THE PAST IS ALWAYS BEING RECLAIMED
and the communist-era Palace of Culture — today a venue for trade fairs and occasional erotic entertainments. He walks past cubist apartment blocks and 19th-century national monuments. It is ‘‘ a journey of a couple of miles and a million modernities’’.
Take an individual building, the Tugendhat villa, as Sayer does, eclectically enough, even though it stands in Brno, not in Prague: but then vast tracts of this surrealist history of a single city unfold elsewhere, in mirrorings and reflections and memories and anticipations. The house was built by Mies van der Rohe for a Jewish textile factory magnate. It was requisitioned by the Gestapo after the German annexation of Bohemia-Moravia and used for some time as an office by the Messerschmitt aircraft company, before being shelled by Soviet Red Army troops and converted into a horse stable block. In 1950, returned to the Brno municipality, it became part of the local children’s hospital, and some decades later gained a new identity as an archive for the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.
But change was close at hand. In 1992, the political leaders of the Czech and Slovak republics met in the villa to complete the ‘‘ velvet divorce’’ that separated the old Czechoslovakia’s two halves into different countries. In 2001, the Tugendhat house was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage register: its value was seen to lie not in its twisting history but in the ‘‘ application of innovative spatial and aesthetic concepts’’ in its design.
A similar tale could be told of many a building in today’s Czech lands, and above all in Prague, city of reversals. The past is always being reclaimed there, never more sweetly than at the 100 year-old Paukert’s delicatessen on National Avenue, home of the muchloved oblozene chlebicky or Czech open-faced sandwich. The shop became the property of the communist state, along with every other retail outlet in the city, in 1952 by fiat, and remained so for four decades until the return of market economics. It resumed business under the old name, run this time by Jan Paukert, the son of the founder, who was in his 70s but remembered the old place well — well enough to retrieve from a walled-up cache in its cellar a crate of fine cognac, carefully hidden there in 1938.
Exile was the natural destination of the Czech surrealists once the Nazis came; of those, that is, who were lucky enough to escape. The painters made for Paris, the stage stars and directors for New York. Little Pragues sprang up everywhere. The songbird Jarmila Novotna reached Manhattan without a cent to her name and soon established herself as the star soprano of the Met. Actors Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich from the Liberated Theatre company arrived in New York in early 1939, bringing with them the blind, mournful ‘‘ Czech Gershwin’’ Jaroslav Jezek. But Jezek knew it was the end for him, even though he was making landfall in the home of jazz. ‘‘ We can’t just pop our homeland in a suitcase,’’ he lamented. ‘‘ What’s going to be good for me there? Nothing.’’ He died in the US, aged 35, of kidney failure. There were many similar tales of nostalgic foundering.
The war over, new shadows loomed. In 1949 Czechoslovakia turned communist: the prospects for the avant-garde were bleak. A familiar struggle had been raging for years in Prague’s artistic camps: was the task of the contemporary creator to make things of beauty or to advance the progressive cause? The decision was now made for them by the state. Soon enough, the ordeals and trials began. Zavis Kalandra, a journalistic supporter of Prague surrealism, an enemy of the Gestapo, a survivor of wartime concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck, had become a rank oppositionist by the time the Soviet imperium in Czechoslovakia began. He was rounded up in 1950 on charges of plotting against the regime, tormented into confession and sentenced to death.
Andre Breton, by now the undisputed pope of surrealism, mobilised in Kalandra’s defence. Who would help? Breton appealed to Paul Eluard, a Communist Party loyalist. The reply came back: ‘‘ I already have too much on my hands with the innocent who proclaim their innocence to occupy myself with the guilty who proclaim their guilt.’’ And so Breton could watch from afar and trace the downfall of the loveliest art current he had known. The night of the apocalypse was drawing near, he felt: repression was weighing on Prague, ‘‘ the magic capital of Europe’’.
The end? Not quite. Not at all, as it happens. The fitful energies of Czech cultural life seemed to vanish, to go underground, to sleep in oblivion, but in obscure apartments down winding back alleyways, forces of dissent and rebellion were stirring. In 1968 came the Prague Spring and its harsh repression by Soviet tanks; in 1989, that most joyful of uprisings, the velvet revolution, hatched on a theatre stage in Na Prikope street festooned with surrealist props. And so Prague rejoined the mainstream and claimed its place once more at the crossroads of the continent.
Freedom came, but on Western terms — a mixed blessing. The exiles returned and were unsure what to make of what their memories had become. Petr Kral, who once wrote a ‘‘ reverie-guide’’ to the city, visited soon after the revolution, when Prague was fast becoming a Western tourist trap. He saw ‘‘ brute facts in all their pitiless literalness: the ferocity of desires, the murderous stupidity of the apparatchiks and the triumphant boorishness of the new entrepreneurs, the blindness of frustrated consumers squeezed into the same parka, the omnipresent din of rock music vainly protesting the emptiness of the world’’.
All was remade. And what survives of the old century and the sweet ‘‘ Bohemia of the soul’’ the artists of the city so loved? What would Breton see, if he could rise from his grave and return to the cityscape that haunted him through his life? Well, the Charles Bridge across the Vltava is still there, and so is the street of the alchemists he once wrote about, and the ghetto clock, with its hands turning backwards. Sayer pens his own sad, gentle envoi: ‘‘ Their magic may be a little tarnished now, but seen in the early light of morning, before the souvenir shops are open and the tourists are up and about, Prague still presents a reasonable facsimile of her imagined self.’’