OCTOBER 18, 2016
“HUMANITY SHOULD PART with its past cheerfully,” wrote Karl Marx. But humanity hardly ever manages to do so, especially when it comes to parting with the Marxist legacy in Central and Eastern Europe. Judging by fiction from the region, the move from the Soviet to the post-Soviet lends itself more readily to the solemn than the humorous. Suffice it to mention Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories (2005), a kind of Hungarian War and Peace, whose comic side, according to both The Daily Telegraph and The New York Times, is probably unintentional and manifests itself chiefly in elaborate sexual scenes. Poland has apparently not been much different, with Adulteresses’ List (1993) by Jerzy Pilch (still not translated into English) bucking the trend by blending communist absurdities with tales of past loves.
And yet there was seemingly no shortage of satirical takes on communism while it reigned supreme — such as Vladimir Voinovich’s first two books about “Private Chonkin” and Tadeusz Konwicki’s Minor Apocalypse, to name just a few. This may have something to do with the sweetness of forbidden fruit; communist censorship was so unrelenting that East European writers often had to publish their work on the brighter side of the Iron Curtain. However, once the big Soviet bully went down, it was not much fun to keep ridiculing it. And the neo-capitalist excesses of the new ruling class promptly provided fresh topics for irony.
Still, at least one satirical novel in Czech, Báječná léta pod psa (The Wonderful Years Thrown to the Dogs, 1992), a best seller in its own country, has captured the changing moods and fortunes of Czechoslovakia between the failed Prague Spring reforms of 1968 and the first years of post-communism exceptionally well. Translated into English by David Short under the title Bliss Was It In Bohemia, the novel was released late last year by Jantar (Amber), a publishing house specializing in bringing overlooked East European classics to the Anglophone reader, which proves that its significance has not diminished over the quarter century since it first appeared.
The debut novel of Michal Viewegh, perhaps the most popular living Czech author, Bliss is a semi-autobiographical family saga covering 30 years, from its author and chief protagonist Kvido’s birth on August 27, 1962 (some five months after Viewegh’s own), until the submission of his first novel — a fictional analogue of the very same Bliss — to the publishers on October 10, 1991. The bulk of the story is taken up by Kvido’s father’s attempts to build a new career after losing a prestigious job in Prague and moving to the provinces in the wake of the Prague Spring’s defeat. In this, he shares the fate of many supporters of Alexander Dubček’s “socialism with a human face.”
But loss of status and banishment from the capital aren’t Kvido’s father’s only troubles. Owing to the paucity of accommodation in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, his family of three, with a second child on the way, occupies a conservatory, glazed on three sides and ill-suited for the colder months of the year. An economist fluent in English and German, he only manages to improve his family fortunes by joining, unwillingly, a local amateur football team, and taking evening classes in Marxism-Leninism. He also sucks up to his boss by buying a puppy from him, against his family’s wishes. The dog, nicknamed Sweetie, is a natural leader and refuses to be trained by Kvido’s father, whom it finds too submissive.
Nevertheless, for a short while, the father’s efforts at conforming to the demands of “Normalization” — the Communist Party’s vicious post-1968 reversal of its earlier liberal reforms — seem to be paying off. The family moves to a house of their own and the father, as a trusted member of the local glass-making factory’s management team, is even sent on a business trip to London. The following quote depicting London almost half a century ago brings out a stark contrast between Kvido’s father’s impressions of life in Czechoslovakia, on the one hand, and in Britain, on the other (as a part-time Londoner of some years’ standing, I feel obliged to testify that the standards seem to have gone down a bit since that time):
Doors would open automatically on his approach. […] Phone boxes worked. […] Policemen smiled. The drivers of even the poshest cars stopped at zebra crossings for him. Toilets smelled nice. The post office biro, which no one had stolen yet, didn’t leak. […] All the things on which he stood, sat, wrote or lay were sparkling clean and didn’t wobble. […] The shampoo he bought didn’t leak into his briefcase. And having used it twice, he was suddenly rid of the dandruff that had been showering from his head for thirty years. So for the first time in his life he could go uninhibited to the barber’s and for the first time in his life have a haircut that matched the shape of his face. […] The food in restaurants was neither half-desiccated, nor cold. The waiters were extremely obliging. […] The grovelling servility he adopted with waiters back home, thanks to which he was enabled to consume a cake with the cream gone off and look grateful for such a boon, was a thing of the past. He bore himself with more energy and greater confidence. […] It was the joy of a patient over a nicely healing wound.
Alas, shortly after his return from this capitalist paradise, Kvido’s father is dismissed from his job because of a compromising link to a well-known Czech dissident, who is watched on a regular basis by the secret police. Kvido’s father becomes a janitor at the same factory, retreats into a hobby as a joiner, and starts making a coffin for himself. Meanwhile, Kvido’s grandfather dies — and cannot get a quote from Shakespeare on his tombstone because it is not on the list of state-approved tombstone inscriptions. Kvido’s father comments to the undertaker: “We don’t even have the freedom to die as we’d like.” The undertaker replies: “Dear sir, as we live, so too do we die.”
All this is supposed to be funny, of course — and it is. The humorous perspective — dark yet ultimately life-affirming — is made possible by the fact that Kvido (Viewegh’s alter ego) belongs to the generation that has only partially been affected by communism; he and his peers can distance themselves from it. Yes, as a child, Kvido publicly recites communist poetry by S. K. Neumann and Ivan Skála, thus earning brownie points for his father among the local ruling elite. Yes, as an adolescent he drops out of business school and becomes a factory janitor, thus shattering his father’s final hope for the future. But he redeems himself soon enough as a writer of nonconformist fiction, which a leading publishing house is happy to consider for publication after the nation’s sudden political transition. Instead of censoring Kvido, his editor asks him, forlornly, “Can’t you write two passages without slighting Communists five times?”
Like most serious authors who lived through the rough transition from one economic system to another, Viewegh does not portray capitalism as a solution to communism’s problems. After London, Kvido’s father, imbued with new values, turns into a family manager, claiming that “a good family [is] first and foremost a good team of well coordinated professionals.” He brings home a large IBM desk calendar and fills days of the week with tasks assigned to various family members: “tidy away toys and water plants (Paco [Kvido’s younger brother]); wash dishes, empty bin and do a number of specified assignments in the Compendium of Mathematical Exercises (Kvido); and weed the rockery below the patio (Mother).” To this, Kvido’s mother adds in defiance: “have Sweetie put down (Father).” Later, we learn that Kvido’s father, after a brief post-1989 reinstatement at the Trade Ministry in Prague, is “lustrated” — that is, purged for having served the communist regime — and is forced to return to the provincial glass factory. So much for capitalism as an alternative.
As most observations and pronouncements in the book are made by Kvido, who was only six when the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, he has to be established as a credible witness. To achieve this, the reader is afforded glimpses into Kvido’s private diary, dated September–November 1968. Although Kvido initially believes, with age-appropriate naïveté, that Russian tanks had arrived in Prague for a film shoot, the diary is laced with absurdly precocious statements that call to mind Stewie Griffin from Family Guy:
Apart from […] the quark with raspberries, my nursery school reflects the abysmal state of pre-school education in this country, and I told them as much. […] The alienation between Mother and me is growing like a panthercap toadstool after a cloudburst. […] I’m reading Montaigne’s Essais. A lot of the time I find myself agreeing with him 100%. But when I read that “he who would teach people to die would also be teaching them to live” I was beset by a sense that he was quite off his rocker.
Unsurprisingly, the novel is rich in cultural references and allusions, from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (in the mockingly detailed prehistory of Kvido’s birth) to the topos of mad women in the attic (this is where Kvido’s grandmother establishes herself after the family moves to a house of their own). The Czechoslovak realia are less familiar to the uninitiated, and are helpfully gathered in a 12-page-long “Appendix of historical and geographical entities” at the end of the book.
However talented and educated a child prodigy might be, its inner self is often disproportionately inhibited by insecurity. The novel’s structure takes spectacularly successful advantage of this disadvantage, introducing several layers of narrative mediation, which serve as a rich reception filter for Kvido’s childhood memories. These are regularly checked against the reaction of his brother Paco, his editor, and the family psychiatrist (of course). Moreover, the childhood traumas of communism are ultimately exorcised in a very public way; Kvido rejects all self-censorship and sends his work into print without much editorial interference. Kvido’s mother focuses her displeasure with his novel on the fact that he dared to describe a dirty toilet in their household.
Whatever Kvido’s mother thinks of her son’s book, Bliss Was It is arguably one of the best satirical novels on the transition from totalitarianism to self-regulation, written in the spirit of Viewegh’s great compatriot Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921–’23), the excellent comic saga of World War I and the disintegrating Habsburg empire. Transcending their respective historical circumstances, both texts act as general-purpose antidotes to highly stressful and frustrating situations, instructing us on how to part with our past cheerfully.