Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999


On Guilty Poems, Librettos and Photographs

Tomas Pecina

Czechs have had few world-renowned poets who have won fame outside the domain of the Czech-speaking world. However, when Miroslav Holub - one such rarity - died last year, Czech dailies printed only very brief, obligatory obituaries. The reason? The poet, a signatory of the 1968 petition, Two Thousand Words, later also signed on with the Communist secret police (StB). Consequently, he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming a sort of show-piece of the liberal Communist approach to culture.

Britske listy - a Czech-language Internet daily - on the other hand, published a long article dealing with Holub's life and work, but this panegyric pearl failed to mention his encounters with the StB.

There is no doubt that the 19th-century-style nationalistic approach of placing the political opinions of the author above the importance and impact of his work, re-articulated and reinforced by the Communists, is still firmly ingrained in the Czech mind-set.

200 years ago, the Czech language was almost extinct, existing only in the form of a primitive vernacular. A common saying of the Czech Revivalists of the time was "Co je ceske, to je hezke" ("What is (in) Czech, is beautiful"). This sentiment implied that merely the state of being (in) Czech was enough to excuse a work's substandard quality.

However, not all authors writing in the Czech language were created equal: For several decades, bills announcing Bedrich Smetana's opera Prodana Nevesta (The Bartered Bride), which is considered a jewel of Czech national music and holds a permanent place in the nation's iconostasis, quoted only the initials "K S" in place of the author of the libretto or left the nameout altogether. The reason? The librettist, Karel Sabina (1813 to 1877), had been exposed as an informer of the Austrian secret police. He was thus considered an official traitor of the nation, and his name was condemned to oblivion by the national leaders.

After 1948, and in particular after 1968, Czech Communists had to cope with an ever-growing army of traitors. There were non-persons present in all walks of life. While it was not a problem to ban a book or a song, movies, which were necessarily a team effort, posed more of a technical challenge. The Communists even attempted to re-edit older movies, cutting out scenes in which prohibited or emigre actors appeared. It would be too embarrassing to see people on screen who should never have existed in the first place.

The worst blow to the Communist bigotry came in 1988 when Martina Navratilova, a phenomenal Czech tennis player and a defector (and, therefore, an eminent non-person), came to Prague as a member of the US tennis team. The sporting event turned into an anti-regime demonstration and was one of the moments that heralded the revolution the following year.

A recent example of holding the work responsible for its author is still open to the public. A photography exhibition in Prague's Old Town Hall devoted to the events of 1989 includes a collection of 17 photographs taken by a man named Daniel Sperl. The problem is that Daniel Sperl was a police officer, and the shots were taken with the permission - and presumably under the order - of the authorities.

Soon after the exhibit's opening, outraged letters of protest from public figures began appearing in the daily newspapers: How could photographs that would otherwise have been used as evidence against the participants of the demonstrations be exhibited side by side with those taken by the heroes of the Revolution? They should be destroyed, and their author put in jail!

It became obvious that the organizers of the exhibition committed nothing less than sacrilege, and that works of art, even documents, have retained their potential for serving as political profiles ("kadrovy profily") long into the post-1989 times.

Dear reader, think twice before you praise a Czech book, painting or film: you might easily commit a fatal error if your judgment is considered politically incorrect in this preposterous local sense. Always ask: "Who created it, and for whom?" If your fellow interlocutor's brow wrinkles and his face starts showing signs of nationalistic or political hatred, don't you dare mention the work anymore. After all, Shakespeare was a lucky man to have been English; had he been Czech, he could easily have ended up guilty of writing his plays under the wrong Queen...

Tomas Pecina, 5 August 1999





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