Don Sparling – Part 2

November 1989

While thousands of Westerners flocked to Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, Don Sparling experienced those dramatic events at first hand. In the second part of a two-part interview, he discusses, among other things, that intoxicating period and the changes that followed.

Don Sparling,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Speaking at our studios in Prague, Professor Sparling told me he had two particularly strong memories of November 1989.

“One was the first mass meeting in Brno, which was on Monday the 20th of November. Which was the same everywhere: in Prague and everywhere it was the 20th.

“The difference in Brno perhaps was that there hadn’t been demonstrations or people being attacked by the police and so on earlier, as there had been, let’s say, in Prague, where there had been a year and a half of growing demonstrations.

“So nobody knew in Brno what might happen – whether when we sent out leaflets saying gather on Freedom Square for this demonstration this evening 10 people would come or 10,000.

“We went to the square and it was totally surrounded by People’s Militia with guns, which we later learned actually were loaded.

“We had no idea. This was the very first day and nobody anywhere knew whether the state was going to fight back. So it was very, very tense.

“We got to the square and it was total chaos. I think there was one microphone for the whole square, and so on.

“Because it was November it was getting dark and the organisers in order to at least make it appear that the square was full – in the end it turned out to be overflowing – thought, if everybody brings a candle and lights it, it’ll kind of fill up the space.

“We sang the national anthem with the candles lit and the whole square was suddenly lit up with whatever it was, 20,000, 30,000 candles. That was an extraordinary, powerful, emotional moment.”

What was your second memory from that time?

“The other one was curious. We had a student theatre in the English department with a very, very long tradition and we put on a big, full-length play every year.

November 1989,  Prague
“I had decided that year to put on a musical version of Animal Farm. I’d wanted to do it two or three years before but I’d thought, no way.

“By October ’89 I thought, let’s risk it. Maybe this is a sign that I did feel there was a thaw going on, but that was already very late.

“Anyway, we rehearsed it at the university recreation centre in the Vysočina. We came back on the Saturday the 18th and on the Monday we were involved in the student strike. And the students said to me, why don’t we put this on for the students? This is perfect.

“I said, well, it’s in English. They said, we’ll play it in Czech. And so on the second day of the strike, on the Tuesday or Wednesday, I can’t remember, to this audience of 300, 400 students we put on Animal Farm in Czech.

“They sang the songs in English, but with virtually no preparation – they met for 10 or 15 minutes to decide on the Czech names – they put on this whole extraordinary play in Czech.

“One bit of it after another just had this incredible resonance. I still remember this wonderful line where one of the animals says, you pigs have gone too far this time.

“The whole room just erupted in cheers and laughter. I think never in my life ever again will I see such an incredible congruence of life and art. It was an extraordinary moment.”

What did the revolution mean to you personally, both to your life and to your career?

“Well, to my career it meant that within two weeks I was elected head of the English Department [at Masaryk University in Brno] and to the senate and so on.

“So suddenly from having been an ordinary member of the teaching staff at the university I was at the centre of things and electing officials and creating all new regulations and in the English department completely, radically restructuring the whole degree programme and so on. It was tremendously invigorating from that point.

“As for my life, it sounds maybe paradoxical but not that much. I’m a person who has fairly minimal needs and desires. I never wanted to have a three-car garage or anything like that – I wouldn’t have lived in this country if I had [laughs].

Masaryk University in Brno,  photo: Vladan Dokoupil
“So from that point of view, in terms of material things, it didn’t really mean that much.

“We always travelled to Canada in the communist years, my wife, my children and myself. We’d go there every second year and I could travel on my own if I had wanted to. So there wasn’t a huge change in that aspect.

“People may think I’m a little bit sick, but the first time when I really began to realise the changes and was caught by surprise – and I can’t remember whether it was a month or six weeks later – was when they got rid of the Russian channel on the state television and brought in CNN.

“I was totally freaked out by having CNN in my living room. I just couldn’t put it together, because I had operated on the principle that there are two worlds.

“When we went to Canada I would kind of turn a little switch in my mind and have no problem living in Canada. It always took my wife three or four weeks to get adjusted.

“Then when we came back it would be the same thing. I’d do my little switch and I’d be back in this society. I sort of adapted my wishes, desires, needs to where I was.

“And now suddenly this other world was here. That for me was psychologically not so much upsetting but just puzzling or something like that. I really didn’t know what space I was in any more.

“It got worse then when I started going to the grocery store and found myself faced with the decision of having to choose which of the 10 types of bread to buy, or which of the five types of butter.

“There used to be one type of butter, and that was it. You didn’t waste any time thinking, which one, is this one better, is it cheaper, is it more expensive, is it more quality?

“I know this really sounds like a radical leftist critique of the consumer society, but I still am allergic – I cannot go into big supermarkets here without feeling tension. I don’t like this kind of society.”

You have written a very well-known textbook called English or Czenglish? I’m sure generations of students provided material for you writing that book.

Photo: archive of Masaryk University
“Yes, this was the reason I wrote it. It’s a book about typical mistakes made in English by Czechs. At one point I got tired of correcting the same mistakes over and over and over again.

“I had started collecting them at some point so I decided to put them down in a user-friendly way. It went through a first edition of 10,000 copies. This was just before the change of regime, in October ’89.

“I had said I thought they should print more and they said, you know, 10,000 is a lot. It sold out in three days or something like this. And immediately they asked me to sign a contract for a second edition – and that was 100,000 copies.”

Are you still teaching? Or what are you up to these days?

“I’m not teaching. I left the English Department in 2000, because the then rector asked me to establish a completely new international office for the university called the Office for the International Studies.

“It was a very interesting type of international office with far more responsibilities than traditional ones. That was nine fascinating, exciting years. Then I retired from the university in 2009.

“What am I up to now? I’m up to a North American Studies project, which involves the English and Romance languages at our university. It’s a big project financed by the European Commission.

“I’m involved in another research project of Czech theatre criticism.

“I’m involved with a second project financed by the European Commission – an annual study tour of Canada for 30, 32 students from all over Europe.

“The other thing I’m doing is working with an NGO in Brno called Brnopolis which was established to help make life easier in Brno for foreigners: professional foreigners, people with university degrees working for the increasing number of international firms there.

“Then we set up a thing called the Brno Expat Centre. I was the first manager of this. It’s a place where foreigners can come and we give advice and so on…”

Brno,  photo: Harold,  CC BY-SA 3.0
I was surprised to read about that. I was thinking it was something people would have needed years ago – I’m surprised that it’s still needed.

“There’s a big difference between Prague and Brno. Brno really only began to take off as an international city about six or seven years ago, when the critical mass of foreigners passed a certain point and the critical mass of foreign firms establishing offices in Brno began to suddenly take off.

“There’s also a difference in the sense that in Prague you know have foreigners like yourself who have been here for 10, 15, 20 years. Brno was off people’s radar. It’s not a tourist city.

“It’s only now with these firms coming there that it’s turning into this kind of international atmosphere.

“It’s also an interesting city because it’s a highly decentralised city. We were talking earlier about everybody saying Brno is a village, blah, blah, blah. It’s not. Brno is 27 villages.

“It’s a very secret and secretive city. Even Brno people don’t know what’s going on in Brno. There’s no central place to find information and so on.

“You can imagine for foreigners it’s doubly difficult. So we do this sort of thing – a lot of fun.”

My last question is hugely off the point from everything else we’ve been talking about. But I was reading you don’t like the Good Soldier Švejk and I was wondering, why not?

“[Laughs] Well, I find it boring and repetitive to begin with. You read the first 30 pages and it’s funny and then you read another thirty pages and it’s kind of amusing.

“And then you continue and it’s basically the same kind of situations, the same kind of humour. Beyond a certain point I just close the covers and say, fine.

“It depends how you interpret Švejk – whether you interpret him as a clever person who uses this neat little way to get through life without any problems, or whether you think that he’s just dumb.

“I don’t know which it is but I don’t like either. If he’s dumb I’m not interested in him. And if he’s using this clever way to get through life pretending to be dumb I don’t think that’s a very useful model to promote, let me put it that way.”

Don Sparling – Part 1