Adam Daniel Mezei and a vision of Prague seceding from rogue Czech state
Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is the young author and screenwriter Adam Daniel Mezei. Son of a Slovak father (from Kosice) and a Russian mother who was raised in the Ukraine and Poland, Adam was born in Toronto but now lives in Prague, a city which has provided inspiration for his latest book of short stories - We Are the New Bohemians, his second published work.
"My father was born in Kosice in August 1944, during the height of the deportations carried out by the Arrow Cross allied with the Nazis, and his family had managed to secrete him away. We still don't know exactly, but probably at a convent or with some sextons from a church. He was alone for a year, while my grandparents had separately managed to find their way through the latter stages of World War Two."
And your mother?
"My mother is from Rostov, she's a Russian and she grew up in the Ukraine, just outside of Kiev. Both of my parents emigrated to Canada in the early 50s, and they met as I guess early 20-somethings in 1969."
You were born in Toronto, but you're now based in Prague. Why?
"Well, I guess there was this big mystery. I hadn't known too much about my father's past. He wasn't able to furnish me with a lot of information, basically because he didn't know, not because there was any kind of nefarious goal in mind. Also, because I really like the way that the lifestyle functions out here. The pace is a bit slower. As a writer it gives me an opportunity to really engross myself in subject material without being bombarded consequently by other day-to-day affairs in more fast-paced societies like New York or Toronto or basically the West, if I can call it as such."
Prague is the inspiration for your latest collection of Short Stories - We Are the New Bohemians. What is it about Prague that makes it so inspiring for a writer?
"I think Prague is a quintessential middle city. It's crossed by so many different strains and cultures. It has so much embedded in its history that a lot of it is not really known. I think people are not too likely to ask you what you're up to, and that gives writers an opportunity to really look into things that they're writing about without thinking about what people might be imagining what they're writing about. I also think it's what everybody knows about Prague. It's that city that's been a bastion for writers for centuries. Writers have typically come here, and they tell other writers that they came here to write their works and so it's a bit of a milestone I think for any writer, either beginning or accomplished, to finish some kind of a work, whether it's their master work or a starting work, here in the city."
Right, anyone who's spent more than a few years in Prague and has frequented places like the Globe will have run into many people claiming they're trying to write the next Great American Novel. Were you also aware that being a writer in Prague was something of a cliche?
"Oh it's definitely a cliche. I think people are great starters. Most people are poor finishers. People are always starting, regardless of what city, this is irrespective of Prague, they're starting the next great screenplay, they're starting the next great novel as you say. They're starting the next great X. The X is any kind of a project. But I think there is not a cliche for writers that finish works. Perhaps we can start a new one..."
One of the stories in We Are The New Bohemians is called "Mayor Sulc's Astounding 2010 Directive". It won an award last year from the British Czech and Slovak Association, and the story details how the city of Prague breaks away from the rest of the Czech Republic, after the Communists return to power in coalition with the Social Democrats, and this is set at a time when the EU has become a morally and financially bankrupt empire teetering on the verge of collapse. Let's hear an excerpt from that ...
For the past five years, Czech, as a language, had come into increasing disuse within the precincts of the new Inner District. Walking the narrow pathways of Old Town, hardly any Czech could be heard anymore. Most shopkeepers spoke English, and if that wasn't your fancy, there was always a German, French, Italian, or Spanish speaker in close proximity (and in that order). Making oneself understood was never a problem.
Sulc's council radically approved 2007's creation of Prague's Inner District.
It was a bold move to segment all of Old Town, Josefov, and parts of New Town into a special "cosmopolitan quarter" that would become customs and duty-free and where Czech was not the main spoken language. In fact, Sulc went one step better. A bylaw was passed whereby it was illegal not to address pub and restaurant clientele first in English, then Czech. An enforcement squad of "Language Officers" took to the lanes to dole out hefty fines for non-compliance with theby-law. It had been a controversial-some said draconian-move, but entrepreneurs were quickly silenced once they realized how lucrative the strategy was.
Something of a nightmare scenario there Adam - where does it come from?
"In fact it comes from a less on-the-nose source. In 1995, in Canada, they had a second referendum for sovereignty, and there was discussion that if the province of Quebec was divisible from Canada, then the city of Montreal, which was a primarily Anglophone city, would be divisible or what they called 'partitioned' from the rest of Quebec. So I was just trying to translate that experience to the Czech Republic. So if the Czech Republic is divisible from the European Union superstate, then the city of Prague, which is quite cosmo and quite multi-culti, then it would just secede from this Czech rogue state, and I just let that idea play out in my mind."
Is Mayor Sulc based on a real character?
"Mayor Sulc is pretty much all of these very inspirational mayors, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who's now taking a shot at the presidential post, the current mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and a mayor in Toronto by the name of David Miller, who I also thought was quite a visionary. So I just cobbled together the different initiatives that these three or four personalities that I had read about into the personality of Mayor Sulc.
Prague is described as the Golden City on the jacket of We Are The New Bohemians. Do you think it still is a golden city amidst all this commercialism and development?
"I think all that glitters is not necessarily gold, and I think the golden reputation that Prague may have had post-Velvet Revolution and in the immediate post-communist period of the 1990s - that time is no longer with us. It's quite clear to the people who live here, be they expatriates or native Czechs, that that is not around anymore. I think it retains its golden reputation in certain spheres, and for that reason it can still claim this golden pedigree. But when that particular part of its reputation, I'll call it the touristic reputation, goes to pot, then we'll have to come up with a new moniker for it."
So far you've published two collections of short stories. Should we ask be looking out for a novel in the future?
"Yes. I'm working on something right now that takes a lot of its inspiration from my past few years working in the film industry. It has a Prague setting, and it takes place during this heyday period, this golden period in the mid 1990s, which was basically a Klondike-type gold rush, and it's a juxtaposition of three protagonists and I write the story from three different perspectives."