Bittersweet prose - a look at the life and work of writer Ota Pavel

Ota Pavel

'How I Came to Know Fish' - for years I glimpsed this elegant volume of short stories in Prague's English-language bookstores, at times wondering over its greenish cover featuring a fish on a hook. I wondered blankly over the name of its author, without, I admit, inquiring further. Ota Pavel. The name, though known to most Czechs, said nothing to me then, at most I had an inkling the author had been a sports journalist for Czech Radio in the 1950s. Then I caught a glimpse of his photo somewhere - Ota Pavel, writer - the author in his youth, a black and white picture of a dashing figure with a slanted fedora, staring thoughtfully into the lens. I caught a glimpse and when I heard of a film by the director Karel Kachyna based on the author's work, equally suggestive, I began to wonder about his life even more. The story of Ota Pavel, with its twists and final haunting downfall - and 'How I Came to Know Fish' - both looked at in today's Czechs in History.

Ota Pavel's real name was Otto Popper, and he was born in Prague on the 2nd of July, 1930, the son of a Jewish father and gentile mother, the couple's third boy. His father Leo, was a travelling salesman who taught Ota early on to appreciate the outdoors, passing on a love for sport, and especially fishing, which Ota Pavel would describe so lovingly in his stories. Hunting and catching carp in the ponds around Bustehrad near Prague, where Ota's family lived, became one of his life's strongest inspirations, a constant thread between the present and the past...

"Fishing is freedom most of all. To walk on and on after trout, drinking from natural springs, to be alone if only for an hour, a few days, weeks, months, to be free... that is what I longed for..."

This sense of freedom was something the writer would only gain an understanding of as a grown man, not as the twelve year-old boy.

But, in the 1940s, freedom had flown far away: Czechoslovakia had been annexed by the Nazis and turned into the protectorate of Boehmen und Maehren. Under the new order, Ota's father and two brothers were sent to the Terezin ghetto, and from there, to three separate concentration camps. Remarkably, Ota was spared and left at home with his gentile mother. Though those were troubled years, he completed basic school, worked for a time at the mine in Kladno. In one of his stories in 'How I Came to Know Fish', titled 'Long Mile', the author later reflected on the Nazis' utter destruction of the nearby village of Lidice, in retaliation for the Czech paratroopers' assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

"The Lidice fields were all around me. Mama had worked there, and potatoes and small white flowers grew up everywhere. Potatoes even grew on the graves of executed men and boys, and when the women dug them out they resembled human hearts. That was a warning, and nobody took those potatoes home..."

Then, in another story titled 'Carp for the Wehrmacht', the author beautifully mocked the Nazis, immortalising his father's deed of poaching carp from the local, frozen pond, the night before his departure to Terezin. Stealing out in the middle of the night with his son, they cut through the ice to poach one carp after another. When the Nazis drained the pond to confiscate its contents the following year, they got an unexpected surprise:

"...they arrived with nets to fish out the lower Bustehrad pond. Wehrmacht uniforms mingled with fishermen. The carp were to be confiscated by the German armed forces. I stood among the boys on the dam and waited to see how it would end. At the beginning there was a big celebration. A brass band played on the dam nearby, and all looked promising. But there was nothing in the pond, and nobody could explain it. Only I knew that the band was playing in honour of my father, who with David's star on his coat had stolen a march on the Germans."

In reality, Ota's father and brothers stole much more than a march on the Germans - they escaped with their lives, surviving being sent to the camps, to miraculously return home at the end of the war. Their family intact, the Poppers then moved back to Prague where Ota began studying two years of business school. Under the guidance of family friend Arnost Lustig, who had survived Auschwitz, and would later become one of Czechoslovakia's most famous writers, Pavel began to working as a sports commentator for Czech Radio. He stayed there from 1949 - 1956, taking a two year break from military service. During this same period he also began writing his first stories for the sports magazine Stadion, and began developing literary aspirations. As a sportswriter he accompanied the renowned Dukla football team on a tour of the United States, and even covered many other events abroad. His first published stories revolving around sport themes, met with success. But, then in 1964 disaster struck, a deterioration of mental health that would plague Ota Pavel for the rest of his life. Arrested during a bewildering incident in Innsbruck, when he was covering the Czech hockey team's bid for an Olympic medal, he was diagnosed for manio-depressive psychosis. With calm, at times even humorous lucidity, he later described the incident in the last part of 'How I Came to Know Fish':

"I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman - the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fur, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog. As I was leading the cows and horses from the barn, the Austrian police arrived..."

Many have speculated on what triggered Ota Pavel's sudden deterioration in health: certainly the condition is rare, and most likely genetic, taking many years to appear. Nevertheless, the Czech weekly Reflex, writing about Pavel's life, wrote last year the mental collapse may have been triggered by a racist slur. The weekly wrote that a member of the Czech ice hockey team, who felt he was being provoked by the Ota Pavel's claim the team had won bronze, (later confirmed by a change in rules), had snapped at the writer in the locker-room with the words "Jew, go to the gas chambers..." The slur must have been terribly wounding. But, whether it was the single factor that led to the writer's deterioration can probably never be known.

"Only a miracle can save you. I waited for one for five years, sitting alone in a chair. I won't say that I suffered like an animal, because no man knows how an animal suffers though he may often write about it. I know that I suffered terribly. There are no words to describe it."

For the rest of his life Ota Pavel would battle through bottomless troughs of depression, suicidal inclinations, and periods of treatment at mental hospitals. After his diagnoses he would only live for another nine years. Still, it was during this most difficult of periods that he wrote his strongest, most lyrical collections, including 'How I Came to Know Fish', stories that recapture the beauty and innocence of youth, fishing, the local village pond and local village characters, like so-called Uncle Prosek, a kind of Falstaffian fisherman whose death of old age leaves the narrator wracked with tears. Prosek's dog brings down a deer when Ota and his mother have next to nothing to eat. Also captured: the strength of his father and mother, as well as the narrator's own loneliness, fear, and daring as Nazi terror quietly overtook their lives. In the stories it is never overt, always in the background, but always there.

Finally, among the most beautiful in the collection: Pavel's stories of his father in happier times, such as when Leo comically falls in love with his boss's wife, far above his station. The stories will whisper in your mind on light summer evenings, especially should you happen to pass a dark pond, covered by a light floating moss, such as the ponds commonly found in small Czech villages. Beneath bubbles emerge, a carp's golden eyes will peer at you from below. Bittersweet lines of happiness remembered - always honest. And always fighting against the injustices of life. Like the eel that Pavel describes biting through his father's fisherman's net, in 'Big Water Tramp':

"As dawn broke fully, Papa coughed and got up to get the rods and eels. I strolled along behind him. When we came upon the net and the alder tree, our eyes got as large as an eel's in deep water. The net was empty, dripping slime. Swaying there, it looked like a signal of defeat, a flag at half mast. With his snout, the captive had enlarged a small stitch, contracted his waist, and slipped through. Falling from the tree onto the wet grass, he dove back into the water. "He's gone," Papa said without cursing. Then he yawned, tired, sleepy, sore, and added, "But it was a magical night."

A magical night indeed - and magical stories from Ota Pavel who died in 1973 at the disappointing age of 42.