After a name change, it’s politics as usual in Czechia.

After a name change, it’s politics as usual in Czechia.

Last Thursday I was given a Tibetan flag to wave in front of Czech President Miloš Zeman in the small town of Zabreh na Morave. The photo above shows me under a banner in Czech proclaiming: ‘we are ashamed of you’.

I had met a Czech friend off the train, and proceeded straight to the main square along with a substantial body of townsfolk. They had gathered for a speech by the increasingly decrepit president, who has announced his candidature in the forthcoming Czech elections.

The reason my friends were flying these flags was in response to a police crackdown on pro-Tibetan demonstrators at a public meeting between the Czech President and a Chinese delegation last year. They wanted to emphasise the democratic importance of the right to protest.

As we entered the square, an innocuous-looking character sidled up to us and revealed a police ID. He was not aggressive in the least, and said he just wanted to ensure we weren’t going to raise a hue and cry during the speech. Nevertheless, it was a sinister reminder of times not long passed when the secret police merged with the civilian population.

Most of the crowd stood impassively for the President’s speech, who was hardly visible to the crowd as his failing legs compelled him to sit down for the duration. He droned on in a monotone for about half an hour, and my friends could hardly make out a word he said.

Opinion polls indicate he is still popular, and a few partisans were in evidence. At one point I was almost bowled over by a stout middle-aged lady who said we were taking up too much space. Another woman also shouted at me for obscuring her view with the flag. But people who might be vociferous Internet trolls were surprisingly demure in public, and most refused to engage in the rational debate my friends sought.

It’s fair to say that the freshly-branded country of Czechia is not in such a happy place right now. The jubilation which greeted the fall of the Iron Curtain has long passed, to be replaced with nostalgia for those repressive, but stable, times. Now, a permissive attitude to alcoholic-fuelled festivity often proceeds to toxic self-harm. Drawn by greater work opportunities and relief from a native reserve that breeds resentment, many of the brightest have left the country; leaving politicians to stoke the flames of xenophobia, thereby obscuring growing economic inequalities.

President Zeman has exploited long-standing fears of an Asiatic Other during the refugee crisis, in a country that was criss-crossed by Turks, Mongols and other invaders. He expressed the view that it would be practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Europe. To the horror of Czech liberals he has brought a rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

What appears to be the extremely remote threat of terrorism is used to instil fear by exploitative politicians, many of whom trace their power to the Communist era. Now Czechia has its own version of Silvio Burlesconi in the shape of Andrej Babiš, who is keen to see the increasingly ineffectual president serve another term.

Babiš is the second richest man in the country, and controls a number of newspaper titles, including Dnes, the popular daily. His ANO (Yes) party manifests the same populist formula as Burlesconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, claiming to be neither right nor left wing, but really perpetuating a crony capitalism, which in Czechia grew out of Communism. ANO has recently become the largest party in the chamber of deputy. Only an outstanding corruption prosecution for appropriating EU subsidies is preventing Babiš from becoming Prime Minister.

Babiš is the Slovak son of a Communist apparatchik who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. He settled in Prague after the Velvet Revolution which divided Czechoslovakia, availing of his domestic and foreign contacts to turn the state-owned Agrofert into one of the largest companies in the country, with him as its owner. His career trajectory mirrors that of other oligarchs that emerged after the break-up of the Soviet empire.

The sad thing is that this is a country with great democratic traditions. Czechoslovakia produced political titans such as Tomas Masaryk and Vaclav Havel, who have been a shining example to the world; also the literature of Kafka, Hašek and others, offered an unparalleled critique of the power of an irrational state. Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in central and eastern Europe before World War II broke out. It is difficult to square all this with the extreme xenophobia that is found in the country today.

The town of Zabreh na Morave has its own ghosts that are rarely spoken of. In 1946 under the so-called Beneš decrees over two million ethnic Germans – so called Sudetendeutsch – were forcibly removed from the country, approximately twenty thousand of them dying in the process. Zabreh was known as Hohenstadt and was a German-speaking town, though the hinterland was Czech.

Zeman’s attitude towards this issue has been typically chauvinistic; even bizarrely claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer. Considering how the Czech people have been set upon by their larger more aggressive neighbours in recent history, it is perhaps unsurprising people should be unapologetic. But unless a nation addresses a dark past, historic failings tend to recur as we saw during the refugee crisis. The approach of my friends in Zabreh reassures me, however, that there are Czechs keeping the torch of democracy alight.

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

(Published in Village Magazine, April, 2016)

Aflons Mucha’s Slav Epic enjoys pride of place in the Czech National Gallery in Prague. It is a cycle of twenty large and portentous paintings completed between 1910 and 1928 recalling the history and myths of an heterogeneous people inhabiting territory from the Asian steppe to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The artist imposes his peculiar predilections and aspirations in broad strokes to produce imagery simultaneously troubling and enthralling: a pacific nature is emphasised but a belligerent Germanic ‘other’ is also apparent.

The first painting has a contemporary resonance. Mucha claimed his intention was to depict the Origin, the Adam and Eve of the Slavs. The English guide says: ‘He portrayed them crouched down like defenceless refugees, wearing expressions of fear’. On the hill behind we see a hostile horde that have plundered and set fire to their village. Implicit is recognition that all peoples have at one time sought refuge from invasion.

But that understanding is sorely lacking in the Czech Republic today along with other countries across Central and Eastern Europe. Not since the US invasion of Iraq have attitudes differed so greatly between what Donal Rumsfeld famously referred to in 2003 as ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe.

Many in Western Europe are exasperated by the attitudes of their Central and Eastern European counterparts, regarding it as hypocrisy considering the number of Central and Eastern Europeans who have migrated west for work and previously as political refugees. Central and Eastern Europeans appear to be from Mars and Western Europeans from Venus; but there is hardly a genetic basis for the intra-continental differences.

Perhaps most surprising to Westerners are attitudes in the Czech Republic a state geographically, and to an extent culturally, Western European: Prague’s architectural splendours are further to the west than Vienna and here revolutions have been pacific Velvet affairs. The state of Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in continental Europe apart from France in 1939. But successive opinion polls have shown that Czechs to be overwhelmingly opposed to receiving refugees despite shocking scenes that have generated strong feelings of empathy elsewhere.

How to explain this apparent imperviousness to the suffering of others? Four factors appear to be at work: the first is the historical and current relationship with minorities; the second is the enduring economic fallout from the Communist era; the next factor is the malign influence of the current Czech President Milos Zeman; finally after a twentieth century during which the Czech people have been unwillingly controlled by three empires – the Hapsburg, Nazi and Soviet – there is a strong sense that the Czech people should be allowed to control their own affairs.

The Czech Republic has produced statesmen of international renown. Former playwright President Vaclav Havel was one of the heroes of the struggle against Communist dictatorship; although his equation of the extension of US power with the expansion of liberty, culminating in support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was naïve at best. Nonetheless his emphasis on individual autonomy and artistic expression was an antidote to the conformity of the dark Communist years.

Looking further into Czech history we find the great Tomas Masaryk the first president of Czechoslovakia whose liberal sentiments contrast with the hateful rhetoric that pervaded the leaderships in countries surrounding an embattled state that was effectively handed over to the Nazis by the British and French in 1938.

In a speech in 1928 marking the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the state he said: ‘I repeat and emphasize what I have said before, namely, that everything in the nature of Chauvinism must be excluded from our political life’. Arguing for a pluralist civic nationalism he said that: ‘the necessary State unity does not mean uniformity’.

Although that state did not perfectly integrate its broad composite of minorities his pacific leadership (he said that Czechoslovakia should only have an army as long as other countries did) engendered tolerance, especially religious. One individual who grew up in inter-war Prague recalls: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

Masaryk also said that: ‘politics is leadership and that democracy therefore has its constant and urgent problem of leadership’. The current President Milos Zamen is offering leadership of a different character today in Czech Republic.
Zamen is part of a rising phenomenon of politicians speaking in foul-mouthed terms about marginalised groups which has reached its apotheosis with Donal Trump is apparent in the Czech President. He regularly departs from political correctness and appeals to fear and xenophobia.

Thus in the wake of the New Year’s Cologne sex attacks he claimed that ‘it’s practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Western Europe.’ This was one in a line of statements expressing intolerance towards Islam and support for Israel.

He has also previously stoked anti-German feeling, referring to his opponent in the 2013 Presidential election Karol Schwarzenberg as a Sudetan German and claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer to Germany after World War II during which many thousands died.

The heavy-drinking President has also pursued friendly relations with Vladimir Putin and is roundly disliked in liberal, relatively cosmopolitan Prague. But his divisive views, so out of step with the legacy of Masaryk, have proved a successful political strategy and today he is the most trusted politician in the country with a 56% approval rating according to a recent survey.

A major reasons for this is the continuing discontent of the majority of the population with their economic status. Thus, in a survey conducted by the CVVM agency in October 2014, 55 percent of Czechs characterized the economic system that existed in Czechoslovakia before 1989 as ‘better’ or ‘on the whole better’ than the current one.

This nostalgia for the Communist era may come as a surprise but it reflects the two-tier economy that has grown up. Prague now contains a substantial population that have grown wealthy in particular off the back of a booming property sector that has attracted significant foreign investment.

There is also a high level of corruption that stalls development. This problem dates back to the Communist period where it was said that you weren’t looking after your family unless you stole. The Czech Republic’s proximity to wealthy European states and liberal laws have also proved an enticing focus for organised crime from around Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Moreover, in an era when wealth is flaunted as never before through social media, consumer desiderata from flash cars to the latest technologies and foreign holidays float before a population whose static income usually inhibits them from sharing the spoils. Excessive alcohol consumption is perhaps one indicator of a simmering resentment. The Czechs are among the world’s biggest drinkers and a lot of is consumed in a manner distinctly unfestive.

But perhaps the single biggest cause of unsympathetic attitudes towards refugees comes from a troubled relationship with minority groups. As indicated until the Second World the state of Czechoslovakia was a diverse society with Czechs the largest minority among Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romany. It was external factors that brought this arranged but reasonably content marriage to an end although friction, especially with the previously ascendant Germans, was apparent throughout.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the expulsions of the German minority Czechoslovakia emerged a more homogenous society a process completed by the Velvet Revolution which saw it separate amicably with Slovakia in 1993. In Prague today one sees few people of colour although there is a significant Vietnamese minority that compliantly run small shops across the city. But there remains one significant and vilified minority: the Romani.

The Romani (referred to inaccurately as Gypsies – their origin is not Egypt – and the term is regarded as a racial slur) are the descendants of migrants from northern India that came to Europe in the middle ages. Many were enslaved until the nineteenth century. The Nazis sought to eradicate them killing up to a half million, an event known as the Porajmos. Romanticised as wandering musicians, their peripatetic mode of existence is anathema to the settled industrial societies that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Under Communism they were forced into settled lives that stored resentment and bred criminality. Attitudes have hardened in Czech Republic and other nearby states despite the miscegenation that is apparent in the saturnine looks of many self-identifying ethnic Czechs. Yet many apparently open-minded people reveal what can only be described as racism towards this minority that number up to a quarter of a million in a country of ten million. The anti-social conduct of some Romani in a generally law-abiding society is a particular affront, and there is a widespread sense they receive favourable treatment from state agencies.

The appearance of a wave of dark-featured people at Europe’s gates is easily associated with the resident minority. This is compounded by the awful excesses of Political Islam that have been broadcast around the world and the challenge of integration in some European countries. There are also perhaps lingering memories of the Ottoman bogeyman who laid siege to nearby Vienna as late as 1683.

In the nineteenth canvas of his Epic Alfons Mucha reaches The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia. In it we see a hesitant and confused gathering in the snow before the Kremlin. According to the guide this reflected Mucha’s shock at the backwardness and ignorance of many of the people he encountered in a study trip in 1913.

The historical trajectory of the Czech people has been quite different from that of their Russian counterparts and ultimately it is difficult to reconcile Mucha’s pan-Slavonic vision with the historical diversity of that broad linguistic group. But the motif has a contemporary parallel as, just as freed Russian serfs struggled to reconcile themselves to the capitalist society of the twentieth century, similarly citizens of Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, have struggled to recover from first Nazi brutality and then Communist totalitarianism.

Coming after centuries of Hapsburg rule there is a firm belief that the Czech people should control their own destiny reflected in the decision to opt out of the Euro. To understand these attitudes the views of the renowned literary critique Arné Novak (1880-1939) might prove insightful. He wrote that ‘The Czech national temperament continually fluctuates between two poles: on the one hand, a self-righteous over-estimation of everything native, with a stubborn clinging to ancient prejudices; on the other hand, impatient curiosity about the latest foreign literary fashions, and a readiness for slavish imitation.’

If we are to accept this caustic assessment and apply it to Czech politics the “stubborn resistance” might be observed in a resistance to being dictated to on the issue of refugees by the European core, especially Germany. Meanwhile, a hint of ‘slavish imitation’ might be discerned in uncritical acceptance of American foreign policy.

Apart from contending with the the demands of economies presupposing inequality, the entrepreneurial spirit has been difficult to ignite in an older generation worn down by repetition and a lack of meritocracy. Further, the pernicious presence of secret police informants across society under Communism has left a legacy of suspicion and a lack of openness to strangers. Unfortunately these resentments now manifest themselves in antipathy towards those who have sought refuge in Europe, and the irresponsible statements of the Czech President have inflamed the chauvinism leading to “stubborn resistance” that his great predecessor Masaryk decried.

Europe’s angry Ukrainian frontier

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2015)

Crossing from Slovakia into Trans-Carpathian Ukraine a distinct culture comes into view. At the interchange of Çop trains from the West halt on account of different rail gauges used on the other side. Stalin ordered this to prevent ease of entry for invading armies, or escape. Crossing the frontier into the former Soviet Union might instil a little trepidation even into a seasoned traveller.

An illuminating mural in the cavernous train station depicts heroic scenes of triumphant Socialism. Trains that retain wooden benches recall another age. I knew I had left a rapidly converging Europe when the conductor smilingly declined payment after I presented too large a denomination.

I was among three other visitors to Ukraine arriving by train from Slovakia, although a border guard told me frequent car trips are made to avail of cheap petrol. The frustration of waiting on a windowless, stationary carriage – akin to a sardine tin – during a heatwave was offset by the friendliness of custom officials who simply checked for contraband medicines. No visa is required for EU visitors but the continued low level warfare in the far away east is deterring visitors despite a favourable Euro to Hryvnia exchange rate.

Borders are often a legacy of ancient battles or coincide with impassable mountain ranges or rivers that deterred conquest and absorption. A change in topography gives rise to socio-economic boundaries; shifts from upland, semi-nomadic pastoralism to settled arable land bringing larger settlements: different political regimes and ethnic compositions usually arise.

But twentieth century Europe brought more artificial borders imposed by distant remote peace treaties or later omnipotent Superpowers, and saw the decline of multi-ethnic empires. Thus Hungary was reduced from one part of a dual empire (the Austro-Hungarian) to a disgruntled rump that ruefully surveys its over two million ethnic brethren in neighbouring countries. The hated Treaty of Trianon after World War I was affirmed by that country’s alignment with Nazi Germany during World War II. Revanchist Hungary remains a potential source of instability.

There is no obvious difference in terrain between Trans-Carpathian Ukraine and eastern Slovakia, and the region contains a sizeable Hungarian minority. Yet as one travels into the surrounding countryside a different agriculture becomes apparent from the ubiquitous cash crop of maize on the Slovak side to traditional hay stacks in Ukraine gathered as of old with scythe and pitch fork. Since the twentieth century political frontiers have acted like natural boundaries accentuating patterns of development.

In Eastern Europe north of the Balkans, the legacy of Soviet victory in World War II remains largely intact. Apart from the amicable separation of Czech Republic from Slovakia in 1993 the frontiers are unchanged. The recent land grab by Russia of Crimea and incursion of irregular troops into Donetsk may herald a more turbulent phase in European history. Borders rarely shift without an accompanying tide of blood, even more perilous in an era of mutually assured destruction.

The most dramatic legacy of World War II was Poland’s westward shift, forcibly ceding significant territory to the Soviet Union in return for large swathes of eastern Germany. Millions of Poles were removed from their ancestral homes and re-located in the west. Among the territory lost was the historic city of Lviv, (Lvov to Poles) to Ukraine which contained an inter-war population two-thirds Polish. Lviv is now almost entirely Ukrainian although reminders of the Polish period include a statue to their national poet Adam Mickiewicz, who was actually born in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania.

Lvov was annexed by the Austrian Hapsburg Empire (and re-named Lemberg) in 1772, in the first Partition of Poland, becoming capital of Galicia which was the poorest province of the Empire. But this period left a remarkable architectural legacy that prompted UNESCO to designate the historic centre to be a part of “World Heritage”.

Today Lvov is relatively prosperous, drawing a large number of tourists from neighbouring Poland. Predictably the old city is fringed by a swathe of functionalist Soviet-era apartment blocks, but it retains an abundance of old world charm and the hum of cafés that spill onto carless streets. There are nonetheless signs of a country at war with offensive toilet roll featuring a picture of Vladimir Putin available in souvenir shops and stands erected by the Far Right Svoboda Party supporting the war effort.

I spoke to one women of student age who railed against a terrorist, separatist threat to the integrity of the state. She could have been mistaken for someone referring to the existential threat posed by ‘enemies of the people’ in Soviet times. The uncompromising language of extremism is unmistakable.

The demise of the archaic, multinational Hapsburg Empire after World War I might be seen as the death knell for so-called Mitteleuropa. Most successor states that emerged in the Versailles settlement were inspired by a nationalist vision promoting a single culture, and hostile to diversity within the confines of the state. In contrast during the imperial era cities at least were a mosaic of religious and linguistic groups.

The population of ethnically variegated Mitteleuropa was particularly unsuited to the identification of a nation with a single state that reached a violent apotheosis with the Nazi ideology of the master race. Transnational Jewry were the most obvious victims but anti-Semitism was not limited to the Nazis, continuing into the Cold War-era: as late as the 1960s thousands of Jews fled Poland in the wake of various purges.

Jews had flocked to Poland in great numbers at the end of the Middle Ages due to the tolerance shown there compared to the rest of Europe. It became known as paradisus Iudaeorum (paradise for the Jews) and contained two thirds of the continent’s Jewish population. Great centres of learning were establish in cities including Lvov and agrarian settlements known as shtetl that contained many layers of Jewish life dotted the countryside. There Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew script, found its highest expression.

The writings of Joseph Roth (1894-1939) recalls the extraordinary cultural diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Born a Jew in the city of Brody near Lviv in the province of Galicia, The Radetzky March is a paean to the fallibility of that Empire; his journalistic account of Eastern European Jewry The Wandering Jews remains a valuable insight into the remarkable diversity of the Jewish populace.

Roth despised passing through the numerous frontiers that impeded his passage erected in his lifetime, and that of many others, throughout Europe. He wrote ‘a human life nowadays hangs from a passport as it once used to hang by the fabled thread. The scissors once wielded by the Fates have come into the possession of consulates, embassies and plain clothes men’. The possession of a particular passport at that time was indeed a matter of life or death. A melancholic alcoholic, Roth committed suicide in Paris in 1939 just before the Europe he knew was consumed by the fires of hatred.

The Versailles settlement also created what now seems the curious state of Czechoslovakia, stretching almost a thousand miles from east to west, as a homeland for Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians (or Rusyns as they were then known), but also containing large and disgruntled German and Hungarian minorities. In the aftermath of the Munich Agreement of 1938 which dismembered that country, the far eastern province of Ruthenia containing most of that Ukrainian population was annexed by Hungary, but was transferred to Ukraine itself after the arrival of the Red Army in 1945.

The First Czechoslovak Republic was a microcosm of the Hapsburg Empire with republican institutions. Although clearly dominated by its Czech constituent, many of its first leaders such as Thomas Masaryk were socially progressive, and eschewed narrow-minded nationalism. It is perhaps Europe’s tragedy that his vision of a multi-ethnic democratic state did not endure.

The Europe of Joseph Roth and Thomas Masarky was torn asunder by the twin hydras of Nazism and Stalinism. Ironically one of the groups that suffered most was the German populations who were forced out of their ancestral lands across Eastern Europe, many thousands perishing in the process. Europe is the poorer for the homogeneity of many states.

Perhaps the arrival of the idea of a political and cultural Europe might generate a more accommodating reaction to minorities, but unfortunately attitudes in Ukraine suggest the idea of Europe itself can be exclusionary, as if humans feel the need to find an oppositional Other.

This exclusionary idea of Europe is not limited to Ukraine as nearby states also identify enemies within. The Romany people remain a pitiable underclass in most places they live. Latterly migrants fleeing political turmoil in the Middle East have been greeted by barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border. We have yet to reach an epoch when cultural diversity is seen as a boon. It would be tragic if the political idea of a Europe, a response to the conflagrations of the early twentieth century could become the case of further conflict.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/09/europes-angry-ukrainian-frontier/)

Between Music and Prose

(Published in Village Magazine, April 2015)

In her recent Michael Littleton lecture for RTE ‘Has Poetry a Future?’ Eavan Boland identifies the ‘vertical’ audience it has enjoyed through history. Many hallowed poets, such as Keats, did not find a public in their own time but their words may echo across the ages unlike other forms of culture which may have a short-lived or ‘horizontal’ appeal. She argued that those who assert poetry’s present irrelevance are hopelessly myopic.

In a recent book of prose essays: Say But The Word: Poetry as Vision and Voice leading Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail also explores the point of poetry. He writes: ‘The role of poetry is often seen as that of guardian of a language. However I would like to extend this somewhat to include the more dynamic concept of an ecology, which stresses both a mutual responsibility and a continuing process of renewal.’ Poets assert authenticity in the languages of the dynamic societies they inhabit.

O’Siadhail identifies a confluence of the language of heart and mind in poetry that serves as a refuge from daily corruptions where: ‘our core words – ‘motherhood’, for example – are daily exploited and polluted to tempt us to consume.’

Even if poetry is not overtly political it may still perform a vital role in creating a dissonance that subtly subverts power structures. O’Siadhail quotes Vaclav Havel from An Anatomy of Reticence approvingly: ‘even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the “hidden consciousness” of a community …. it is vital that we remind ourselves that whether there is a visible political content or not is irrelevant. At a much more fundamental level, any poet who unswervingly pursues an artistic truth, is potentially political.’ Under Communism in Czechoslovakia poets like Havel resisted a totalitarian regime by bending the language of authority. O’Siadhail wonders ‘whether Osip Mandelstam did know what he was talking about when he said that he measured a civilization by the number of its poetry readers’.

But O’Siadhail does identify a danger lest Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot have indeed developed a self-absorbed and potentially redundant poetry. He explains: ‘The clear danger of this interiority is an opting out of society and a refusal to take any responsibility for shaping a wider meaning. Apart from the risk of solipsism and plain self-indulgence, there is the risk of turning poetry into a kind of private piety, which ends up marginalising poetry or branding it as some kind of academic pursuit not appropriate to the ordinary reader of books’.

A further question to ponder is whether contemporary poetry should be embraced at the expense of the old: most obviously in the secondary school syllabus. Should teenagers be asked to engage with and perhaps recite older poems if the subject matter seems remote to their experiences, and even if the views of a poet would seem outmoded in the science classroom next door?

Seen through the lens of its ‘vertical’ influence, educators should be hesitant to alter the canon in the interest of inclusiveness, or of according a rapid recognition to poets who have attained popularity in their lifetimes. Engaging with old masters might give students a better sense of the contingency of established ideas.

Unfortunately this gives rise to gender imbalance, but there is little point including unremarkable poetry for the sake of political correctness. Moreover a more nuanced view of gender might allow us to identify a feminine voice in any verse notwithstanding its author. Poetry is more than a personal undertaking but a common inheritance of a language. O’Siadhail quotes Edward Sapir who wrote in 1921: ‘Every language is itself a collective art of expression … An artist utilises the native esthetic resources of his speech. He may be thankful if the given palette of colours is rich, if the springboard is light. But he deserves no special credit for felicities that are the language’s own.’

Boland’s distinction between the vertical and horizontal might also apply over the course of an individual’s lifetime: when he first encounters a poem a student might find little beyond conjunctions of words with a musical ring to them but over the course of a lifetime they may begin to inhabit the ideas expressed. In that sense the old method of teaching poetry as an oral form where lines are learnt by heart to be recalled in future seems worthwhile.

Reflection on the work, a child’s search for meaning, might then be conducted in a more personalised, instinctive, way as opposed to developing an understanding for the sake of an examination demanding the often cynical obligation to deconstruct.

In this collection that spans many years of reflection, O’Siadhail, an intensely gifted poet, addresses the tension between form and content laying bare his artistic process with great clarity. He examines the workings and appeal of the sonnet, the haiku, of Dante’s terza rima and the free form of the Black Mountain Poets and Beats.

Ultimately O’Siadhail does not assert the superiority of any one among them, stating: ‘My own feeling is that both the howls of the Beats and the ‘open field’ of the Black Mountain Poets may have done us all a great service on both sides of the Atlantic. It may have been necessary for a while to move away from the perceived stuffiness of formality, to leave the stanza behind and to give free rein to a line based more on breath and utterance. He concludes that: ‘the use of form is now a matter of choice … It is like a move from an arranged marriage to a life of voluntary commitment.’

As a poet trained in linguistics he offers rare insights into the archaeology of languages and the challenge of translation. He quotes Dante who declared that ‘nothing harmonised by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony’; although adding that: ‘For all the well-known dictums about the failure of all translations, from time to time the magic happens and the meaning and form combine in English to catch the wonder and spirit of a poem’.

As a linguist he draws from a rich array of sounds and meanings and is unhesitant about using them in his verse. He writes: ‘It is by no means necessary for a poet to be aware of the dynamic layers of language rules and developments, no more than a musician need be a mathematician or a sculptor a geologist. Yet is fascinates.’

He also explores the inspiration for his work: ‘I never know what it is that chooses the form. Sometimes it is the donné, the line that comes from nowhere as a surprise and offers a rhythm and pattern.’ The sonnet feels appropriate when he is ‘multiply overwhelmed’ in the words of his long-time intellectual interlocutor and one of the editors of this volume theologian David F. Ford.

O’Siadhail does not identify an explicitly religious dimension to his work, although his affection for the poetry of George Herbert is revealing and he quotes Patrick Kavanagh approvingly to the effect that: ‘poetry has to do with the reality of the spirit of faith and hope and sometimes even charity. It is a point of view. A poet is a theologian.’

Another subject that O’Siadhail explores is the relationship between poetry and music. Regarding the latter he remarks slightly dismissively: ‘I remember how surprised I was, when I took lessons in classical harmony, at how mathematical and arithmetic it seemed.’ He situates poetry ‘in the middle of a spectrum, which stretches between music and prose. The pulse and delight of rhythm, the varied pitch of a sentence and the sheer bodily sound of ‘voluptuous words’ have many of the physical qualities of music’.

But poetry also encompasses ‘the dimension of the concept and metaphor which music evades. The endless intrigues, the delights, the insistences and inadequacies of language, the vagaries of words.’

Unfortunately O’Siadhail does not discuss the merit or otherwise of balladeers who have for long used language in song to convey emotions and ideas. Certainly it is through the lyrics of songs that most people encounter poetry today. Admittedly the extensive horizontal audience of a crooner like Hozier seems likely to fade away but others such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan may enjoy that cherished vertical audience. A question to pursue might be whether music enhances the linguistic content of poetry and vi-se-versa?

In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

Finally, O’Siadhail engages with poets he admires or have exerted an influence on him. In one particularly stimulating essay he compares the respective oeuvres of W.B. Yeats and Rilke.

He regards Yeats as ‘the absolute master of the sonorous line that drums into our memory. No poet, in any language that I know, can compare with him for this reverberating tone that he had right from very early on’. But he says that the poems of Rilke ‘are for me even more memorable that those of Yeats. The pitch of intensity is achieved not along the battlements of argument but rather by the firm, suggestive yet gentle tone of a friend who insists we never lost sight of ultimate meaning’.

O’Siadhail is appalled by the politics of Yeats who dabbled in fascism and eugenics. He says: ‘for all the outstanding gifts of the great master of sound, he remains at heart an escape artist, a lover of might-have-beens, of imagined grandeurs, of vast theories and myths.’ But this seems an overly harsh commentary on Yeats whose politics shifted considerably over the course of his lifetime. We need not excuse his flirtation with fascism but it should be viewed in the context of an inter-war era when competing ideologies held sway and without the hindsight of the genocides that followed. A poet with such a vast body of work as Yeats and who brought such jarring honesty to his work might be forgiven for some excesses.

He also explores the poetry George Herbert, Samuel Beckett, Denise Levertov, Kavanagh and Mary O’Donnell who he magnanimously declares to be the outstanding poet of her generation.

In O’Siadhail’s view poetry will continue to be a vital aspect of our culture and poets will always be confronted by the ‘terrible inadequacy of words – always falling short of desire. The ungraspable joy, the un-communicable sorrow. And even here there is another paradox. The drift and shortcomings of language. This causes us to fail again and again and also urges us to begin afresh, poem after poem, generation after generation.’ Or to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘fail again fail better’.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/between-music-and-prose/)

 

A Czech in Ireland (longer version)

(Unpublished, 2016)

The Irish Free State avoided most of the depredations of World War II. There were casualties from a few bombing raid and Belfast suffered grievously but the Emergency is mostly remembered for insufficient white bread and Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy with a letter of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler.

Moreover, in an era before mass aviation refugees found it difficult to travel to Ireland and the authorities issued few visas either before or after the war. There were notable exceptions such as the Viennese couple Edward and Lisl Strunz who ran The Unicorn Restaurant for many years.

Another refugee from the period was Denis Scrivener (née Zdenek Skrivenek) who first escaped to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the eve of the World War II. He returned home in 1945 but felt compelled to leave permanently in 1949, this time moving to Ireland accompanied by an Irish wife Nan Keating and their young daughter Maria. After overcoming significant adversity in his adopted country he became a successful businessman, setting up Farmhand that employed up to fifty people.

Scrivener’s story is recorded in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland). Written with clarity and honesty, it offers a touching insight into the human toll of seismic political events: first the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 only months after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler that promised ‘peace in our time’, and handed the country over to the Nazis without a bullet being fired; then a Communist dictatorship that followed World War II and lasted until 1989.

Denis’s father was a furrier and during the inter war years ran a successful shop in the centre of Prague. He led a privileged existence with summer trips to the French Riviera and displayed an abiding interest in the opposite sex to the understandable irritation of Denis’s mother. She had lost her first husband in the First World War although she had a child, Lilly, by him, six years older than Denis the only child from the second marriage. From his account it seems Denis enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood animated by winter sports and cultural visits to surrounding countries.

Denis’s parents met in his mother’s native Vienna but settled in his father’s homeland: the new state of Czechoslovakia, born after World War I, which prospered under the liberal guidance of Thomas Masaryk who was president from 1919 until his death in 1935.

Denis escaped to London in 1939 before the German invasion but his remaining family harboured a secret that would prove fatal to some of them. Although officially Roman Catholic Denis’s mother was Jewish by ancestry. In liberal inter-war Czechoslovakia that did not appear to be of any consequence. Denis recalls that: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

That changed abruptly when the Germans invaded. If the Nazis discovered that Denis’s father was married to a Jew he too would have been considered one under their race laws. Denis asserts that: ‘if my father’s character had been less strong than it was then his infatuation with another woman could have caused a premature and tragic end to my mother’s life. Not an exaggeration to say this, merely a reflection on the realities of the time.’

His father did not succumb to that temptation despite his wife discovering at least one of his infidelities and being in Denis’s estimation ‘a rather difficult wife to live with’: albeit her husband’s conduct might have explained any irascibility.

Alas Denis’s sister Lilly was not so fortunate. She and her two children Inuska and Tomicek were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941. Here, remarkably, she re-married and the family survived for two years in no small part down to the influence of Mr Skrivenek who from outside procured extra rations for his step-daughter’s family. But alas Lily, her two children and husband Kuba were all transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, a fate that befell most of Denis’s Jewish relations.

During the occupation Denis’s parents were also incarcerated by the Nazi authorities, and even subjected to solitary confinement, for a period of ten months. Miraculously his mother’s Jewish background was not exposed. This came about because they were denounced to the Gestapo for currency fraud by Denis’s mother’s own sister, who had moved to New York before the war. She informed on them because some of her property had not been sent to her. It reveals his mother’s attachment to her family that she could overlook this treachery to the extent that for a time in the late 1960s they would even live together in Dublin.

In 1939 Denis had escaped on one of the last trains out of the country. At the British border controls in the Netherlands what helped him through without a visa was a good knowledge of English learnt at the English Grammar School in Prague. But for that he might have suffered the fate of the failed applicants who he observed being beaten up by the Dutch police and bundled on a train back into the jaws of Nazi Germany.

Denis worked various jobs on arrival in wartime Britain. He found employment in a munitions factory in what he considered the dowdy town of Warrington where willingness to work long hours for extra pay brought friction with the union that felt this showed his fellow workers in a bad light. But he mainly lived in London where he became a waiter in The Dorchester serving, among others, Winston Churchill and the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. It was then that he met and fell in love with a Tipperary nurse Nan Keating. They married in 1943 in London.

But their honeymoon was a hurried weekend in Southend-on-Sea as Denis had by then volunteered for the Free Czech Army. He joined a tank regiment and was soon acting as an instructor. He paints a bleak picture of army life that recalls episodes from the great anti-war Czech novel The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. He admits that life ‘for many months was difficult to endure’, as he encountered bullying officers and dreadful food. Denis’s regiment arrived in France two weeks after the D-Day landings in 1944.

As the Americans and British armies swept through Western Europe Denis’s regiment stayed put containing German forces in Dunkirk. They sustained considerable casualties from artillery bombardment but Denis emerge unscathed. Through his eyes we see the misery and filth of war and how simply surviving from one day to the next becomes an overriding objective. At least with a keen eye for a profit margin, that would serve him well in later years, he enhanced his paltry allowance by selling his cigarette rations at a substantial mark-up to the liberated French.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945 and at last he returned to Czechoslovakia in the wake of American forces in 1945 who halted in Pilsen to allow Soviet forces liberate Prague. Now within 100km of his native city Denis resolved to make his way there before he had leave to do so.

Travelling by motorbike terrible thoughts ran through his mind. He had had no contact with his family for six years and the Jewish Holocaust was being revealed. At his parents pre-war apartment he found no sign of their names on the residents’ list outside. His heart sank but at last he found out from a neighbour that their plush pre-war residence had been commandeered by the invaders. They had moved to an inferior flat, but it seemed they were alive.

When his mother opened the door to him she promptly fainted, but soon recovered and was delighted to hear of his marriage. His father, typically, asked whether his wife had good legs. Only later did Dennis learn of his sister’s fate, her family’s, and many others. He managed to re-join his regiment without repercussions and soon returned to Prague to resume his pre-war employment in his father’s firm.

Nan Keating arrived in Prague after some months on a British aeroplane. The couple found a stylish apartment on Wencelas Square in the heart of Prague’s Old Town and the joviality of the inter-war years seemed to be returning. For some time the young couple were able to soak up Prague’s alluring night life. Soon a first child, Maria, was born and Nan, who had already acquired some Czech in London, was learning about Czech cuisine under the critical gaze of her not always helpful mother-in-law. But that pleasant interlude would not last long as Nazi tyranny was quickly followed by Communist dictatorship.

The Communist party was well supported in pre-war Czechoslovakia and had been to the fore in opposition to the Nazis. In 1947 elections the party won over 30% of the vote and led a coalition government. But the country was effectively left to the Soviet Union by the Western Powers as it had been to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

This became apparent when often unruly Russian soldiers began to flood the city. Denis recalls how they became: ‘more evident around Prague and their chief leisure occupation became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

His anxiety grew as the Communists gradually asserted total power expelling other parties from the government. His tipping point was the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the Tomas Masaryk. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the foreign ministry.

Denis resolved to emigrate to his wife’s country which he had never visited, though he did consider returning to London which Nan would have preferred. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Unfortunately adventurous and romantic choices do not necessarily make for an easy life.

Their mind was made up when a visa arrived from the Irish Department of Justice and they were on their way to Ireland just after Eamon de Valera left office after sixteen years in power. The thrusting, cosmopolitan Czech was in for a testing period when he arrived in the economically-stagnant and inward-looking Ireland of the 1950s.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Denis arrived first with his daughter, the three year old Maria, who stubbornly refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan soon followed.

The problem for Dennis was that for all his business acumen he arrived without a regular trade or profession and the furrier business wasn’t booming in post-war Ireland. He hatched a number of schemes from importing biros to manufacturing toys but for much of the 1950s he was forced into long hours of unrewarding and often menial labour.

Along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy. He endured a particularly unpleasant episode under the employment of one Cork businessman who forced him into hard labour with the promise that he would be given a motor car sales franchise in Dublin. He bitterly recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against. But at least Denis exacted a measure of revenge against that businessman in the courts.

Through hard work and persistence Denis slowly made his way by becoming a skilled salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Dennis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. Within a few years these skills brought rewards and he eventually launched his own company which he called Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today.

He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’ But he retained an affection for the country and even after he had handed over Farmhand to his son John and spent a few years in the UK and Canada he decided to return to live out his final years in his adopted country.

It is revealing that Denis should recall one particular episode from this childhood. An older boy, unknown to him or his friends, noticed the commotion and asked Denis if he would like to be shown how to perform a figure of eight. Denis was delighted at the prospect and handed over the bike. The boy performed the stunt and promptly cycled off on his new bike. Denis’s life was punctuated by loss, material and otherwise, and he encountered a few con-men along the way but he would work hard to restore his fortunes.

His account shows what life was like for an ordinary person living through terrible times and finding a sanctuary of sorts in a remote country where he struggled to make his way. On an epic journey he encountered all sides of the human character and confronted sustained adversity making him a remarkably resourceful individual but perhaps the constant striving left him a troubled man too. The drive that brought him such success left little time for family life and it might come as no surprise that Nan and he separated after he became successful.

His survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example suggests that those wishing to enter Europe will also offer a dynamism and hard work ethic to their host societies.

A Czech in Ireland

(Published in the Irish Times 5/4/16)

Seventy years ago in 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the largest political party in free elections forming a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. By that time Denis Scrivener (nee Zdenek Skrivenek) had returned to Prague with his new Irish wife Nan Keating. But the Communist Party soon became a tool of the Soviet Union and a dictatorship followed for over forty years.

Denis had survived war-time exile in Britain where he met Nan and joined up with the Free Czech Army, crossing the channel just after D-Day in 1944 and seeing action around Dunkirk. His remarkable story and subsequent life in Ireland is recounted in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland).

The half-Jewish Denis had already endured the murder of his sister and her two children in the Holocaust along with numerous other family members. Now demobilised he observed unruly Russian soldiers flooding into Prague. He recalls how their chief leisure occupation: ‘became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

Denis had returned to work in his father’s successful furrier business and he and Nan were living on Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. By that stage Nan had learnt Czech and together they enjoyed a lightness that settled briefly over Prague before the unhappy tide of history washed through once more.

A daughter, Maria, was born but Denis’s anxiety was growing over what was happening as the Communists asserted total power by expelling other parties from the coalition.

He made up his mind after the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas Masaryk the founding father of Czechoslovakia. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the ministry.

Denis resolved to live in his wife’s country which he had never visited, though Nan would have preferred a return to London. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Their minds were made up when an Irish visa arrived from the Department of Justice.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Dennis arrived first with his daughter Maria who initially refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan followed soon.

In time Denis would become a successful entrepreneur but along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy.

He endured a particularly unpleasant experience with one Cork businessman who tricked him into hard labour with the promise of a Dublin franchise. He recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against.’

At last Denis became a salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Denis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. In 1962 he launched his own company Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today. He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’

Denis’s survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country, as I do now in Prague on a romantic journey in the opposite direction. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example illustrates how migrants often bring a hard work ethic and dynamism to their host societies.

(http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-about-denis-scrivener-an-enterprising-czech-in-ireland-1.2597944)

In Defence of Kundera’s Absurdity

(Published in Village Magazine, November/December 2015)

Portentousness is the word that best describes most Anglo-American literary criticism. The canon seems to demand erudition and a knowing hauteur loaded with an impression of being slightly jaded by the cocktail party circuit. That at least is the tone favoured by the Times Literary Supplement whose reviewers tend to devour books as A. A. Gill does restaurants.

Attending functions when I wrote for The London Magazine (a lesser breed of the same genus) I encountered a few of London’s bottom-feeding literati, one of whom I bitterly recall communally ordering wine that adorned a list purely to capture the foolish largesse of a patron. Here one of Dr Johnson’s aphorisms seems apposite: “criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” Best to go Dutch at such soirees.

After enjoying without entirely comprehending the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera’s latest book The Festival of Insignificance I noticed a review of it by Michael Hoffman in the Time Literary Supplement. Notwithstanding the mortal sin of referring to another’s review, Hoffman’s excoriation was so venomous that I was inspired to share my own reaction. His article culminates in the assessment that: “It reads like something one of Kundera’s enemies might have written, and passed off as his”. This was a hatchet job of Viking proportions.

Prior to casually dismembering the corpse with the grubby gusto of a journalist on a junket, he dismisses the oeuvre of one of the most original novelists of the last century in surprisingly gastronomic terms as: “addictive, moreish, still fresh, thin textured, a little unsatisfying (perhaps that goes with their addictiveness) and obvious.” It was as if Gill had been asked to assess Nando’s menu.

Perhaps Kundera’s real crime in the eyes of many of the Anglo-American literary elite is to have declared himself a French author, and written a number of novels in that language. With some foundation French culture is now roundly dismissed as decadent and trapped in recollection of past glory, although Michel Houellebecq makes a virtue of this. The idea of an unadulterated émigré Czech writer is far more appealing, but, like Samuel Beckett, Kundera has found expression in the language of his adopted country, and his work may be more interesting for that cross-fertilization.

Like all good (it is hasty to ascribe greatness at this historical juncture) writers of fiction, Kundera shines a light on universal human traits. Eschewing conventional structure in favour of fractured tales, the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. As in real life, grand narratives are not apparent but overlapping, quotidian sequences. Within that schema he distils ideas that shines an elusive light on eternal truths. This might be the addictive quality Hoffman describes but really the compulsion arises from sublime observations on the human experience seemingly obvious but actually quite original.

My favourite example remains his exposition on litost, in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it …”

Kundera expands on its meaning by way of anecdote.

She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student [the boy] made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country road. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face.”

Acute awareness of what he does grudgingly translate as: “a state of torment brought upon by the realization of one’s inadequacy or misery,” helps us understand the origin of so much anger and the antidote to it. Kundera turns an isolated word in a minor European language into a near-universal susceptibility. In literature a mark of genius is to make the original seem obvious. We become one with the writer.

Kundera’s most recent work does leave an impression of incompleteness compared to previous more substantial novels but certainly not to the extent of Hoffman’s outlandish assessment. It contains a number of powerful insights: first there is his development of the archetype of the Narcissus that might serve as a lesson to some clever men who cannot understand how an objective of desire resists their advances.

He writes:

‘When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine, to not give herself without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible …

The Narcissus on the other hand is not proud:

‘A proud man has disdain for other people, he undervalues them. The Narcissus overvalues them, because in every person’s eyes he sees his own image, and wants to embellish it. So he takes care of all his mirrors.

The Narcissus is thus reduced to a person of little significance, the unlikely partner, his skill like that of a successful spy who gets under the covers almost unobserved. He the subject sees a reflection of himself in the object of his desire, and his interlocutor is content with that unchallenging proposition. Kundera fails to say if this works both ways.

Like many of his novels The Festival of Insignificance meanders. Characters pop in and out without a complete picture of anyone emerging: like the failed actor who along with a friend develops a pseudo-Pakistani language complete with a grammatical structure to make his job as a waiter less tedious; then there is a character who for no particular reason tells a friend that he is dying from cancer; we also meet a woman who is saved from suicide and in the process accidentally takes the life of her saviour.

Much of the book defies simple interpretation especially the surreal closing sequence. Perhaps in his dotage Kundera is simply telling us to revel in absurdity, the main forum of which is joking with friends, confiding at one point “in my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: friendship”. One of his characters says: “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.” We might consider this a sign of his Kundera’s decadence, but for Czechs of his generation humour could be an act of defiance against a totalitarian state.

For lurking in the background is the figure of Joseph Stalin of whom we gain glimpses, apparently, from the memoirs of Khrushchev, though it would not be beyond Kundera to make this all up. In his account Stalin spends much of his time humiliating his entourage for his amusement especially the unfortunate Kalinin. But he discovered at a certain point: “nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is.” And in Kundera’s view: “that’s the beginning of a whole new period of history.”

As a Czech born in 1929 and living in that country until 1975 Kundera cannot escape that shadow of Stalinism. He himself had his academic career impeded in the 1950s. He may embrace his less troubled new home but the memory of that fearful epoch cannot be dismissed. The “whole new period of history” are those decades when lightness and frivolity were lost. Perhaps he’s saying that we must uphold that in the face of all the hypocrisy today.

In this short book there are various themes that a reader might be drawn to. Ignored in this review is the attention he pays to the significance of the sexualisation of the navel or how humanity is divided into apologisers and those whose instinct is to go on the attack. There is plenty to muse on and its disembowelment is misplaced.

Moreover, it seems perverse for a critic to read the oeuvre of a writer seemingly with the intention of devouring it, as a defence council would a prosecution case in a court of law. To earn a living critics are compelled to read a book, view a film or eat in a restaurant, but many turn it into an unedifying blood sport.

The poet and scholar Kathleen Raine wrote in Defending Ancient Springs: “The power to perceive the beautiful arises from a quality of consciousness: something forever inaccessible to the apparatus criticus, which can be manipulated by persons who do not possess this quality at all”. She adds that: “At best scholarship, by placing in our hands knowledge which we should not otherwise possess, can fit us to read the works of the poets, to decipher what they have written.” Sadly literary criticism is often a platform for the unbridled ego. Kundera’s latest novel attests to the untamed imagination of the author.

http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/02/in-defense-of-a-transcendent-absurdity/