Interview: Mariusz Szczygiel — “Only Czechs would celebrate a hero who never existed”

18 July 2012 – Presseurop Notebook

For several years he has been mulling over the Czech national character and the distinctive Czech sense of humour. His numerous stays in the Czech Republic have resulted in several books, the best-known of which, “Gottland”, won the 2009 European Award Book Prize for the best European book.

It took him a long time to realise why he had begun to write about this country. “It was only with my psychotherapist that I discovered the truth – why I like the Czechs. When I write stories and reports on the history of Czechoslovakia, on characters I shake my head over – such Orwellian-Kafkaesque types – I’m actually writing about myself,” admits Polish journalist Mariusz Szczygiel.

In your new book, **Heavenly Love*, which has just come out in Polish, you write that the Czechs were created to raise the spirits of the Poles. What makes Czechs so funny to the Poles?***

It starts with language. Poles get a lot of laughs from Czech. The Czech expression “Láska nebeská (Heavenly love)” means “blue wand” in Polish. “Láska (Love)” also means a slim young girl, or penis, in Polish. When I hear Czech, I get a metaphysical orgasm.

When Poles don’t understand something, they say “it’s like a Czech film”. At this year’s festival in Karlovy Vary Czech director Marek Najbrt introduced a film called Polski Film. According to the Czech critics, Poles can’t understand it. Are we not condemned to a kind of patriotic national misunderstanding?

Actually, that’s exactly why I’m so busy. I feel a little like a translator of Czech culture. Some translate books into foreign languages; I suppose I translate culture. And I work not only for Poland but for Europe too, so my books come out in other countries. Speaking about films, a friend recently sent me an interesting book about Czechoslovak posters. A Czechoslovak film that won an Oscar – “The Shop on Main Street” – is described on the Polish poster as a “psychological drama”, but on the Czechoslovak poster it’s described as a “tragicomedy”. Milos Forman’s film, “Loves of a Blonde”, is described in Poland as a “celebrated psychological drama”, but in Czechoslovakia as a “comedy.” On the Czech poster for the film Morgiana there’s a laughing woman; on the Polish poster, a stricken woman under a skull and crossbones.

Poles are interested in Czech literature, theatre and film – and in your books you refer to Bohumil Hrabal, Jaroslav Hasek*, Ota Pavel, and the films of*** **Jan Svěrák and **Petr Zelenka*. Do these authors have a common denominator that would explain the interest in them in Poland?***

We in Poland feel that those authors and filmmakers do not take life too seriously. A certain distancing, and one more step away from oneself, is the basis of Czech culture. I’ll give you an example. At the time when Alphonse Mucha was considered the most famous Czech painter, in recognition of his status he was asked to design the first Czechoslovak banknotes after Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent state in 1918. In them he immortalised his wife Maruška (on the hundred-crown note) and daughter Jarka (the ten-crown note). I really like that, because it’s another example of Czech culture not being too pompous. Can you imagine a state where someone would put their relatives on the banknotes? In Poland? No chance. The banknotes have to have heroes on them.

Of course, I know that Czech culture has its intrinsic elements of religion, metaphysics, depression, or lyrical elements etc., but that doesn’t interest most Poles. We’re interested in Czech joys. I’m just trying to explain that that joy is often a result of grief, that it’s a kind of lifeboat, a form of self-defence.

The thesis of your new book is that the Czech mentality ennobles the everyday, because it does not believe in God and an afterlife. Why does that so affect the Poles, who are largely religious?

From the top of Borůvková hora (Blueberry Mountain) in the Zlaté Hory (Golden Mountains), you can see the Czech-Polish frontier. There’s a buffet there, and on its walls are inscriptions in both languages. Every day, the Czechs who run the buffet write up on the wall the name that’s being celebrated that day in the Czech Republic and Poland – the so-called “name day”. My friend has been there several times.

One day the fellow running the buffet invited him into the back and showed him a sign with an inscription in both languages, which had to be taken down off the wall and hidden away after Polish tourists asked for it to be removed. Do you know what it said, and what scared my countrymen so much? I quote: “Eat and drink while you live; after death, you will have no joy.” Well, in short, we’re Catholics, and we feel that we have a patent on the truth, and that Catholicism has the answer to all questions. And what’s more – how can anyone allow himself not to believe in God? Maybe Czechs think they’re better than we are, because they have no fear of God? That’s audacity.

That predilection of Czechs for the everyday life, though, is also bound up with a certain laziness. The Czechs’ favourite word is “peace”. While Poles are fighters, Czechs have always gone for the easier way. This was true in the fight against communism, which culminated in the so-called Velvet Revolution. We were almost the last country where the Iron Curtain fell...

In short, the Velvet Revolution was made for you by someone else. Communism had to fall in Czechoslovakia too when it crumbled everywhere else in Europe. It’s interesting that on June 4 1989, when the first free non-communist parliamentary elections were taking place in Poland, in Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel was still sitting in prison.

The Czechoslovak film director Fero Fenič made the film “Strange Beings”, which tells of the last night of communism. Fenič had foretold that night, because the film had actually started shooting in February 1989, but – as he says – no Czech actor in it wanted to play a major role. And so Polish actors played them.

A friend told me that her grandparents were in a streetcar in November 1989 on Wenceslas Square and had a cake with them; my friend was about three years old then and it was her birthday. Grandma and Grandpa, of course, didn’t get off the streetcar, even though they realised historical events were happening on the square, because “we had the cake and the child was waiting,” the grandmother said. “And besides,” she added, “we’ll see everything on TV.”

Poles like topics such as heroism, courage, patriotism. These are concepts that say nothing to the Czechs. Do you have any explanation for it?

Jesus-Maria, it’s not true that those terms mean nothing to the Czechs. Maybe they’re notorious for not talking about them. They don’t like talking about patriotism openly, but it’s pretty evident in the way they look after their cities and towns, which look like something out of fairy tales, out of stories for kids.

Even the belief in the nonexistent Jara Cimrman – a Czech genius who can be compared only with Leonardo da Vinci – is a form of patriotism. Czechs are the only nation that ever created a nonexistent hero. And they’re proud of it. Patriotism isn’t just about fighting for one’s country.

*Do you think that, despite all these cultural differences, there’s a chance that “****Heavenly Love” won’t remain a one-way street for the Poles?***

It’ll probably stay that way. It’s a good sign that after visiting Poland during the European Championship a lot of Czechs said: “The Poles are great, they got everything ready perfectly.” That’s just one small step perhaps towards seeing a few Czechs start to take Poland seriously.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.