Prague: Diary

‘The post-1989 temptation in Prague has been two-fold. The first has been to legislate the totalitarian past out of existence, the second has been to copy the liberal West blindly at a lag of 20 years’

My eye was caught a few months ago at the airport by a poster of a middle-aged man winking at a sugar cube on a spoon. The publicity campaign heralding the forthcoming Czech presidency of the EU featured the embarrassing message: “We’ll sweeten the EU,” which to a native ear sounded more like “We’ll sweeten your EU for you.” By early December, the smirk had been wiped off that wily face, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy hinted that the Czech Republic, only the second post-communist state to occupy the rotating chair, might not be up to the task. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek rushed to Paris to convince him otherwise. A week later, former 1968 revolutionary Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a prominent MEP, journeyed to Prague to rebuke the renowned Eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus for openly supporting the Irish anti-Lisbon Treaty party Libertas. The Czech head of state retaliated by not quite comparing the EU to the old Soviet Union under whose yoke his country languished for 41 years. The actual presidency can only get better.

In our Anglo-Czech house, we’ll be imagining how the current state of the EU strikes Vaclav Havel, my husband’s old boss and Klaus’s predecessor at the Castle. London critics were mostly disappointed by the spirited retrospective of Havel’s plays put on in Richmond by the Orange Tree Theatre last autumn, though what came out of the readings and lively discussion I attended was how relevant a contemporary British audience found Havel’s old satires on power and language and human weakness. That was surely the context in which to understand his first new play since he left office in 2003. Leaving was not a pièce-à-clef about past colleagues but a frantic and farcical meditation on the pros and cons of high office, with women ever ready to oblige and men keen to stab you in the back. The most moving moment in the play was when the former “chancellor” delivered a soliloquy on ideas he had passionately believed in but now had to watch being meretriciously adopted by the opposition. The film Citizen Havel, currently doing the rounds of selected British cinemas, is a graceful, artistically polished documentary of Havel’s two presidencies after the country split in 1993. The director, the late Pavel Koutecky, and his crew, were free to film front and backstage whenever, and the witty, tender result is full of wry glimpses of the real world behind the face of politics. Koutecky avowed that one of his aims was to show the powerlessness of the powerful, a neat reversal of the title of one of Havel’s most famous anti-communist essays.

It’s often said Czechs are like Brits: pragmatic and unexcitable. Since I’m neither of those things perhaps that’s why I’ve taken a while to get to know them. Of course no generalisations about peoples are true. Dad’s Army is one thing, The Good Soldier Schweik another. But the real problem for me was shaking off my anti-communist past. For a number of years suspicions that old political ways were still lurking at grassroots level bothered me and occasionally seemed justified, whatever the change in intellectual leadership. And until I got to know it a bit, Czech, another Slav tongue, always reminded me of Russian. Mea culpa. I really have moved on.

I love the new Prague, now gorgeously renovated even in the suburbs, after decades of decay. From my first visit in the political darkness of 1971, I remember the green slime on the steps up to the Castle, the dim lightbulbs and the dire food. Now, exhausted by overcrowded, under-resourced London, I’m happy to spend weeks and months in a small city where most attractions are in walking distance and I can drop in on concerts and exhibitions without hassle and vast expense. The overt concert scene has been dumbed down to make money and some of the picturesque events in churches are tourist traps. Still, the real thing, often to be found in the Lichtenstein Palace, where the Prague Conservatory students play, is the peerless rendering of the chamber music repertoire. Musically, Prague is beautiful, serious and culturally elevated. I can never get enough of it.

Meanwhile, almost anywhere is a pleasure to walk or jog, except perhaps the far too famous Charles Bridge, which is the first and last port of call for Prague’s eight million annual global visitors. The guidebooks extol the view from the Castle Hill, but I prefer staring out over the Vltava and the Old Town from the Letna Park. It’s only a pity that the pretty Hanak Pavilion café there seems to be controlled by the Russian mafia.

Another huge attraction is the architecture. Many late 19th-century blocks of flats are adorned with allegorical statuary glorifying the national idea; if you haven’t seen them imagine them as frozen Smetana. Art nouveau and socialist realism continued the tradition of decorative facades. I walk about with my eyes upturned to the different ages, awfully likely to meet the fate of Diogenes.

Besides the pleasure of buying my Moravian wine on tap and coping with the crisp cold, I’m also slowly learning the language. Something very basic struck me recently about attempting to speak someone else’s language. It’s an anthropologically friendly gesture. As a stranger, one offers oneself absolutely disarmed and it’s appreciated. Some of the funnier exchanges come with the Vietnamese grocers, who have their own peculiar pronunciation. Vietnamese grocers are, by the way, as characteristic of Prague as Pakistani newsagents are of London. These tiny shops, packed with real fruit and veg, remain commercially viable despite sometimes being two to a street. Apparently, they too are centrally-controlled by bigshots in their community.

The other day from the tram window I saw a man painting part of the side of a huge residential building. He was alone in the dark with his bucket and brush. I took a silent bet that, like me, he remembered old times, when at least graffiti wasn’t a problem. There are pros and cons to the maturing of a generation that knows nothing about what a police state was like. The bright, globally oriented, multilingual young are both led and misled by older folk who have conveniently forgotten the ideology, and the consequent closed and carefully supervised society that they once supported. In Britain, the rapid passing of time equally means airport security staff have no idea how it might resonate with my once dissident husband to search his books. They say they’re looking for razor blades. I’ve never read of an historian feeling lonely because of his knowledge. But I can imagine him or her these days, because of that now inconceivable world that actually ended only 20 years ago.

The post-1989 temptation in Prague has been two-fold. The first has been to legislate the totalitarian past out of existence. The entire communist era has been declared illegal. At a time when the intellectual West is obsessed with memory, the problem here is at once how to forget, so society can move on, and not forget, so justice can be done. Nothing real and honest is easy, but I would need more Czech truly to share the agony.

The second temptation has been to copy the liberal West blindly at a lag of 20 years. Pensions are set to be privatised and the national health system dismantled. Haven’t they noticed the difficulties we have had in Britain from putting economic efficiency ahead of public provision? The Crunch should at least put the brakes on overhasty reform.

When I toured the Soviet-oriented world in the early 1980s for my book In the Communist Mirror, I found myself longing for a world which combined the good things from both the liberal and the socialist models. I don’t see the past as all bad, or rather, I think intellectuals ought to be able to separate the high-minded communitarian ideals that lay behind the dreadful reality of communist life and discuss them in a way that would please Plato and Aristotle, not always throw their hats into the ideological ring. Discussing the old idealism is a bit like discussing religion. You may disagree, but it’s crude to throw the whole thing away unexamined.

Meanwhile, there’s so much talk in Britain about our apparent need for public intellectuals, but what exactly is meant by that? I’m always reminded that the engagé intellectual came via Russia and France from the world of Marx and Lenin. Because those ideologies said disinterest was impossible, every view expressed was politically committed.

My ideal public intellectual would be first and last a critic of language. Communist obfuscation was famous, but it’s astonishing how in the free world terms like “security”, “science” and “the people”, go unquestioned. Deconstruction would be a great improvement on commitment.

I pray the Crunch won’t hit too hard here. There’s no sign of it on the ground yet, with a proliferation of independent small businesses continuing to defy even globalism, let alone its near-collapse. On our corner, a new pet shop has just opened. There are several within walking distance. There are whole shops in every suburb just for spices, others for tea, for stamps, for musical instruments, for riding clothes, and none of them are chains. Prague in all its ten districts is also full of bars and restaurants. Sometimes, it seems the whole city of one and a quarter million people could eat out and there would still be empty tables. I’d hate any of this to change.

We still take long walks through the city to see how this or that neighbourhood is coming on. My husband is an historian by training. As a writer, I’ve attempted scholarly but popular history. History seems to stare us in the face. I read all the plaques and find even pubs have something to say. Our smoky local, for instance, is an unexpected shrine to Anglo-Czech friendship with a real Spitfire upended in the middle of the bar and disappearing through the ceiling. Beside the tiny cockpit is an RAF uniform and the logbook of a member of the Czech squadrons. Two such squadrons fought in the Battle of Britain. It’s the history of my father’s generation up there on the wall. Then it turns out that the life-story of the brave Czech pilot is actually fictitious.

Prague is unique, yet once when I flew here straight from Barcelona and spent one warm evening after another near floodlit historic buildings, I felt I hadn’t moved anywhere and this was simply one Europe, now filling the Charles Bridge, now strolling down the Ramblas. It is remarkable how over the last 20 years histories have become mere decorative backdrops to the chief experience of shared leisure. Then again, what happens when the money runs out?

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