When this extraordinary book was about to come out in French four years ago its author was told by his editor that it was likely to fail miserably. As Mariusz Szczgieł explains, the doubts were reasonable. No one was sure if anybody in the west would be interested in what a Pole had to say about the Czechs: ‘A representative of one marginal nation writing about another marginal nation is unlikely to be a success.’
But in 2009 Gottland won the European Book Prize (a serious award; the late Tony Judt’s Postwar won it the previous year) and it has been well received throughout the continent. There must have been similar commercial concerns among publishers here, but thankfully it has at last been translated into English — and extremely well — by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Gottland is one of the funniest books I have read — and one of the shrewdest — about what it was like to live under fascism and communism, the experience of so much of Europe in the last century. It is not about Czechoslovakia or Poland or even limited to Mitteleuropa, but about how one copes with tyranny and corruption and preserves a conscience.
Szczgieł is one of Poland’s best-known journalists, a top investigative reporter who breaks great stories; but he is also a witty columnist with a fine sense of irony and of the absurd. He would fit comfortably in the pages of The Spectator.
The book’s title is taken from the name given to the home of Karel Gott, the Czech Republic’s greatest singing sensation — ‘a cross between a Czech Presley and Pavarotti’ — whose mansion/museum is a deliberate, but somehow more vulgar, imitation of Graceland. Gott won his country’s Nightingale Prize as the best male singer 38 years in a row — for decades under communism and also for many years after the Velvet Revolution. One of the author’s scoops was to establish how in the early days voting for the prize — awarded by popular ballot — was rigged by communist officials to ensure that no ‘subversive’ singer could win, rather as they manufactured the results of the so-called ‘elections’ for parliament. It was considered so important that the matter was discussed by the communist party’s ruling Politburo.
The book consists of meticulously researched stories, often hilariously written — as Jaroslav Hasek might have done in The Good Soldier Svejk — about striking and vivid personalities. We learn how the stunning Czech actress Lidá Baarová became one of Goebbels’s mistresses and what happened to her after the war. It is a story almost as full of pathos as that of Lenka Porocházka, the daughter of a dissident, who had three successive boyfriends recruited by the secret police to seduce and spy on her.
Szczygieł discovered the bizarre tale of the sculptor who designed the biggest statue ever built of Stalin. Selected by ‘open’ competition, Otavar Švec had tried desperately to lose the job, by creating the most hideous sculpture he could devise. But the communist leaders liked his ugly model. He felt so guilty about taking the task on that a month before the statue was unveiled, he killed himself. It was only by dogged research, and in 2003, that the author could establish the truth about sculptor’s suicide.
The oddest story is of Franz Kafka’s niece, Vera S — the daughter of Kafka’s favourite sister, Ottla, who died in Auschwitz. In the communist years, as a translator from German, Mrs S was considered ‘safe’ by the authorities, who never knew that she had loaned her name to various banned writers who were unable to publish. She had never given an interview and Szczygieł spent years tracking her down. Eventually she agreed to see him. But to every question she replied — in, for want of a better word, a Kafkaesque way — by saying ‘Write me a letter and I will answer in a suitable time frame’. Years later he was still waiting.
‘Gottland’ translates, in much of Middle Europe, as ‘God’s Land’. Seamlessly among the jokes, there is much in this book about living in truth when lies surround you everywhere; about leading a moral life within an immoral society; about martyrdom vs collaboration. Who were the heroes under totalitarianism? Those who fought pointless crusades and died, leaving their families to suffer? Or the millions who made compromises for themselves and for their loved ones day after day, generation after generation?
These are hardly new questions for those forced to live under the fascists and the communists — or under various monsters today. But in this important and enjoyable book they are asked in fresh and imaginative ways.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Victor Sebestyen is the author of Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. He writes in praise of Mariusz.