Czechs celebrate Hans Christian Andersen's bicentennial

Hans Christian Andersen, photo: CTK

The year 2005 marks the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. The prolific Danish writer's life and work are being celebrated this month in an exhibit at the Czech National Library, Klementinum. Kate Barrette was at the opening, and has more on Andersen's colourful experiences in the Czech Lands more than a century ago.

Hans Christian Andersen,  photo: CTK
The Czech Republic and Denmark have had a long history of cultural exchange and influence. Back in 1559, the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, came to Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, to seek refuge in the freedom of science that existed here at the time. More recently, in the 1970s and 80s, Denmark offered asylum to Czechs who could not exercise their cultural and religious ambitions during the Communist era.

But somewhere between these two periods, another great Dane left his mark on the Czech lands. The tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Dane behind scores of unforgettable fairy tales, like "The Princess and the Pea" and "The Little Mermaid," have captured Czechs' attention and imagination for almost two centuries. And that is the attention of both children and adults. Antonin Dvorak's opera 'Rusalka' was inspired in part by Andersen's tale of "The Little Mermaid."

Tuesday night diplomats, dignitaries, and academics gathered in Prague's National Library, Klementinum, to honour the world famous Dane on the occasion of his 200th birthday. Czech actor Josef Somr mesmerized the crowd reading "The Swineherd," Andersen's tale of a princess who keeps kissing a swineherd in order to obtain magic objects. And, Czech-Danish soprano, Dominque Devaux Blazkova, sang some of Andersen's songs, including "Denmark, My Fatherland."

Tana Fiserova is a former Czech actress who is now an MP for the centre right Freedom Union party. She talked about the special importance Anderson's fairy tales have for Czechs.

"I will be almost sixty, and from my childhood I remember his fairy tales, because they were great, and we were living with his fairy tales, and Bozena Nemcova's fairy tales, too. It's something like milk for us - we like him, we know him, we appreciate him, all of our lives."

Andersen himself was no stranger to the Czech Lands. The prolific author of 175 fairy tales and stories, 14 novels, 50 dramatic works, and 800 poems, he also produced about a dozen travel accounts - some of which were written here. Jorgen Bojer is the Danish Ambassador to the Czech Republic:

"Hans Christian Andersen himself traveled to the Bohemian lands, as they were known at this time. He spent some time in Prague and wrote about it in his diaries, and in one of his descriptions, he said that there was really no difference between the Czech Lands and Denmark, except for the language. He said, "Of all the German towns - Prague is the one I like best."

Andersen also showed a strong interest in the Czech language and people, particularly in the female half of the population. Jorgen Bojer again:

"When he was travelling in the province, he also made some effort to learn some Czech. In one of his diaries he writes how he was sitting in his carriage, moving up towards North Bohemia, looking out into the village and practicing: 'Hezka holka, ja te miluji.' ('Pretty girl, I love you.') So, he was a great traveler and he was not a passing tourist. He would stay in the countries he visited long enough to get a sense of the culture of the place, so he was very much an internationalist also."

Despite the fact that Andersen's stories were translated into Czech and many other languages in his own lifetime, there are gaps between perceptions of his writing, and the reality. Martin Humpal teaches Scandinavian literature at Charles University in Prague. He says Andersen's style influenced modern Danish writing, and introduced a new, colloquial use of language. But this doesn't fit the style of what people expect from Andersen, and as a result, translations often elevate the text to make it sound more lofty and - well, fairy tale like. Martin Humpal:

"And it is only recently that one of our best translators from Scandinavian literature, Frantisek Frohlich, decided to translate Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales anew. But so far, he has been quite unlucky with the publishing houses, because the publishing houses want to have their image of Andersen's tales confirmed. So they are, relatively speaking, unwilling to publish new translations, that would on the one hand, reflect the nature of the original language better, but on the other hand, go against what the Czech reader is used to, in terms of Andersen's fairy tales."

Despite the commercial literary challenges, Czechs' love for Andersen endures. Mr. Bojer, who has been the Danish Ambassador to the Czech Republic for the last four years, also worked as secretary to the Royal Danish Embassy in Prague during the 1970s, as a young father. He sees a special connection between Czechs and Andersen.

"The attitude of Czech people to their children is something very much in conformity with the way Andersen was writing for children. It struck me very much when I was here in the old times. We had two little daughters. Czech people were so fond of our children - they would stop at our street and talk to them. And there is something in the Czech language - all the diminutives in the language - there is a very special way that people adapt their language when they speak to children, which I think is somehow related to the tradition of telling fairy tales - stimulating the imagination of the children, by talking to them."

The exhibition about the life and work of Andersen continues at the Czech National Library until April 28. After that it will travel to Brno, Olomouc, Plzen and Ostrava.