Brass bands, beer and a famous boulevard: Czech links with Mexico

Emperor Maximilian

In this programme we go south of the border, to explore some intriguing Czech literary and other cultural links with Mexico, stretching right back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bernie Higgins begins by recounting an extraordinary episode from the mid 19th century.

Emperor Maximilian
"At the time of the American Civil War, Mexico was forced to default on foreign debts that they had accrued because of their own struggles - with the Mexican-American war, for example. France took advantage of this to pursue its own imperial aims, and the Emperor Louis Napoleon decided to send his cousin, the Habsburg Maximilian, who was brother of the Emperor Franz Joseph. It was a crazy imperial adventure, and Maximilian was a hapless creature, who went over to Mexico with his wife Carlota, imagining that he'd be welcomed by the people as the great Emperor of Mexico."

So here was this rather stiff Austrian, going off to Mexico with no idea of what was in store.

"Apparently they spent the boat journey composing a manual of court etiquette. They were planning what medals they were going to give and how people should address them in the court. So it was really quite a shock for them to arrive. Really they were the pawns of France's imperial aims."

Presumably the whole project was predestined to come to grief.

"The so-called Austrian invasion and his imperial reign lasted from 1864-1867, when the famous father of the Mexican nation, Benito Juarez - who incidentally was born 200 years ago this year - ordered his execution, despite some European voices trying to persuade him not to. But he thought it was necessary to send a message to the world that Mexico wasn't having any more foreign imperial adventures there. In fact the execution of Maximilian is a very well known image, because it was famously depicted by the French painter Manet."

And we mentioned a Czech link.

"Yes, there is a link through Maximilian, because many scholars and musical authorities consider that the presence of so many brass instruments and polka and waltz tunes in Mexican music is attributable to this period in their history, and particularly Maximilian was supposed to have taken some military bands with him. Anybody who's a fan of Mexican music will recognize some of the similar sounds, particularly the instruments such as the tuba and the accordion. These were instruments that were brought over from Europe."

So maybe this episode in Mexican history wasn't a complete disaster.

"I would argue with that! I'm not sure that musical heritage is ever a justification for imperial adventure, but actually there's also a belief that the particular quality of Mexican beer, which is very nice and very popular is also due to European techniques of brewing, so this is why you have the Pilsner quality of Mexican beer."

So let's move forwards a few decades now, because the Czech link does come out again, with the period of the First Republic in Czechoslovakia under President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.

"One of the biggest streets in Mexico City, the equivalent to Fifth Avenue, Park Lane, Rodeo Drive, these huge shopping streets that we find in capital cities, is actually called Masaryk Avenue, and clearly this appreciation of Masaryk as an international statesman and spokesman for the ideals of democracy had a resonance in Mexico and is commemorated in this way."

And there were also several Czech writers who found their way to Mexico at that time.

"The Prague-born writer Franz Werfel wrote a play called Juarez and Maximilian, and this became a huge Broadway hit in the 1930s, starring Edward G. Robinson. It was later made into a film starring Bette Davis as Carlota, the wife of Maximilian. But to move on to the period of the Second World War, a very well known Czech writer, Lenka Reinerova, was one of those who found sanctuary in Mexico, along with many others, including the journalist and essayist Egon Erwin Kisch. I'd like to read a little from her book, The Café above Prague - Kavarna nad Prahou - and this describes a time that she spent with Kisch."

Once when I walked with Kisch in Mexico through a big market place we bought chicarrones and tequila. As is the tradition we put salt on our left hand which we licked with relish after the first sip. Then Egon bought me a little bunch of flowers - as if for the Queen of Sheba, and I bought him an old and slightly rusty, but beautifully crafted pocket knife. Above us arched a bright blue sky. In the distance the snowy peaks of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl sparkled. The war was over and in the hustle and bustle of the joyful Indians we felt very free and light, and Kisch told me, 'You know, stupid. I'll miss myself when I won't be here.' And he did.

"I think this is a very beautiful capturing of the passion that many writers have felt for Mexico, and this notion of missing yourself when you're no longer in a place is expressed very well. Recently I met with Jirina Castorena in Prague, who introduced me to yet another very interesting Czech-Mexican link. She herself lived in Mexico for many years and was reading from a new Czech translation of a Mexican writer at a literary evening we had recently here in Prague. She had travelled to many countries after 1989 and had settled in the 90s in Mexico and worked there. She has a great interest in Mexican culture and writers. She spoke at this evening about a new translation of the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, who is one of the leading Mexican writers. She has written over 50 books and has also written books of journalism and historical books..."

And she has a very Slav sounding name.

"Yes. This was from a Polish husband. In fact she was French-born and settled in Mexico and became a naturalised citizen. She wrote this book, the English translation of which is Seven Maverick Women. Probably the only one who is very well known outside of Mexico is Frida Kahlo, but Poniatowska also wrote about six other poets and artists. They were often very shocking, avant-garde women. They were certainly pioneers in the impact they had on Mexican culture, and I asked Jirina Castorena what Elena Poniatowska wanted to do in this book:"

Jirina Castorena: "These women - they wanted to be really free, and the way to present their opinions, not only in culture but also in politics, they were doing it in really shocking ways, because - can you imagine Mexican Catholic society at that time? - it was really very difficult for them to accept it. They realised themselves through culture, through shocking photographs, through shocking performance as well - only in this way.

"I think this translation (by Anna Tkacova) is very good and I think it's very important too, because this book has presented the literature and culture of these women, and Elena Poniatowska could bring closer to our readers the influence of European literature and culture on Mexican women artists. It is our mirror. Through this book we can see the influence of our own literature and culture. This is what I like and this is what I am glad for."

Here is a short extract from the book, describing the meeting of perhaps the most shocking of the seven artists, Nahui Olin, with fellow Mexican artist Dr Atl.

Where does the bluestone in the eyes of some Mexican women come from, that they seem to be exhilarated, obsessed, veiled by the leaf of the tree, the sea wave. There is no doubt that Nahui Olin had the sea in her eyes.

The salty water swelled inside both of the sockets and gathered into the calmness of a lake or whirled about, a frantic green storm, a huge green wave.

It cannot be easy to live with two sea waves in the head. Nor easy to live with another.

Dr Atl saw her in a bar and invited her to have a look at his pictures. However, a great chasm opened in front of him: " I fell down into the chasm like a man who slips off a rock and rushes into the ocean. An exceptional, killing attraction ... So, the snake spoke to Eve, and thus, paradise began for them both. Poor Nahui! Poor Dr Atl! The vulcanologist the victim of the volcano!