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Category Archive for 'Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic'

In 1985, thirty years after the period in which this novel is set, of this novel, and twenty years after the escape of author Heda Margolius Kovaly from Czechoslovakia to the United States, she wrote Innocence, her only novel, which takes an unusual approach to some of the issues which so dramatically affected her own life in the 1950s. Working in the library at Harvard after her escape, she had come to admire the work of Raymond Chandler, among other English-speaking authors, and in this novel, she uses Chandler’s abrupt, noir style to flash back and bring to life some of the crimes of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia against ordinary citizens. These abuses were so horrific and so universal that I found myself somewhat nonplussed to see them recreated here within the limitations of a Raymond Chandler-style novel, almost as if the author were understating the legitimate horrors of her own experience in order not to draw too much attention to her own amazing survival. Fortunately, Part I, the Chandleresque section (from which the introductory quotation is taken) is followed by a Part II, which pays more attention to the psychological effects on ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of political unrest. The two parts, taken together, provide a unique perspective from which to evaluate both the daily horrors and their longer-term effects.

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Author Bohumil Hrabal, a captivating story-teller whom many consider the Czech Republic’s best novelist, brings to life the real town in which he lived for many years. The castle in this novel, once the home of Count Spork, just outside “the little town where time stood still,” is now a retirement home, residence of elderly pensioners given much freedom to lead comfortable lives, along with a number of old pensioners who need kindly delivered terminal care. “Rediffusion boxes” playing “Harlequin’s Millions” are on the walls everywhere, both inside and outside the castle, and everyone who hears this tune is “entranced” by its “melancholy memory of old times.” The unnamed speaker, the wife of the former owner of a brewery, her husband Francin, and his older brother “Uncle Pepin,” have come to the castle as residents late in life, after losing their brewery when the communists took over in the aftermath of World War II. The speaker, for thirty years an independent and beautiful local actress, has felt at home among the wealthiest residents of their community, but though she is now elderly, toothless, and poor, that changed condition barely fazes her. Still independent in spirit, she embraces her new surroundings, explores them with enthusiasm, and enjoys hearing the stories of other residents at the castle and the history of their much earlier predecessors from as long ago as the seventeenth century. Superb! (This book is #1 on my list of Favorites for the year so far.)

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While on their honeymoon in Venice in the late 1920s, Czech citizens Viktor and Liesl Landauer meet architect Rainer von Abt at a party given by an acquaintance in an ancient palazzo. The next day the architect shows them display models of the surprisingly dramatic buildings he has created, and after indicating that he has been a student of Adolf Loos, who has hailed from their Czech city (known here as Mesto), he extols “the virtues of glass and steel and concrete, and [decrying] the millstones of brick and stone that hang about people’s necks.” He continues, “I wish to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit.” Viktor is enthralled, suggesting, “Perhaps you could design a Glass Space (Glasraum) for us.” Focusing initially on the story of a great architectural achievement, the novel explores several stories of love and betrayal; stories of love sanctioned, illicit, and forbidden; and the fraught history of Czechoslovakia (and peripherally, Austria) between the wars. Though few exact dates are provided, the novel reflects the growth of the Nazi movement, the exodus of those Jews fortunate enough to have the means to escape, and the aftereffects on the Landauers, their household and on the Glass Room itself. Mawer’s prose is efficient and his style keeps the reader on pace, never having to stop to figure out what the author “really” means. Filled with vibrant imagery, both of the external and internal worlds of the characters, the novel has something for everyone.

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Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, often at odds with the government of Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and 1980s, first published this tragicomic novel as a typescript in 1979, and later in book form in 1983. Hrabal and fellow-members of the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union distributed it secretly for two years before many were arrested and sentenced to jail for their efforts. Hardly what modern readers would consider subversive or dangerous, the novel is a first-person account by Ditie, who begins his story as a teenage busboy at a rural hotel, progresses to waiter, and eventually to successful hotel owner. It gives nothing away (and the book cover itself includes this summary) to say that when the Czech government falls to communism, Ditie ends up working the roads in a mountain village. The picaresque plot is the least important aspect of the book, since it is merely the framework for a series of often hilarious stories about the people he works with, the lives they have led, the values they maintain, their hopes for the future, and the sometimes large chasm between their dreams and reality.

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his stimulating and thought-provoking murder mystery provides a unique insight into the waning days of the Nazi occupation of Prague. A vicious killer is stalking, torturing, and butchering women, and both the Gestapo and the local Prague police are searching for the killer. Both groups are also concerned with saving themselves, their country’s interests, and as many supporters as they can in the confusing days at the end of the war. This insightful, carefully wrought, and fast-paced action novel with its unique glimpses of a turbulent time and place will keep you reading well into the night

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