THE PAST IS AL­WAYS BE­ING RE­CLAIMED

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­co­las Roth­well

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.’’

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