Thursday, April 11, 2013

Derek Sayer's "Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century"

Derek Sayer is Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University and a former Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta. His books include The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History and Capitalism and Modernity. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Sayer applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History, and reported the following:
Walter Benjamin dubbed Paris "the capital of the nineteenth century." My book nominates Prague as a capital for the much darker twentieth century. Located at the crossroads of democratic, fascist, and communist visions of the modern, twentieth-century, Prague was a city where the idling flâneur might reveal himself to be a secret policeman at the drop of a hat.

Page 99 closes a discussion of Vyšehrad, the seat of the city's mythical founder Princess Libuše, whose cemetery was turned into a "national" resting place for Czech writers, artists, and composers after 1861. I draw on one of Milan Kundera's essays to suggest that the "warm, watchful intimacy" of the cemetery is double-edged. In representing the nation as a family it excludes not only Bohemian Germans—who were expelled from the country after 1945—but also prodigal sons like Leoš Janáček (whose modernist music made him what Kundera calls an "internal exile") and Kundera himself, who has lived in France since 1975. Exile—and the complications of identity it brings—has been a recurrent element in Czech modernity. Ferdinand Peroutka, a prominent liberal journalist between the wars, spent World War II in German concentration camps and died in 1978 in the United States. His body was exhumed, flown home, and reburied in Vyšehrad in 1991. But no less grotesque are Vyšehrad's empty graves, like Milada Horáková or Josef Čapek's. A cubist painter (who incidentally gave the world the word “robot”), Čapek perished in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

So yes, page 99 does give a flavor of some of the book's themes—the ironies and surrealities of modernity as exemplified in Prague's fractured twentieth-century history—as well as of its style. I build my narrative through a montage of details like these—places, people, buildings, street names, statues, paintings, operas. Missing from page 99, though, is any mention of the fact that between the wars, when Prague was the capital of Europe's most easterly democracy, it was a hotbed of artistic and architectural modernism and a center of surrealism second only to Paris. That is a story I tell, too—and for the first time in such detail in English.

From page 99:
[Vyšehrad Cemetery] materializes that warm, watchful intimacy in both its comforting presences and its spiteful absences. Kundera himself is unlikely to find rest in the Slavín, even if his claims to a Nobel Prize would be considered by many to be at least as good as those of Jaroslav Seifert. He is doubly unpopular, and doubly envied, among his compatriots: having first flourished as the literary golden boy of the 1968 Prague Spring, he went on to mint international celebrity out of the miseries of the land he abandoned when things turned sour. Not that Kundera would relish spending eternity among the whole company of our great minds anyway. He has been writing in French―the ultimate sacrilege in a nation whose language has been justly described as its “cathedral and fortress”―since 1990.

Ferdinand Peroutka found his way back to Vyšehrad from New York, where he had died in 1978, only in 1991. The former editor of Přítomnost took the long route home, spending World War II in Dachau and Buchenwald and the last thirty years of his life in the United States, where he found refuge after Victorious February. During his American exile Peroutka provided over 1,500 commentaries for Radio Free Europe. One of them, dating from 1956, drew a connection, unthinkable to many at the time―or since―between the postwar “transfer” of Czechoslovakia’s three million “Germans” and other forms of “life without rights or law” in the Czech Lands. “If it is possible to condemn a person for the fact that he belongs to a certain nation,” he wrote, “then it is also possible that he will later be condemned for belonging to a certain social class or political party.” Likely he had in mind, among many others, the National Socialist parliamentary deputy Milada Horáková, who was hanged in Pankrác Prison after the first great Czechoslovak communist show trial in 1950. Horáková, too, now has a place among the company of our great minds. A metaphorical place, that is: where her body disappeared to remains a mystery. Her gravestone was nevertheless placed in Vyšehrad in 1991 with the inscription “executed, but not buried.” Such substitutions of the signifier for the signified were not without historical precedent:

Here would have been buried Josef Čapek, painter and poet
Grave far away
18 23/3 87 19 -/4 45
Learn more about Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue