My "Prague: A Novel" Moment with Pavel Vondra
For those of you who don't know him or have never met him, he's Aktulane.cz's Senior Foreign Affairs Editor, responsible for all English-language sections (in Czech, rubriky) at the site, more generally. Basically, anything in the English language which goes through Aktualne's "CzechNews" pipeline, must first go through Pavel's good offices. Pavel's standards are high. His stories are atypically Czech. He covers breaking news from regions of the world the large Czech mouthpieces and media organs don't have the brass testicles to cover in their pulpy pages.
Yesterday night after Toil, we sat for a few beers near the site's spanking brand new digs in Holesovice. Yep -- as you can rightly imagine -- that's when the conversation began to get quite animated and positively politically-charged.
Do tell, you ask? Alright, then kindly allow me to indulge you...
I admitted to my interlocutor of being suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as my very first "Prague: A Novel moment."
*** POSTSCRIPT: If you haven't read any of Pavel's stuff previously, you'd be surprised to learn he's just about one of the most promising up-and-coming journalistic "Wise Old Men" this country will have seen in quite some time. ***
But first, a couple of words about Prague, um...the novel, that is.
The story, scratched out on parchment with blood for ink by Arthur Phillips (just kidding), details the longings of a group of misfit mixed Americans who somehow find themselves situated in early '90s Budapest, Hungarian Democratic Republic. They look enviously upon that which is transpiring "upstairs" in a country one above them -- up in Czechoslovakia -- and more specifically, up in Prague. They're jealous of a city -- for its era -- which has become the lightning rod for all that's bright and beautiful about the post-Communist universe. They wish to go there too, and the kampf they suffer down in Budapest is connected to the dissonance they feel about being in second-rate Budapest.
Phillips' novel is indeed a challenging read in English (his expressions are not customary -- lots of lexical acrobatics there!), and I told Pavel so. When I brought up the title, he'd surely heard of it in the past, but didn't realize the verisimilitude of what the book was describing compared to what we were getting into conversationally at our table.
Flashforward to our conversation...about Czech youth.
In the early '90s, here was the general Czech and Slovak profile for Young People in this newly democratic crater:
** eschewed the snivelling, backstabbing, opportunist ways of the last 20 years of "normalization" politics.
** competent in all manner of higher techs, and more open to foreign languages than their parents, who -- when encountering non-Czechs in the Prague streets, for example, were swift to respond with a "Nerozumim!" when you approached them in your native tongue. These same parents used to run away as well.
** despised the pain, the hurt, the imprisonment, the torture, the cruelty and the letdown their parents generation were made to suffer under Husak's Soviet-aspiring hardline regime behind the Zelezna opona (the "Iron Curtain"), and would seek ways -- in cheek-by-jowl cooperation with Poet-President Havel -- to remedy this...for all time.
But as we all know, by the end of the '90s we realized how this was all a pipe dream. We were high on newly-liberalized grass and LSD (we didn't yet know of the harms of the latter, given that such information was samizdat in Communist Czechoslovakia). And the drugs were cheap. The drugs were good.
With one successive Czech (and Slovak) political letdown after another, we realized the boundless hope that we'd placed in our elected former Communist leaders was utterly misguided.
Czech sempiternal repugnance set in like viscous molasses, and our Young People became just as malfeasant as their parents and forbears had been. The only difference was that Young People had more gewgaws and better plane and transport access to places all across Gaia in which to ply their crooked and misguided machinations.
The new profile for these happy optimistic youth instead became:
** a desire to perfect the raw, unrefined corrupt thieving talents of their predecessors; only this time with access to global markets, the world's banking system, usually hopped-up on all manner of sexy designer drugs and brandishing expensive toys. They would abscond to jetsetting destinations with alarming regularity, increasingly as places of refuge from the newly-democratic Czech police.
** to be extremely savvy technically, that would allow them to could collect graft and ply their various evil misdeeds in merely a fraction of the time it would take their parents to do so. Instead of running the other way when hearing foreign tongues, Czech and Slovak Youth became not only expressive masters in their native tongues, but could shake their swagger sticks in other global lingas franca as well: German, Chinese, Spanish, French, and, in most cases, English.
** to despise the neo-Stalinist crimes of the past, and to still be shocked and dismayed to discover the depth of the obfuscating and two-facedness of the Communist regime, yet rather than dig deeper into the past -- willing to probe the stymying mystery of things like the still-alive post-War Benes Decrees, all the while '68ers would be receiving monetary compensation for sufferings at the hands of the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact invading and occupying forces -- they'd prefer to leave well enough alone.
There's much more, but we're time-pressed folks...I'm cutting to the chase.
It was at this time that my "Prague: A Novel" moment kicked in.
Phillips was masterful in outlining in his book how the young Americans in Budapest were betrayed by time...how they arrived in Hungary with a dream of changing the way the future would spill out in front of them. How young Hungarians -- in this instance -- were hopeful that they could "write the future" according to a new set of rules.
According to the dictates of their ultimate desires.
How the mistakes of the past needn't be repeated. The future as a blank canvas. The horrors of the "'56 Generation" just a twinkle in some old fogies' eyes.
I told Pavel all this. He smiled and wholeheartedly agreed to get his hands on the novel. Though he couldn't commit to a deadline as to when he'd knock it out, knowing Pavel and his penchant for working through a couple of feet of written material each 10 hour workday, I somehow know I'd soon be hearing more about his discoveries.
Wishing you the best of weekends,
As a bonus, I've reposted 23.07.08's entry sans the allegedly offensive bits, entitled, THE THREE-COFFEE RITUAL. This was as per Editorial's instructions. (Je mi lito, @stejskal-e).
The Three-Coffee Ritual
I, like you and most residents of the Dour Village, consume more than a reasonable amount of coffee bean extract on most of my "sane" days. Today happens to be one of them.
The message has been pounded into us by the health smithees and assorted other fanatics: the totally legal drug -- otherwise known as caffeine -- has heapful therapeutic properties. The oft-repeated message has penetrated our thick skulls: coffee aids in the digestive process, coffee helps you think. Coffee is good for you.
I adhere to a rigid three-coffee Prague ritual on most mornings. Kindly allow me to break down my java consumption habits on a 1-2-3 cup-by-cup basis, a little colour for your afternoon reading pleasure.
Cup #1 -- "Assault Those Tastebuds"
** I don't need coffee to wake up, since I'm rather awake at most times and hours of the day. Yet this first cup's purpose is to slake that caffeine thirst which assaults my senses right around the first 20 minutes after arising from my otherwise royal slumber.
** Cup#1's got to be down and dirty. It's got to come fast and furious, sans flourishes, and moreover, it's got to arrive on my desk with zero delay.
** I generally polish this one off quickly. Several slurps, and it's gone (down my piehole, that is). Within seconds the elixir takes its toll. My pupils widen, my pulse shoots into the high hundreds, and the ideas start to flow, flow, flow, baby.
Cup #2 -- "Recline and Enjoy the Ride"
** This cup's strictly made for pure enjoyment. Since I practically inhaled that first piping mug, this one's brewed for the savouring.
** I generally like to move the mug around the desktop several times, angling for best position as I shift my ancient 'puter hither and tither in search of the optimal typing posture.
** I'll generally add a wee bit more milk, and perhaps even a dollop more sugar to this second round of the hot brown liquid. This stands in stark contrast to the first cup, which I attack with reckless abandon, like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in ALIENS after a long cryosleep without coitus.
Cup #3 -- "Pushing That Heart-Pumping Envelope"
** This cup follows about half-an-hour after the previous, and is -- for all intents and purposes -- completely unnecessary. By now I've got so much javajuice in me that I'm hoppin' worse than a Czech addict in Smichov in one of Topol's novels.
** I drink it because I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that this will be my final visit at a Prague-area coffee house. Every moment is precious, therefore best to top up on that feelgood while you can. Be like Russians in this regard.
** I order it because I can. I drink it because others in the world don't have the same luxury. I pay for it because I like to spread the surging Czech crown wealth and because the men and women who are the faithful servers at their respective hospitality establishments are some of the finest pro-am's I've had the good fortune of tipping.
Provided all of this goes off without a hitch, my day is golden, like the city I call home. Any deviation from this rigid itinerary, and things go awry.
You too, I guess?
Wishing you, the best of things,