Monday, 4 August 2014

Gottland - by Mariusz Szczygiel - a review

A curious tome caught my eye some weeks ago - "Gottland" is a book about communist Czechoslovakia written by a Polish journalist Mariusz Szczygiel.  As one steeped in Mitteleuropa, I naturally ordered a copy, spurred by the positive reviews.

It is indeed an interesting book.  Essentially, it is a collection of anecdotes and vignettes from communist-era Czechoslovakia, expertly researched by the author and told in a very accessible way.  The tales are many and varied - from that of Lida Baarova, Goebbels' one-time mistress, to the sad fate of the man who designed Prague's former monument of Stalin, to the intertwined lives of Zdenek Adamec (who self-immolated in Prague in 2003 in imitation of Jan Palach, and the doctor who treated the dying Palach back in 1969.

Gottland has a good go at evoking the Czech soul - a curious mixture of the other-worldly bizarreness of Kafka and the worldly guile-cum-innocence of Hasek's "Good Soldier Svejk".  Such is the gentle tone of the book that the inattentive reader might almost assume that it is a nostalgic paean - such as is common is some parts of central Europe - to the reassuring certainties of 'real existing socialism'.  Yet, it is nothing of the sort.  Gottland is more of a gentle broadside; a softly-spoken tirade against the petty accommodations, the pusillanimity and the sheer mendacity engendered in ordinary people doomed to live under communism. For that reason alone, it should be required reading, particularly for those who still hanker for that benighted system.

Though I thoroughly approve of that subtext, and I generally enjoyed the ride, I found "Gottland" somehow unsatisfactory.  Maybe it is a little too gentle in it's approach, too emollient in its tone.  It left me with the impression that it was either too clever by half or not clever enough.  Perhaps a tighter style, or a more interventionist editor might have strengthened the political message.  But then, maybe that soft-soap approach is what readers want?

Either way, its an engaging and illuminating read.  And if you are interested in the recent history of the region, and the myriad ways in which societies adapt under totalitarian systems, then it is certainly worth a read.

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