the needs of the students.”
Meanwhile, rumors were being spread that Knížák would destroy everything classical and would throw the Baroque statues on Charles Bridge into the Vltava; that he would only teach “happenings” from now on.
What many people didn’t realize was that Knížák had a deep respect for art history and part of his mission, as he saw it, was to connect the AVU with older traditions and with the very notion of tradition and ritual.
In this respect, he devised matriculation and graduation ceremonies, created an insignia for the school (a Czech lion with a flock of baby blue hearts, suggesting, in Knížák’s words, “a notion of an elite, grace, but also naivite and the profound humanity of art.”). He designed a school banner based on the symbol of a scepter, a rector’s chain, and academic gowns.
“My idea was to combine both a respectful and a crazy look, because in art these two components are always inseparably linked,” said Knížák.
Knížák sensed, after years of total change and upheaval, that Czech society longed for the stability of certain traditions, indeed, ritual.
“Our society is again becoming aware of the need for rhythm in life, where everyday grey moments alternate with festive ones,” Knížák said.
In sum, Knížák’s mission was shot through with a sense of hope and idealism, which was the hallmark of those early post-revolution days. He was conscious of creating something new, and aware that the school was being viewed by many as a microcosm for the society that was then forming itself.
Knížák spoke about the necessity of embracing the free market, which he felt would act as a “sieve separating the brave from the cowards”. “The artist must be brave,” he said; “he or she should be brave to his or her morality. One must not neglect the civic. The artist had to nurture an inner morality”.
At the same time he warned young Czech artists against an undue adulation of the art of the West. “We have to choose our models very carefully,” he said.
Well, all this high idealistic talk and bold visions of the future there was no shortage of in the early nineties following the Velvet Revolution. Something new seemed to be taking shape. And it wasn’t just something that was the concern of Czechs alone. Just as people in the West saw in Havel a chance for a better future – one based on high principled ideals, rather than short- term power politics – so Knížák’s words offered hope to Western intellectuals. A model society was being constructed, and this was something we could all take a tip from.
But that was all a couple of years previous to my arrival in Czech Republic. It may not seem that long ago, but three years after a revolution is a hell of a lot of time.
Things changed and in the time being the mood had quieted down in Prague. The spirit of the Velvet Revolution had dissipated like a mirage in desert sands, leaving in its place bitter taste of disenchantment.
The economy was not doing well. The people were disappointed with their new leaders. Controversy was again dogging Knížák and it was interesting to note how in such a short period the mood had suddenly swung against him, the former hero of the Velvet Revolution.
Or maybe that is the wrong analysis. Maybe the public mood had remained constant all these years and Knížák was the same Bürgerschreckpresently as he was in pre-revolution days, and it was only the relatively small contingent of artists and intellectuals who supported him.
For everyone in the Czech Republic knew Knížák. It was a small country (and Prague was a small pond with a lot of crocodiles, as the artists liked to say) and the man or woman on the street knew its public figures. It was curious to see how even the regular working class stiff knew of Knížák and his happenings in the sixties and felt this the stuff about Knížák suffering during Communism was a load of crap concocted for the benefit of foreign journalists.
After all, Knížák was an international art star – well, at least he was well-known in Germany – living the kind of life many Czechs could only dream of, a life free of compromises. You only had to look at the guy, with his gold earring and ponytail, to see that he led life on his own terms.
Not only that, but his artworks fetched high prices on the international contemporary art market. So, compared to the average Czech, he was a well-to do man and an exceptional figure – and if there is anything that the Czechs couldn’t stand, it is the man who stood out.
According to the man on the street, the alleged drunk driving incident was just another instance of how Knížák was above it all. If it had been a regular Joe in the same circumstances he would be stuck in the clink from the get-go. But it was Knížák, and the same rules that applied to Joe Schmo didn’t apply to him. That was the story of his life.
This resentfulness towards Knížák I found expressed by even people I would never have expected to hear it from: enlightened, intellectual, well-educated people. It was the opinion of Tomáš, my landlord, a doctor who had had traveled widely in the West since the Revolution.
Over a couple beers at the local pub we discussed the Knížák affair. It was Knizak’s bohemian lifestyle that annoyed Tomáš the most. Not because he felt is somehow repellent, but because Tomáš didn’t have the opportunity to live such a lifestyle himself.
“Knizak lives exactly how he wants to live,” said Tomáš. “He makes his art; he sells it for high prices; he travels regularly abroad; he can have any woman he wants. But the average Czech man has to get up at six in the morning, work all day to feed his family. Knížák is above all this. That is why I do not like Knížák.”
The surprising thing was that I found this same sentiment even among people in the art scene. In fact, it was really odd that among my artist acquaintances I could scarcely find one an individual who could put in a good word for Knížák. Either they were vocal in their dislike, or they bit their tongue and simmered in their hate.
I wondered if all this resentment could be the expression of a lingering, not yet rooted out socialist mentality. Was it not the famous Czech envy of the man who had risen above the common lot? And was not this in essence the reason why Czech artists once they have achieved a measure of success, throughout history – from Kupka to Kundera – have chosen to leave their country and never come back.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I set out to the AVU to meet with Knížák.
I was supposed to meet a South African photographer from Pozor in front of the AVU, but he didn’t show. I went ahead with the interview just the same.
Knížák I found, had managed to strike the balance of appearing at one and the same time dignified and bohemian. His grey hair was pulled back in a ponytail and his ears were studded with earrings. At the same time he wore a dignified mustache and a dark pinstripe suit. His plastic Swatch – in place of an expensive Rolex – conveyed the message that one was not supposed to take him too seriously. Yes, he was the rector, but he was also the jester.
Knížák ushered me into his office, a spacious, high-ceilinged room furnished in an eclectic fashion in consonance with Knížák’s famous taste for the jarring detail.
Two of Knížák’s works figured in the room: a large abstract expressionist painting with a pair of paint splattered trousers stuck to it, entitled, “Don Juan in the Jungle”, and next to that, in a small niche in the wall was the bust of a man with the head of a Dalmatian.
Knizak’s desk stood in a corner, next to it an art deco sofa by Pavel Janák, a Czech furniture designer from the twenties, which Knížák had managed to salvage from the basement along with some other precious antiques. Above the sofa hung a slender painting depicting bizarre Czech fairytale scene by a Czech fin de siècle decadent by the name of Max Pirner, who was also the artist responsible for another painting of young girls dancing a round dance in a forest clearing on an adjacent wall.
Knížák explained that owing to the mores of the day, the artist had been prevented from using child models, and had painted adults instead, and that accounted for the strange disunion of adult bodies with children’s faces. Both paintings Knížák had taken from the National Gallery, where they had been languishing in depot. Knížák said that he found Czech nineteenth century art fascinating, and yet appeared to be alone amongst his artist colleagues in this inclination.
We sat down under the painting of dancing girls on a baroque sofa at a heavy wooden conference table. Knížák rested his elbows on the table. His Swatch with its elastic band stood out. I noticed that one of his golden earrings was in the form of a yin-yang symbol.
And so Knížák began his routine speech, saying that after being expelled from numerous universities and being prevented from studying, he had never been able to satisfy fully his thirst for education. In fact, the schools of is youth evoked for him the impression of something that was forbidden and out of reach. And how it was his frustrated experiences of acquiring learning, coupled with “the bitter taste of injustice” that informed the notions of education that he was trying to implement at the AVU.
Furthermore, Knížák said he saw what he was doing at the AVU in the wider context of his creative activities, as another “happening”, such as what he put on in the sixties and seventies.
“My main opponent is mediocrity,” said Knížák.
It may have appeared to outsiders that Knížák had now assumed the role of the establishment, but it was important to mention, he said, that he was fighting the state. Indeed, it was the artist’s duty to fight the state, “to be a thorn in the side of the authorities”, and it was this critical spirit that was behind his unflattering depictions of Havel (in one work exhibited a bust of Havel surrounded by mushrooms and garden gnomes).
In essence, Knížák went on, things hadn’t changed that much since Communism.
“I am still fighting old battles,” he said. “The public is against me. The spirit of mediocrity still reigns.”
Anyone that doubted his unpopularity, he said, should have a look at the visitor’s book at his recent exhibition at Manes.
“It was filled with pure hate,” he said.
Furthermore, he claimed the modern art department at the National Gallery had only acquired his art “with great reluctance”.
Then there was this business with the drunk driving allegation. I had to bring it up in the end.
“I was not drunk,” exclaimed Knížák. “The press has come out against me. It is a witch hunt.”
Finally the South African photographer showed up. Knížák stuck a couple of poses, sticking out his chin and relishing in his eagle nosed profile. And that was that.
In the end Pozor went belly up before they had a chance to run my Knížák story. Not long afterwards, in 1997, Knížák was released from his post at the AVU, and in his last speech he spoke about the trials and tribulations that he had faced during his years at the AVU and his essential disappointment and bitterness at how things turned out. He had had high hopes. He now sees that he had been overly idealistic.
“I believed that all the students had a keen interest in education, that it would not be necessary to force them to do something. On the contrary, I imagined that they would fight to have information and knowledge; that they would do their best to cultivate in themselves the most humble relationship to their vocation as well as the most direct relationship with the possibilities offered. Time has shown that this is not so.”
Knížák resented the accusation leveled by some that the AVU was a “one man school.”
“All my life I have dreamt about working in a team,” Knížák said.”Even in the Aktual Group in the 60s I laid down the principle of anonymity in spite of doing 90 percent of the work myself. I always acted intentionally as one o the group, without drawing attention to myself.”
Nevertheless, he had succeeded in what he had set out to do – he had “transformed this school full of totalitarian mud into a living structure where both the teachers and the students create an organism in which they may grow in symbioses.”
I couldn’t help but feel that Knížák’s departure from the AVU could be read as the final nail in the coffin of the ideals of the Velvet Revolution. Prague was not the same place as was three years ago. There was a different, more sober, more bitter feeling in the air…
A CZECH ARCHITECT
It was winter, 1996. I stood in the icy cold outside the art nouveau Obecní dům waiting for Kraus, the young Czech architect and student of Václav Aulický – the man who had built the Žižkov TV tower.
Kraus came late. Tall, wrapped in a woolen overcoat, clutching a black leather portfolio, his eyes dark and intense, black hair tousled, blue veins showing through his porcelain white skin.
He apologized for keeping me waiting and suggested we walk to the Radegast pub around the corner from the Obecní dům, not far from St. Bartholomew, for a couple of beers.
It was warm and cozy inside. Smoke hung in a thick vapor under the vaulted ceilings. The pub was full of Czech biznesmen on extended lunch-breaks and Charles University students lazily whiling away the afternoon over rounds of beer while bellowing the odd Czech drinking song as the mood took them. We sat down at a table in the back.
“Show us what you got then,” I said.
Kraus opened his portfolio and showed me some of his designs. They were like nothing I had ever seen before – Blade Runner-esque; post-apocalyptic; visionary; works of art, rather than feasible architectural plans; blending computer design with Japanese typography and found objects.
There was a factory that looked like a giant ski; a house like a flying saucer suspended by cables between cliffs; an egg shaped house in the middle for a forest; a spider-like house that could walk; an underwater tower-block.
Nature was an influence, but also science fiction novels of Bruce Sterling, movies like Blade Runner and techno music.
“I love techno,” said Kraus, “the way it creates this ambient space; the way it can take you to a higher level sometimes.”
But there were other things that influenced him too – every day things encountered on the street. For example cars and advertisements.
“My architecture is about the world around me: chaotic, neurotic.”
Kraus had just come back from Japan and he was struck by the advertisements on buildings in Tokyo issuing from giant TV screens. He wanted to create a building that consisted of entirely of TV screens.
“I am also inspired by everyday objects,” said Kraus. “For example this glass.” Kraus held up his pint of beer. “This is perfect. I would like to design a building like this glass of beer”.
Historically, Kraus claimed to be inspired by the buildings of German Expressionists, like Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn. He was also influenced by Russian Constructivists as well as Czech visionaries like Zdeněk Pešánek and by Aulický, the architect of the Žižkov TV tower.
Prague needed an architecture that embraced the present, in Kraus’ opinion. He was convinced that he was on the cusp of something entirely new. A new movement in architecture even.
“Part of the problem is the scene is so fractured,” said Kraus. “Everyone has their own field of expertise. You’ve got cliques of artists, architects, film makers and writers – everyone working in isolation, cut off from other people in other fields. What we want to do is bring everyone together.”
The other problem was money. Czech companies didn’t have the money to invest in these far-out projects that Kraus had envisioned.
“We have to become more aggressive!” said Kraus. “We have to really go out and sell out ideas. You understand? We have to work with film makers, artists, poets, musicians to convey our visions to clients and the public.”
I looked at Kraus’ wild and weird designs. It was a hard sell, but I was impressed by the guy’s enthusiasm. His dedication; the fanaticism of his vision and the tenacity with which he clung to his heart’s calling.
Raising his voice over the alcohol infused pub-din and drinking song bedlam, Kraus wildly spoke about the need for a new architecture in Prague.
“The officials here are stuck in the past! They associate everything new with a kind of garish American entertainment culture, which they say has nothing to do with what the architecture of Prague should really be about.
“Look, I myself like Mala Strana very much. But it is the past. Once it reflected the present. But this is now. We must have an architecture that is contemporary. You know what I’m saying? We must have an architecture that is like the architecture of Mala Strana was back in the eighteenth century. I’m not saying that we must not learn from the past. Every day I look at these marvelous buildings all around me in this marvelous city called Prague. Like this room we are sitting in now. Look at these vaulted ceilings. Fantastic!
“I want to create something like this. As good. As effective. As awe-inspiring. But in a modern idiom.”
We paid for our drinks and went outside into the cold winter air. Standing on the street corner, Kraus pointed at the baroque church of St Jakub.
“Look at that! That is a fantastic building. I would like to build something like that. The baroque, is an amazing thing, you know.”
The following Friday, on a blustery Prague night, I paid a visit to Kraus near Budějovická, in Pankrac. He lived in a panalak apartment on a dimly lit street on the outskirts of Prague. Kraus buzzed me up, met me on the landing clad in a T-shirt and track suit bottoms.
I kicked off my shoes, and was ushered in to Kraus’ abode – nice for a panalak, with wood floors and walls taken up by bookshelves. There was a table cluttered with toys belonging to Kraus’ two-year old daughter. His wife was due shortly with the child.
“And then there will be chaos,” said Kraus.
Kraus made tea.
“These panalaks are grey places and after living in them for a while you yourself become grey,” said Kraus as he placed the tea pot on the burner. “They are places to sleep; they have no life.”
The previous tenant had been a real handyman and had completely refashioned the apartment, taking down a wall, opening up more space, even installing a kitschy arch in the hallway.
“As soon as I moved in I swore I’d take that arch out,” said Kraus. ”I hate it. But it’s still there; its horrible. But I’ve gotten used to it. The funny thing is, I’m an architect, but I can’t be bothered with the place I live in. It is like a hotel. It’s a fact: famous architects lived in bland, unremarkable flats. Take Le Corbusier, for example.”
After the tea was ready, we moved into the living room so that Kraus could show me some of his latest designs. He kept the designs behind the futon. His wife didn’t want them on the walls because she said they would scare the child.
Kraus reached behind the futon and pulled out a roll of poster sized computer print-outs.
Like the designs in the Radegast pub, the images were utterly fantastic and completely impractical. Among them were various architectural jokes – visionary cityscapes composed of kitchen objects and children’s toys. There were several underwater tower blocks consisting of computer innards stacked together like a house of cards, photographed from a low angle. There was another Blade Runner-esque housing complex consisting of Styrofoam computer packaging in the midst of a tropical forest. Kraus showed me his “biomorphic structures” – houses shaped like scorpions and birds.
At around six, Kraus’ wife showed up with their child. His wife was pale, pretty and dark-haired. She spoke near perfect English an account of travels abroad and time spent in the US, UK and Israel.
“Do you understand David’s work?” asked his wife.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said, ”because no one else does.”
She put the child to bed and retired early. She was pregnant again and was sick all the time.
And so Kraus and I moved to the kitchen, where we drank tea and ate microwave pizza. Kraus spoke about his current job, working for a firm that built small, unspectacular family houses on the outskirts of Prague.
“If you want to fly, you have to learn how to walk,” said Kraus.
We sipped our tea and looked out the window at the Žižkov TV tower, blinking red in the night. It made one feel rather good, said Kraus.
“The tower is really a very interesting case,” he said. “The older generation hate it. The younger generation love it. I wouldn’t mind living inside it. I really wouldn’t. It is the one building in Prague that I really like.”
I left Prague for Berlin at the turn of the millennium and would return ten years later to find the city much changed. Prague had been malled, with big foreign-looking, ergonomic space ship-like shopping centres everywhere, where there were once empty windswept Communist-era squares.
Here, I couldn’t help but feel, were the spawns of Kraus’ visionary architecture. Kraus, a man ahead of his time, had ultimately tapped into the burgeoning spirit of the time with his designs.
And as for Kraus? What had happened to him? Had he become a famous star architect in Prague? Or perhaps was he now an architect of malls? Not at all. His fate was a touch more modest – he was designing conservative family houses on the outskirts of Prague, and making a good career of it. He had not learned how to fly after all. But at least his wife was happy.
Klaus Laughed at my Jokes
The day after I got back from my jaunt to Litoměřice, I met up with James and Gabe at U Konviktu in Prague.
The two of them were colleagues at Bridge News. Gabe was going back to the States in a month, and he was bringing with seventeen Jawamotorcycles to sell. He had it all planned out. First he was going to write a big feature for a popular daily, building up the hype. Then he was going to corner the Jawa market in the States. The problem was – how to get people interested?
“I got to get into some trouble first,” said Gabe.
“You could try joining the Hells Angels,” suggested James.
“Right,” said Gabe, “and get barred because I don’t have a Harley. Then I’ll sue the bastards because they are anti-Communist, or somethin’.”
“You could go on Geraldo,” said James.
“Why would anyone want to submit themselves to the indignity of going on Geraldo?” I mused.
“Why?” said James. “Money – what do you think? Do you know how much money you get from for going on Geraldo? A shitload. Half the stuff they say is made up; they make it up just for the money.”
James and Gabe sketched out a typical Geraldo scenario.
“Okay, I’m the father,” said James. “You’re the son. We both had sex with the same woman.”
“No, man,” interjected Gabe.
“Who happens to be my nephew,” said James.
“And he has AIDS,” added Gabe.
“Now we’re getting somewhere!” said James.
“It’s all fake, see,” said James. “In contrast to the letters written to porno magazines. That’s all real.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I know that because I did the fuckin’ letter bag at one of these magazines when I was going to Columbia, before I came to Prague.”
“That’s bullshit!” said Gabe. “How do you know they’re real?”
“I could just tell. You knew somehow. You developed a nose for it, once you were in the business for a while.”
James went on to explain how the editor in chief at the porn magazine he had done the letters for offered him a large sum, if he would consider working form them as a full time reporter.
“‘Man, you have what it takes!’ he told me. He said I could go far in the business, if I really wanted. ‘Pornography,’ I said, ‘is just a hobby of mine’. I turned him down.”
James was big into stories on the skin trade in Prague. It was his specialty as editor at Pozor magazine. Prague bordellos, skin flicks, rent boys – “Go with it!” James would say. “Get on that shit!”
It was all a bit of a joke for James, his work at Pozor magazine – a way to let his hair down after the stress of Bridge, where he wrote mainly financial stories. That’s not say he did not have a good time at it. Scooping the other news agencies. Every day it was a rush to get out of bed knowing that today he could get the killer scoop.
Once, James was a bit overly keen, and scooped everyone on a scoop that didn’t exist, getting in some deep shit in the process.
Gabe knew the story. I didn’t.
“It was all ‘cuz of a single word,” said Gabe. “Forced. You said the Ministry of Finance had forced the crown down.”
“The deal was,” explained James. “I had a tip something was going down. The crown was gonna’ take a dive. Only I put a much more dramatic spin on the story than the other news agencies. The story ran, and everyone congratulated me for getting the scoop.
“Well, as soon as the papers hit the streets the crown plunged. There was a big hullaballoo. Everyone was saying that Bridge had fucked up royally. ‘Bridge made the crown collapse’, they were saying. Ministers were trying to get hold of my ass. Shit was flying and I was shitting bricks. But I looked over my interview, and fuck, it was all there, just as I had written it. I stood by my story.
“The next day I picked up Lidové Noviny and it was all splashed out on the front page luridly: The crown had taken a plunge because some clown at Bridge had got his facts muddled. Fuck, I thought. I’m gonna get the sack surely.
“Fortunately, though, my boss loves me. And funny thing is, now when I look back on it, I think that it was just the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. Everyone knows me now, and the rush I got out of it was just phenomenal. This, boys, is what I live for.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Gabe.
The waiter came and we ordered another round of rezene.
Gabe then, began talking about Prague wistfully and ruminatively, knowing that these were his last days in the city; he was leaving shortly for New York.
He took stock of what he had achieved in Prague. In general, he had to say, it had been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Prague was an “education”, he said, and he had learned a hell of a lot, that was for sure.
“After four years in Prague I think I know the ropes,” said Gabe. “I know the whole procedure now. I know what to say when you go into these places and you are offered water, orange juice or coffee. All the little details, like that. I got it down.”
Gabe lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out the side of his mouth.
“I could never have done Stateside what I did here. I mean, I’ve interviewed Klaus! Klaus knows me. Klaus sits down at the table opposite me, smiles, remembers my name and laughs at my jokes. It all comes down to the status you have as an American in Prague. People will talk to you just because you are American.”
“But when some American big-wig shows up the magic stops,” said James.
“Don’t you know it!” said Gabe. “Like, for instance, the time I tried to corner this one American trade adviser. The guy was like ice. He just gave me this withering look and said, ‘I will not comment on American trade policy.’ I mean, never – never – has anyone given me that kind of response. Not even Klaus. I didn’t know what to do. I just looked at him and said, ‘Duhhhh’.”
“What you should have done was pretend you were Czech,” said James. “Do you think possibly, please be so kind, sir, and tell me…The whole Czech routine. Would have worked like a charm.”
Fresh beers arrived and Gabe started to muse about the life that awaited him back in New York. How would people react to him Stateside when he told them what he had experienced in Prague? What would they say when he told them he had interviewed Klaus? Would they care?
“They’d probably think I was bragging,” said Gabe.
“Or you would bore them stiff,” said James.
James gave a critical look. He frowned and sipped his rezene.
“There are so many Prague bores running around New York at the moment,” said James. “I wouldn’t want to be one. They try their best to formulate it – the whole mystique of Prague. The lonely glamour of the expat life. But they all come up with the same embarrassing, lame tourist shit. Terrible clichés, man.
For example, I recall sitting in a bar in New York – they call them ‘bars’ there, you know? Well, I had the pleasure of sitting next to this clown who had just come back from Prague. He was telling everyone what it was like, in awed, hushed tones. ‘And in Prague they call beer pivo,’he was saying. And shit like that. Totally lugubrious. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was too much to bear. I had to hightail it out there. Shoot me if I ever get to be like that guy!”
“Yeah,” said Gabe. “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut, I’m not going to bore anyone with any of that Paris of the Nineties crap. Those who were there will know. Those who weren’t there will never know. The uninitiated will never know what it is to be like, walking home drunk to hell at five in the morning through the grey streets of Prague on a winter’s eve, with the coal smoke in your nose and your head full of cheap slivovitz. You just can’t convey it.”
“Don’t even try,” said James. “Why talk about the inexplicable? Why profane the mystery?”
And that was that. The bartender swished at our table with her dish cloth. We drank up and went our separate ways, Gabe to his wife in Karlin, while James and I continued on through the dark, mysterious Prague night, ending up at some non-stop dive-bar across the street from K-Mart, where guys played cards under low slung ceiling lamps, like in some Toulouse Lautrec drawing.
“One thing is certain,” said James. “I’ve got to get the hell out of this town. It was fun while it lasted, but the glamour is off.”
“You know what Prague is for me?” I said. “It’s like you are in an elevator stuck between floors. Looked at differently, Prague is the place you go to, to get somewhere else. Prague is ‘Jail’ in Monopoly. We are all waiting for the lucky roll of the dice that will let us get on with out lives. The sooner you leave the better.”
“Recently, I went up to Berlin,” said James. Now that is a real city! That’s where I should have gone in the first place. On the other hand I’ve been thinking of India. Kashmir. I’ll cover World War Three, meanwhile writing stories about the Indian porno industry. I wouldn’t have to worry about learning a new language. Everyone speaks English there, anyway. Hell, or maybe I’ll go to Afghanistan. I want to see Kabul before it gets lousy with expats. Or maybe I’ll just go back to New York.”
James sighed and took a drag from his cigarette. It was time to go. Day was breaking.
Spare a Thought for the Sudeten Germans
For many nineteenth century German romantics, the north Bohemian countryside was a kind of earthly paradise.
In the Vltava-flanking hills north of the small town of Litoměřice (Leitmeritz in German), with their terraced vineyards and orchards, German romantic painters conjured up an almost Tuscan mood, finding an echo of Italy in northern climes.
Caspar David Friedrich walked through here on sketching tours, capturing motifs which would later crop up in some of his best known paintings. At Burg Schreckstein, overlooking the Vltava south of Ústí nad Labem, stands a ruined castle which inspired Richard Wagner to write his opera Tannhäuser. Wrapped in a sheet, he climbed the ruin one moonlit night to commune with the spirits.
Not far away, Robert Schumann ascended the volcanic, conical shaped Milešovka, the highest mountain in the České Středohoří. “There you feel God’s beautiful world”, he wrote raptly in his diary. Alexander von Humboldt climbed the same mountain, finding the view from the top, “the third most beautiful in the world”.
However, in the same landscape of north Bohemia, German culture came crashing down. Across the glassy Vltava from Litoměřice you can just make out two sprawling red-brick octagonal structures connected by a tree-lined lane – pretty for a moment, if you didn’t know this was Terezín, Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi Gestapo prison and concentration camp, that served mainly as a way-station to Nazi trials and interment in other more infernal camps.
All the same, some 8,000 perished here. In 1947 it was turned into a monument by the Czechoslovak Communists. Lining the cobbled road running up to the fort, the Communists erected Giacometti like figures, recalling lurching prisoners on a forced march.
The fortress adjoining the town that was turned into a ghetto is full of memorials of various kinds. In a dark little nook leading into a courtyard a memorial for imprisoned Jews, has been erected, with dishes bearing the soil from each of seven concentration camps, where prisoners were sent to subsequent to their stay in Theresienstadt.
At the site of execution site just under fortress walls, where prisoners were lined up and shot, stands a towering plaque inscribed with the nationalities of all the prisoners killed there. Smaller plaques are devoted to individuals. No one is neglected.
Even the Sudeten Germans, who were interred here after the war for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, before being sent across the border into neighboring Germany, get mention.
In glass vitrines one can muse over things the prisoners had fashioned to kill time or to give as birthday gifts – little animals made from dough. There is also sheet music with songs composed, pictures, a copy of an underground newspaper.
All these things go some way towards explaining why the Germans of Bohemia – called Sudeten Germans – were rooted up from the land they had lived in since the Middle Ages and expelled at war’s end as part of a Communist-engineered resettlement program that would by the end of it, determine the fate of three million people.
The first train with 1,200 Germans on board left the west Bohemian spa town of Marianske Lazne (Marienbad) on 25 January 1946. Germans who could not prove they had not been active anti-Nazis before or doing the war were expelled by decree, as discussed a the Potsdam Conference in August 1945.
The “resettlement” – as the Czechs term it (the Germans regard it as an “expulsion”) affected virtually the entire German population of post-war Czechoslovakia. A joint Czech-German commission of historians, has concluded that – though factual numbers are hard to come by – between 15,000 to 30,000 Germans died in post-war reprisals.
These figure are disputed by Sudeten German organizations. In 1959 the German federal statistics office, put this number at around 267,000 from the time the decrees took effect, until when the last of the Germans were dealt with in 1967.
After the Germans had been deported, the Communists began with the business of resettling the area, shipping people in from Slovakia, often Roma, people deemed by the Communists to be “socially weak” – thus treating the region as a laboratory for social engineering.
In the course of this program the landscape itself was radically altered. Rivers were diverted, old towns destroyed, new functionalist satellite cities constructed and vast tracts of land in the north of the country plowed up to get at the brown coal just under the surface, creating huge black moonscapes out of green rolling hills.
Anyone who wanted to could move up here and take part in the plunder. Czechs were promised a house belonging to the vacated Germans, and as much coal as they wanted. A kind of frontier mentality prevailed.
Today northern Bohemia is still very much in the spirit of the wild east. The people who come here are kinds of desperadoes. In the hills along the border treasure hunters dig for lost Nazi loot.
Many of the villages have a lonely, lost in time feel to them. No one lives in them year round, though some of the houses are freshly painted with luxuriant gardens, neatly stacked wood and flower pots brimming with geraniums.
Five days out of the week, quite a number of these old German villages are virtual ghost towns. It is only on the weekend in the summer when the owners come up from their prefabricated panalak apartments in Prague, Ústí nad Labem and Děčín, that the these little village houses spring to life.
Some of them are chata, little weekend cottages. Many are works of art, with artificial streams, miniature mills and fountains, bearing coats of arms and populated by garden dwarves. I even came across one chata with a miniature railroad running through the flower beds. Another, with a garden laid out on an incline, included an ingeniously constructed funicular.
Nobody bothers thinking about the Germans who once lived here, and whose ghosts live in these villages. Occasionally one come across a run-down house which no one bothered taking over for some reason; an old grocery store still bearing weathered German lettering, or a faded German street name. You might also come across some German monument, perhaps commemorating WWI war dead with the German eulogy defaced with a daub of paint. Sometimes one finds sandstone plinths, where the statue has been uprooted, destroyed or sold to an antiques collector, who knows?
In most cases the village cemeteries are the only reminders of the Germans, and yet here too memory has been obscured. The headstones are overgrown with weeds and quite often the names have been chiseled out, little photographic portraits smashed, maybe the headstone kicked down altogether. A German cemetery that is not a wreck is a rarity, and almost without exception, an indication the descendent of a former Sudeten German is paying for its upkeep.
Very few people think of the Germans here. And yet there are some, rare, dissenting voices. For instance, Father Červinka, a Czech priest who presides over a handful of the few remaining churches in the region still being used to say mass.
Father Červinka lives in Litoměřice on the grounds of a massive baroque edifice built by the Milanese architect Giulio Broggio during the Counter Reformation. No doubt in Communist times the place had been in a pitiful state. It still was. But at least Father Červinka was allowed to go about his business. Back in Communist times all they had was one hectar of land; the priests lived under effective house-arrest.
“In one night in the fifties they came and stole everything,” said Father Červinka, speaking to me over a lunch of bread soup in a small dining room in the monastery overlooking the Vltava. The muslin curtains billowed in the breeze as a train clipped by below, winding along the river.
“After the Revolution the government promised to give back what they had taken, but so far they have given nothing.”
Sometimes, explained Father Červinka, he would say mass in these country churches for the descendents of the expelled Sudeten Germans come back to research their family roots. They were the only times these churches were used. “There are no more Catholics,” said Father Červinka. “Because all the Germans were expelled after the war.”
And then he said something surprising. Surprising because up until then I had never met a Czech that didn’t support the Beneš decrees. Whenever the touchy subject of the Sudeten Germans was brought up I was told that what had happened was inevitable and though nothing to be proud of, it was the only solution.
“It was criminal what we did to them,” said Father Červinka. “Only allowed fifty kilograms and told to leave. Can you imagine?”
After lunch, Father Červinka showed me around the monastery. The façade was newly painted in red and white and there was a well-tended garden with sculpted topiary – evidence of Vatican money.
The interior was a bit less awe inspiring. The hallways were lined with gloomy portraits of bygone bishops, who presided over this place when it was a thriving locus of wealth and power, something more than just a slightly down in the heels empty shell of a monastery – and hanging over everything, a musty, slightly ascetic smell, compounded of old wood and Czech cooking.
For years now, I hadn’t given a thought to religion, but somehow seeing these old Bohemian monasteries and churches and the old Catholic hold-outs who tended them, sparked a light in me. I had set off on a journalistic purpose, and now I was going home in a spiritual mood that would last in fits and starts through the rest of my time in Czech Republic, through my later travels through the Balkans and into Turkey, from where I would return a Muslim.
The trip to the Sudetenland would have another purpose as well. In studying the fate of the Sudeten Germans and their expulsion from Czechoslovakia, I was to find a tragic model of ethnic cleansing that would repeat itself with depressing frequency as I traveled through Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. Here it was the Bosnian Serbs vs. the Bosnian Muslims, there it was the Serbs vs. the Albanians, elsewhere the Turks vs. Greeks…Where ever I went sadly ethnic cleansing seemed to have beeb or be the rule — the sad subtext to Europe in the 20th Century and beyond.
I Remain with Hand Kisses — A spot of controversy involving Madeleine Albright and looted art in Prague of the 90’s
Hradčanské Square 11 is a palatial, richly stuccoed Baroque townhouse a jaunt away from Prague Castle. The ground floor is occupied by a popular and very touristy Bohemian restaurant called U Labuti (‘At the Swans’). One floor above is the grand apartment in which some of the most opulent scenes in Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus were shot. The same flat happened to be the temporary abode of a young Madeleine Korbel, who spent three years there with her diplomat father and mother shortly after WWII. In December 1996 Madeleine Korbel, now Madeleine Albright and US ambassador to the UN, stopped by with an entourage of foreign journalists. Pointing to the first floor apartment she exclaimed, “Here is where I used to live.”
Among the crowd of onlookers that day was the former owner of the house, Hana Paříková whose daughter today runs the U Labuti restraurant. She had been good friends with the people who had lived in the house before the Korbels, a well-off German factory owner by the name of Nebrich and his wife and family. Though neither Nazi nor Nazi sympathizer, Nebrich had been expelled from the country as a collaborator in 1945 in accordance with the Beneš Decrees, leaving behind a valuable collection of renaissance furniture, family silver and paintings by Dutch and Italian masters.
Hana Paříková knew the Nebrichs had been meaning to reclaim their valuable possessions, knew that soon after the Nebrichs left, however, the artifacts had disappeared. Furthermore, she knew that the person Nebrich accused of stealing his valuables was a certain Josef Korbel, whom Nebrich had been trying to track down for ages. That day out front U Labuti Paříková put two and two together and called up Nebrich’s descendents in Vienna. “These are the people you are looking for,” she said.
The Nebrichs did not know anything about Josef Korbel, other than the fact that he and his family took over their flat and artworks. They did not know, for instance, that Josef Korbel was a Czechoslovak diplomat of Jewish origin, who fled the Nazis in 1939 and emigrated with his family to London, where he joined the Czechoslovak government in exile. They did not know that upon coming back to Prague in 1944 his family had lost everything, including family members to the Nazi concentration camps.
What they did know, however, was what had happened to their art. According to the Nebrich side of the story passed down in family lore, upon entering the luxuriously appointed flat on Hradčanské, Josef Korbel noticed marks left on the bare silk-spanned walls, suggesting that paintings has once hung there.
Josef questioned the maid, demanding to be led to the paintings, which had been hidden away in a nearby apartment by the Nebrichs before their departure. Reluctantly, the maid led Josef to the cache. Josef overrode the maid’s vociferous protestations, and appropriated the art for himself.
Upon learning of the Albright connection, the Nebrich descendants in Vienna were ecstatic, no doubt a little naively, feeling that the matter would be swiftly resolve.
Phillip Harmer, a young management consultant in Vienna and grandson of Karl Nebrich, the original owner of the Prague flat, faxed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in January 1997, elucidating his plea for a return of what art works she and her siblings might still have.
No response was forthcoming. He tried again a month later. “You yourself lived in our flat as an eight year old child and I am sure you will remember some of the paintings,” he wrote. Recapping on the situation, he described how, after appropriating the paintings, Albright’s father had then packed them up and brought them to Belgrade, where he had a brief ambassadorial stint, before eventually leaving for America in 1947.
“If there is no response,” wrote Harmer, “I might be forced to take more public steps.” He concluded with an air of old world courtliness, “I remain with handkisses,” he wrote stiffly using the quaint Viennese flourish.
This time the letter had an immediate effect – albeit not quite the desired one – in the form of a curt but detailed reply from Albright’s Washington lawyer, Michael Even Jaffe. “After a careful review,” Jaffe wrote, “we have concluded there is no basis whatever for thinking that any artworks of the late Ambassador Korbel came to him improperly.” And even if the paintings did at one point belong to the Nebrichs, Jaffe wrote, “Ambassador Korbel did not ‘steal’ anything. Rather, “the items were confiscated and expropriated after the war by the Czechoslovak authorities under the so-called Beneš Decrees.” Jaffe concluded by saying the claim held no water, and that the threats “to go public in order to embarrass the Korbel family are quite improper.”
Despite the fact that Harmer was later able to provide signed affidavits proving the Nebrich ownership of the artworks, it seemed the Nebrich case was now, quite hopeless.
“ROLL OUT THE BARREL”
“I have told the Keprts you are American,” says Petr. “This interests them very much. Mr. Keprt has witnessed the American liberation of Plzeň in 1945 and he has always since then wanted very much to meet with Americans. Because of Communism he has never been succeeded until today. You are the first Americans he will see since the War. For him you are reminders of the great Americans who came to this country to liberate us from the Nazis. So this is a big day for Mr. Keprt.”
The pre-Revolution Škoda pulled up in front of a run-down, paint-blistered three story house on the grey outskirts of an exceedingly grey town. Dave and I disembarked, lugging our bags loaded with volumes of Shakespeare, frisbees and nerf footballs, copies of the Bill of Rights, jars of peanut-butter and Twix bars up to the front steps where a dwarfish old woman in a flower print dress and apron was waiting for us.
“Ah, hallo, hello! Vitáme Vás! Please! We welcome you Američané. Americhans!” she said, ushering us into her ground floor apartment.
“Ne!” cried the old lady, as Dave attempted to take off his shoes. “Není potřeba.” There is no need. Paní Keprtová shoved us into a living room that was a cringy blend of standard east-block functionalism and central European gemütlichkeit. She pushed us down into a hard sofa in front of us which stood a coffee table with a lace tablecloth and a vase with two American flags in it. On the wall in front of us hung a banner, which read: “We Will Never Forget Boys”.
Mr. Keprt then shuffled up to us, greeting us profusely in rapid-fire Czech, urging upon us a liquor known as Becherovka. Dave and I took a few tentative sips of the bile colored vermouth and gave a positive verdict before tossing the rest off. Mr. Keprt smiled and poured us another round.
“Dobrý,” pronounced Dave. “Do-brý!”
What followed was a confusing half hour during which Dave and I attempted to use out limited stock of Czech and German, hands and feet, to communicate our gratitude towards the Keprts that they had allowed us to move into the building with them.
“To nic není,” said Mr. Keprt. It was nothing.
“Pozor!” he said. He had a surprise for us. Or so we gathered.
Mr. Keprt disappeared from there room and reappears a couple minutes later dressed in a pieced-together American army uniform with an army cap tilted rakishly on his head and an accordion strapped to his chest. He swaggered up to us and proceeded to play Roll Out the Barrel, singing along in perfect English. Mr. Keprtova smiled and tapped a slipper-clad foot, keeping time with the polka tune.
“Brilliant,” said Dave, making a move for the Becherovka bottle. “Dobrý! Do-brý!”
Afterwards, Mrs. Keprtova brought out a dish of diabetic apfelstrudel while Mr. Keprt showed us his autograph book, flipping past the autographs of famous Czech crooners. “Tak,” he said. “Karl Gott!”
But here it was – what he really wanted to show us: the autograph of the American tank commander from General George S. Patton’s 16th armored division, which liberated Plzeň in 1945. The commander had taught Mr. Keprt how to play Roll out the Barrel on the market square.
Dave and I made respectful noises of appreciation.
“The old man is very proud of this autograph,” said Petr. “He was taught in school during Communism that it was Russian soldiers in American uniforms who liberated Plzeň, not Americans, but the old man had this autograph as proof that this wasn’t so. They tried to erase our history and create a new history. For forty years we suffered with this lie. We knew it was a lie. All the time we were waiting you Americans to come.”
“Cha, cha!” the old man laughed. “Tak koukej”
“The old man will now tell you a funny story he thinks you will enjoy very good,” said Petr. “This is to show you how through all the years of Communism, we were still living in hope that you Americans would come.”
The old man told his story. It went like this: around twenty years ago in Czechoslovakia, when – as we knew – the people of Czechoslovakia were suffering very much under the Russian oppression and everyone was waiting for the Americans to invade and save them – one day in a country pub not far from here, Mr. Keprt was sitting with some friends drinking beer when an American army jeep pulled up and some soldiers dressed in the uniforms of our very great and very fine American army entered the room. The pub suddenly grewn very still. Everyone stared at the soldiers. Was it possible? Could it really be? Was this the moment they had all been waiting for?
Unbeknownst to them, a WWII film was being shot in the environs, and the “Americans” in the jeep were nothing but film extras, thirsty for a drink after a day of shooting.
“Hurra!” someone shouted, throwing off his cap. “At last. It is the American army! Finally you have come to liberate us from the Russian bitches! Down with the Communists!”
And the man walked over to an important Communist functionary from Prague, who was sitting in the corner drinking his beer very peacefully and, BOF! he knocked him off his chair.
“Cha cha!” laughed Mr. Keprt.
“But, oh, what sadness and tragedy for the poor man!” translated Petr. “He soon realized his mistake, for which he was given three years hard labor in the uranium mines of north Bohemia, they had it.
“And so you can see, my American friends, how the people in this country have been waiting a long time for you Americans,” said Petr. “And now you are finally here! Welcome my American friends! Or as we say in Czech, Vitáme Vás!”
The old woman poured us another glass of Becherovka. The old man proposed a toast.
“To Americans and their machines!” he said. “We will never forget boys!”
And so we drank.