Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, by Derek Sayer, Princeton University Press, 752 pp, £38, ISBN: 978-0691185453, ISBN: 978-0691239514 (e-book)
Postcards from Absurdistan is the third volume in a ‘loose trilogy of cultural histories’ in which Derek Sayer has argued that European modernity is best examined from a vantage point located, both literally and figuratively, in Bohemia and its capital, Prague. The first volume, The Coasts of Bohemia (1998), tackled the issue of national identity. It presented Czech history – from its mythic beginnings to just after the communist takeover in 1948 – as a lesson on the nature of national historiography. When a ‘small’ nation has, for most of its past, struggled for recognition, its history is bound to consist of attempts to re-invent the past in order to assure itself of a future. The form of this reassurance: a bricolage of national treasures assembled largely under the motto ‘small but ours’. Focusing on the main tropes of the Czech National Revival – especially the emphasis on the Czech language as the basis for national identity, and the encoding of Czechness as something anti-German, anti-aristocratic and anti-Catholic – Sayer presents this chequered history as a corrective to the national histories of bigger, older, more secure nations. A lot of what he marks out as specifically Czech, however, sounds very familiar in the Irish context. None better than the Czechs at understanding Irish people’s fondness for the ‘best little country in the world’ trope (including its associated ironies) and the pitfalls of turning a language into a crux of nationality.
In the second volume, Prague as the Capital of the Twentieth Century (2013), Sayer shifted focus to the interplay between the Czech and French surrealist movements in the first half of the twentieth century. His main aim seems to have been to put the forgotten Prague of the 1920s and 1930s – a city with a ‘remarkable affinity for surrealism’ – back on the map of European modernism, alongside Paris. Another corrective argument runs through this volume, on surrealism as a counterweight to the totalising tendencies of modernism.
The recently published third volume, Postcards from Absurdistan, looks back to a great deal of the same material. It covers the period roughly from the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989 (with some gestures toward the present-day Czech Republic). It is divided into two main sections, Recto 1918-1945 and Verso 1938-1989, and these are centred, respectively, on the rise and fall of the two ideologies and political regimes ‑ German national socialism and Soviet communism ‑ with a defining influence on twentieth century Europe. This time Sayer’s examination of modernity focuses primarily on the absurdities that arise in a culture – and in the lives of its elites – when subjected, over half a century, to the dictates and pressures of first one and then the other totalitarian regime. Czechs are once again used as a corrective to more benign interpretations of modernity, including those of some British liberals and progressives.
To call Sayer’s books histories, even cultural histories, is misleading. Each is a dense compendium of heterogeneous material drawn from a great number of sources, often cited at length. Indeed, the generous English translations of previously untranslated Czech sources may be the most valuable parts of the trilogy for English speakers. It is as if each time the author set out on a rambling tour through the same huge, overstuffed and nightmarishly labyrinthine museum of Czech curiosities and came out, after much wandering, victoriously clutching a treasure-load of facts and anecdotes concerning key events in twentieth century Czech history and the lives of various ‘Bohemian’ personages. These are arranged in a series of vignettes layered with illustrations and explanatory detours, covering anything from ‘Franz Kafka (now including the visits to Prague brothels! Plus more on Milena Jesenská)’ and ‘the Germans: never forget, never forgive’ to ‘The sexual lives of Czechs (from bizarre Easter traditions to the antics of the dissidents)’; or, following a different track, from ‘Czech architects in Japan, India and the Utah desert’ and ‘Kladno: it’s not just about Jaromír Jágr, you know’ to ‘Handy quotes from Milan Kundera: because he knows (and everyone knows who he is)’. Sayer’s overall purpose is not to illustrate the arc of a story or a cohesive argument on modernity but precisely the opposite: their inevitable breakdown. The result may well be both informative and illuminating to a reader mostly unfamiliar with Czech history and culture – though it is best digested piecemeal, perhaps by dipping into the book based on an interest in a particular artist, subject or event. But when you try to read the meandering Postcards from cover to cover, it is challenging to follow, even for someone (like me) familiar not only with the general run of Czech history and the main conceits of Czech national mythology but also with the central cast of Sayer’s characters and a good deal of the sources he cites.
Sayer defends his method by claiming it is an integral part of his conception of modernity. Although he insists that modernity should be thought of in the plural, in his trilogy it figures mostly in terms of two opposing tendencies. In the collective aspect (class, nation, state), it is defined by the desire to transform the world in the name of a particular ideal of communal life, generating narratives of progress and ‘ends of history’. At the same time, however, modernity dreams of the modern individual as liberated from the shackles of the old, communal world (tradition, convention, class, nation). As such it contradicts and counteracts all collective, totalising visions of humanity. Especially in certain kinds of modern art, literature, film and drama that express human subjectivity, modernity insists on the irrational, fragile, filthily embodied human individual, a lonely dreamer.
This is also why surrealism is so central to Sayer’s writing, as the epitome of this other side of the modern project. At his best he construes modernity as an unresolved struggle between the two tendencies which may co-exist in one and the same person, in one and the same work. But more often, he presents the first tendency as little more than a source of destructive delusions while making it clear that he sides with the second. (This polarisation means he is less insightful on complex, idiosyncratic characters such as the poet and artist Jiří Kolář.) It is with the aim of eschewing yet another totalising narrative that Sayer structures his material with reference to surrealist methods of composition: a chance encounter during a stroll, an unexpected juxtaposition of incongruent objects such as happens through collage, montage and bricolage, or a symbolic crossover of the present with the past. In Postcards from Absurdistan he gestures toward Benjamin’s Arcades Project (similarly to the second volume on surrealism), Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition and the special notion of an image in Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium.
As a Czech émigré, I feel I ought to be grateful to Sayer for labouring so hard to make English-speaking audiences aware of the basics of Czech history, mythology and ‘the best of’ Czech culture. As any émigré knows, it is great if you don’t have to constantly explain yourself to the natives and, if need be, can quickly point to a gallery of Czech achievement to establish that you, too, are no barbarian riding in from the East. It seems to me, however, that the disadvantages of Sayer’s approach to cultural history outweigh its benefits, certainly when it comes to an academic monograph (as opposed to a popularising introduction or a work of art). Not because some grand narrative of Czech history is missing but because Sayer’s method is not conducive to either concision and conceptual clarity or in-depth analysis.
Postcards from Absurdistan gives an impression of comprehensiveness and depth that tends to dissipate when one knows more about the subject. In addition, a lot of the material is recycled from one volume to the next, so any reader willing to read the entire trilogy faces diminishing returns. In Postcards Sayer does not really clarify the key concepts he uses to structure and link his narratives, such as the absurd, kitsch, and the dream (even his discussion of Benjamin is cursory, unlike in the introduction to the surrealism volume). Instead he mostly proceeds by helping himself to a conception that happens to suit the point he is making, often failing to mark crucial differences in what he groups together. There is a world of difference, for example, between the absurd and black humour in Kafka, in Hašek (The Good Soldier Švejk), in the Theatre of Jára Cimrman founded in 1967 (Cimrman is the fictional character of a brilliant Czech polymath and inventor), in surrealist poetry and in Kundera. In Sayer’s Absurdistan, however, there seems to be little point in carefully differentiating between absurdities, between surrealist and existentialist interpretations of Kafka, etc. Equally with the key concepts of dream and kitsch. Instead of producing an original conception of kitsch, Sayer has recourse now to Kundera’s, now to Clement Greenberg’s, now to Vítězslav Nezval’s. Though repeatedly talking about the ‘dreamworlds of modernity’, nowhere does he match the clarity and depth of insight of Vladimír Macura’s monograph Český sen (The Czech Dream, 1999), or even just its introductory chapter on the uneasy coexistence, in Czech culture, of the dream as a bright vision of a collective future with the much darker and more unruly dreams of desiring individuals.
There is no better argument against Sayer’s method of composition than the fact that crucial connections sometimes escape him. When discussing modern Czech architecture, he mentions the ‘magnificent bridge’ built across the Nusle Valley in Prague in 1967-1973. Much later in the book, failing to connect the dots, he describes how gymnast Věra Čáslavská ‘made her way to Nusle Bridge in a sweatshirt in the rain, sizing up the mesh barriers intended to prevent suicides’. Given Sayer’s take on the modern, it is remarkable that he misses the starkly ambivalent nature of this feat of architectural modernity: over the communist period, the ‘magnificent bridge’ was a well-known suicide spot, perhaps even the suicide spot in Prague. Before special barriers were installed in the 1990s, there was approximately one suicide a month. For people living in the valley, the bridge had been mostly a monumental concrete monstrosity: the prime cause of there being a kind of no man’s land underneath it, a dead zone where you might come across the bodies of the suicides on your way to school or work, a strip of land where nothing could be built other than parking lots and petrol stations and nothing would grow in the local park (not even grass). But the Nusle Bridge can also be used to suggest that a vision of progress can be meaningful even if progress is understood as neither linear nor guaranteed, neither wholly collective nor purely individual. The Nusle Bridge suicides are now commemorated by an artwork by Krištof Kintera (Of One’s Own Decision – Memento Mori, 2011): the memorial takes the form of a lonely streetlamp with the top bent upwards so that the light streams upwards toward the towering bridge. And just this – that the suicides (not reported in the communist media) can now be acknowledged by a piece of public art – seems progress enough. Moreover, after many attempts to do something about the patch of dead land beneath the bridge that lies in the local park, the local council has recently built a concrete rink used for skateboarding in summer and ice skating in winter. That too strikes me as progress.
My second example of the limitations of Sayer’s approach concerns his discussion of the Czech fetishisation of Lidice, the village destroyed by the Nazis in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of the Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. In 2020, the director of the Lidice Memorial was fired by the then Minister of Culture for publicly supporting an academic researcher who claimed, based on original archival research, that shortly before the Nazi massacre, one of the ‘Lidice women’ had denounced her Jewish tenant to the Czech police (who promptly handed her over to the Gestapo). Sayer uses this incident to argue that the ‘Manichean construction [by Czechs] of all Germans as Nazi monsters and all Czechs (other than out-and-out collaborators) as innocent victims continues to this day, undisturbed by anything as mundane as new factual evidence. This is sacred ground, not to be profaned by shades of grey.’ He is correct that there is a long tradition of Czech antisemitism about which most Czechs are in denial – anti-German antagonism is used, among other things, to obscure this. He is also right to point out the ongoing politicisation of the Lidice Memorial in the post-communist period. To this day it suits Czech nationalists to stir up anti-German passions from time to time – except that the real targets of their hatred are no longer Germans but Czech pro-EU liberals.
Even so, his interpretation of this incident fails on two counts. It overgeneralises. When it comes to various war-related ‘shades of grey’ – Czech crimes against Germans at the end of the war and Czech crimes against the Jewish and Roma people during and after the war – the situation now, although far from ideal, is incomparably better than it was in the 1990s: not just in terms of academic research published on the subject but in popular culture and mainstream media as well. Not only are there now plaques, memorials and exhibitions remembering the victims but there is also a post-1989 body of widely acclaimed fiction and non-fiction on the subject (by writers such as Radka Denemarková, Kateřina Tučková, Jakuba Katalpa, Miloš Doležal and others). In fact, the most remarkable thing about the Lidice affair was the way that both the research, the related TV documentary and the treatment of the Memorial director were debated and contested in mainstream Czech media, including state-funded radio and television. The official Lidice Memorial website now contains a page describing the affair – as a result, the name and the story of the denounced and murdered Jewish woman are now firmly associated with the Lidice Memorial, which was not the case before. This might count as another example of qualified progress.
But Sayer’s account of the incident also lacks depth. What gave the Lidice scandal its edge was not, as he speculates, some abstract conception of the sacred past as ‘an ever-living part of the present’. Rather it was the living presence of the elderly daughter of the Lidice woman accused of the denunciation. The daughter was ten at the time of the Lidice massacre and only died in 2021. She felt her mother’s memory was unfairly besmirched because her mother could not defend herself and because the researcher was arguably unable to provide definitive proof. Whether the daughter was right to believe this is another matter. Rightly or wrongly, she felt that her pain and dismay were not sufficiently acknowledged by the Memorial director, from whom she expected unconditional support. Sayer might have usefully compared this incident to the 2020 German court case against the UK-based Czech historian Anna Hájková (some of whose works he lists in his bibliography). In that case the daughter of a Czech Holocaust survivor sued the historian for damaging the posthumous reputation and dignity of her late mother (who died in 2010) – by speculating that the mother had been in a lesbian relationship with a Nazi concentration camp guard. The German court in the end accepted that the dignity of the late survivor had been undermined and fined Hájková, not for conducting or publishing her research on queer relationships in concentration camps but for failing to anonymise all personal references to the Holocaust survivor in question. If there is a lesson here for Czech historians dealing with controversial topics, it might be to anonymise their research as much as possible, at least until the elderly daughters of their ‘historical subjects’ have passed away. This would have been impossible, however, in the Lidice case: the research was intended precisely to get the denounced Jewish woman named and recognised as a rightful Lidice victim. (It is also a tall order in the internet age.) It does not help that most of Sayer’s primary and secondary sources are in English and Czech, and only a very few are German or in German. The author’s mistranslation of a key idiomatic German phrase, which he uses repeatedly as a kind of absurdity-signalling leitmotif – ‘Aber Fräulein, wir können doch nichts dafür …!’ (‘But Miss, it is not our fault …!’ whereas Sayer has ‘But Miss, we can’t help it’) – suggests he lacks a good enough command of the language. This is a significant limitation given his focus on the German presence in Bohemia. Less serious are the occasional typos in Czech names, which can be easily corrected.
My final example of the limitations of Sayer’s thesis on modernism concerns his representation of unbridled eroticism as a powerful source of liberation and an antidote to modern totalitarianism. The author seems to be insufficiently sensitive to gender and the gendered asymmetries plaguing the sexual domain throughout the twentieth century. I am not the first to complain about this. In the past Sayer defended himself against a similar charge levelled against his volume on surrealism by Peter Brugge. In Postcards, he clearly strives to foreground women writers such as Milena Jesenská and her daughter Jana Krejcarová as the equals of their better-known sparring partners and/or lovers. And yet there is a sense in which he fails to fully appreciate that power and manipulation in sexual matters do not operate on just one level. There is a growing literature on this by Czech women from dissident circles with which Sayer does not seem to be familiar – such as Daňa Horáková’s O Pavlovi (On Pavel, 2020, about her life with her husband, the film-maker Pavel Juráček, whose diary is in the bibliography) or Jitka Vodňanská’s Voda, která hoří (Water that Burns, 2018), which describes her long-term love relationship (and a reluctantly aborted pregnancy) with the married Václav Havel. Sayer also talks about the dissident poet Ivan Martin Jirous – yet in spite of referring to Jirous’s prison correspondence with his wife, he does not reflect on the more dubious aspects of Jirous’s rebelliousness. A similar lack of in-depth insight is suggested when he discusses the attempt by the communist secret police to discredit the dissident writer Ludvík Vaculík by publishing intimate photos Vaculík took of himself and his then lover lying naked on a tombstone. Sayer elides the unethical aspects of Vaculík’s sexual rebelliousness that have less to do with politics and more with what freedoms men take for granted under patriarchy. The consequences of such actions were often much more dire for Vaculík’s partners than for Vaculík himself – but not only for his lover Zdena Erteltová whose involuntary hospitalisation as a presumed prostitute is detailed by Sayer; Vaculík’s wife, Marie, was in such despair over this love affair that she considered suicide. There is no reflection here on the fact that the erotic is often a realm of exploitation and manipulation that have little to do with the regime in power or the machinations of the secret police. This occlusion is the more remarkable given that Sayer often chooses Kundera as his guide to the absurdities of Czech life.
I would like to conclude with a note on Sayer’s use of Kundera. For anyone who wishes to use Kundera’s bons mots as their guide to Czechness, communist oppression, humour, love, kitsch, laughter, forgetting, the aesthetics of the female body or anything else really, Jan Novák’s unauthorised biography of the writer (Kundera, 2020) should be required reading. (It is not in Sayer’s bibliography.) Sayer does better than many Western commentators: he is aware that Kundera had had a career as a lyrical poet and dramatist before he came into his own as a novelist; he is also aware that he has been rewriting his books in order to amend or even remove passages that have in time become inconvenient, thereby in effect falsifying the past (this is in addition to forbidding the republication of early work). And yet Sayer pulls his punches when it comes to drawing the appropriate conclusion: Kundera is a master mythmaker and manipulator who, especially when it comes to literature in relation to politics, has a habit of unashamedly representing things to justify himself and his own choices.
Whether it’s Kundera suggesting that perhaps Czechs have a better understanding of the twentieth century than other nations, or castigating lyrical poetry as the realm of youthful joy and unreason, or even drawing a parallel between Jaromil, the hero of his novel Life Is Elsewhere (1969), and Jan Palach (the student who set fire to himself in January 1969 in a symbolic protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion and occupation) – all these need to be recognised in context as clever attempts to push a particular self-promoting agenda. Addressing just the first issue: is small nations’ exceptionalism any better than the exceptionalism of the big ones? As early as 1969, Havel slammed Kundera’s talk of special Czech historical insight, decrying it as, among other things, ‘provincial messianism’. From The Coasts of Bohemia to Postcards from Absurdistan, Sayer has toned down the rhetoric on Czechs’ uniqueness owing to their situation in ‘the heart of Europe’ or at ‘the crossroads of Europe’ – but he still can’t resist Kundera’s posturing as the Czech sage. Finally, when Sayer includes Kundera in a list of dissidents, he reveals his misunderstanding of the writer’s place in the Czech context. Kundera was never a dissident, certainly not in the same sense as the others on the list. Unlike Havel and Vaculík, he never had much time for the notion of ‘living in truth’, even just as a regulatory ideal or a foolish dream. When Sayer offhandedly calls Vaculík’s Czech Dreambook ‘a diary (of sorts)’, or when he discusses Havel’s annoyed response to Vaculík’s seeming abandonment of ‘living in truth’, he does not seem to appreciate what an abyss separates these two appallingly libidinous, annoyingly truthful, and absurdly courageous men from Milan Kundera.
Alena Dvořáková is a translator and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Klara and the Sun, and most recently Don DeLillo’s The Silence. She regularly publishes reviews and essays in the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).