A collection of reportages about Czechoslovakia and the Czech land - Gottland, a country of horror, sadness, and absurdity. It presents a vision of the nation beyond its stereotypes and looks into the uniqueness of the Czech character
Actress Lída Baarova - the woman who made Goebbels cry, sculptor Otokar Švec - author of the largest statue of Stalin on the planet, who decided to kill himself before he had completed his creation, a genuine niece of Franz Kafka's who lives in Prague to this day, singer Marta Kubišová, whom the communist regime forbade to sing for 20 years and erased her recordings from radio archives; legendary footwear manufacturer Tomáš Bata, who founded a town he fully controlled 10 years before Orwell came up with his ideas, writer Eduard Kirchberger, who re-created himself and became Karel Fabián, and many others - these are the heroes of the book.
Through their colourful biographies, Mariusz Szczygieł describes the times the Czech people had to live in - a time that Poles can easily identify with. He writes about the inordinate price they had to pay for seemingly minor decisions, about the tragic coincidence of chance and destiny that shaped the lives of entire generations. Most interestingly, he writes about the hopefulness and optimism of the Czechs, a point of view that doesn't conflict with the popularity of atheist views on religion. The book was nominated for the 2007 Nike Literary Award. It has been translated into more than ten languages, including Bulgarian, Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italy, Russian, Spanish and Ukranian. It has won Prix l’Amphi for the French edition, Europe Book Prize – Le prix du livre europeen 2009 and the Gratias Agit Czech State Award.
This is a collection of stories about the Czechs' most recent history - from the late 19th century until today, recorded by a reporter. He uses a reporter's methods - persistently seeking heroes of the past or their families, listening to witnesses, rummaging in the archives, but in the end, having collected all his material, behaving like a writer, writing a documentary story rather than a classic press reportage. In this individualized style and form, he allows himself to go much further than any newspaper would have allowed him to. Apart from several long texts, the volume also includes miniatures, sort of interludes between the long chapters - some are just a few paragraphs long. They are no more than sketches, separate images, outlines, preliminary ideas that for various reasons never turned into finished stories.
At first the choice of themes and heroes may seem risky - Szczygiel writes about the most famous icons of Czech popular culture: Lída Baarova, Karel Gott, Helena Vondráčkova. Is there anything interesting left to say about people who have long been symbols of their country and their times? Meanwhile, a completely new aspect of the old heroes emerges from this book, as Gottland breaks up the stereotype - strongly rooted in Poland - of the Czech land as a merry and slightly make-believe country, and of the Czechs as a society that avoids tough challenges and fundamental decisions.
Practically all the life stories in the book are moving, e.g. that of Marta Kubišová, the most popular Czech singer of the 1960's, whom the authorities condemned to oblivion after the Prague Spring. Kubišová used to sing in a trio with Helena Vondráčkova and Václav Neckář, and Szczygiel writes a parallel biography of all three of them. There is a fantasy and ominous ring to the story of the gigantic statue of Stalin built in Prague in the 1950's and the tragic fate of its creator, sculptor Otokar Švec, for whom his triumph became a curse.
That's why, in a sense, the stories in Gottland are depressing. Prague under Stalinism turns out to be just as gloomy as all the other capital cities east of Berlin, the system just as oppressive and ruthless towards its opponents, and the present-day settling of accounts with the past just as difficult and ambiguous.
In fact Szczygiel does not limit himself to the post-war years of Czechoslovakia. He writes about the tragic political involvement of Lída Baarova, the famous film actress accused after the war of collaboration with the Nazis and having an affair with Joseph Goebbels, and also tells the story of the huge footwear empire of Tomáš and Jan Bata. The tale of these extraordinary factory owners is not only about their brilliant careers and fabulous wealth. It is also about the tough time they had keeping the business afloat during the war, about the post-war nationalization, and primarily about the innovative and utopian social project that the industrialists from Žlin dreamed up early in the 20th century. They founded a school for employees' children, offered scholarships to the best pupils, built cheap houses for their employees - in those days, this was all extremely innovative. Some saw the Batas as great benefactors and generous philanthropists, others as cynical owners of a giant corporation, others still as the Orwellian Big Brother.
Author: Marek Radziwon.
Source: introduction based on information from the Czarne publishing house, review from wiadomosci.gazeta.pl