Foreign Ministry building recounts Czech history in a new novel

Černín Palace

The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located in the majestic Baroque Černín Palace just above Prague Castle. The majestic building, as well as the nearby Loreta Church, plays a major part in a recently published novel titled “Chvála oportunismu” or “In praise of opportunism”. Its author, Czech diplomat Marek Toman, a guest in Radio Prague’s Czech Books programme earlier this year, works at the ministry and knows the building inside out. I began by asking him how he came up with the idea to make the actual palace the narrator of his latest book.

Marek Toman next to the bust of Jan Masaryk,  photo: Pavla Horáková
“Actually, it was a very natural thing because it came at once, during one special occasion. Because every year, the Foreign Ministry organizes an open house, so everyone can come and go through the corridors and visit the chambers and on. And the employees of the Foreign Ministry serve as voluntary guides. So I was exactly in this position, explaining to the audience the details concerning this indeed majestic, monumental building. And then I was able at a certain moment to see myself from the outside as someone who is talking, who is describing the details, precisely or not that much, because sometimes the questions were pretty detailed and in this moment I experienced something pretty strange, I would call it even spiritual, because I was able to imagine the Černín Palace as a person watching myself and thinking: ‘My God, what is this person talking about?’ because I know the reality. And then it came to me, I was able to listen to the specific voice. And I was able to imagine the perspective the palace would probably be using if it were a person.”

And who is he, as a person?

“Well, he is definitely male, that’s very important about him. He is even macho. He is from an aristocratic family of Italian origin, being a little bit, I would say, above the surrounding landscape of Prague. The Černín Palace is located even higher than Prague Castle itself. So he is full of self-confidence, he’s very quick on judgment, he could be sort of arrogant. He doesn’t like certain concepts, like democracy for example, and his several hundred years of history gives him a sort of superior position and great self-esteem. So he is sort of intolerable, very difficult to live with and so on.”

What were some of the crucial events taking place within its – or his – walls?

Černín Palace | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry
“The history of the palace is very colourful. It begins in the second half of the 17th century but my novel concentrates on the 20th century mainly. It’s about history but of course it’s very much about the position of the Czech nation here in the centre of Europe and about the historical events of our modern times. And there are two crucial personalities. It is the Protektor Reinhard Heydrich who was the lord of the palace in the 1940s for actually quite a short period and then Jan Masaryk who was foreign minister of Czechoslovakia in exile and then back in Czechoslovakia after 1945. And these two men represent absolutely opposite personalities. Heydrich being very aristocratic, very efficient as an official and leader, being quite inhuman, while Jan Masaryk is absolutely the other side of things – someone with a great sense of humour, someone very human and maybe not always able to deal with politics and especially totalitarian politics. But surprisingly the palace has its own liking and he is definitely more on the side of Heydrich, I’m sorry to say.”

We should also mention that Jan Masaryk was the son of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia…

Photo: Torst
“Yes, so really, the Czechoslovak elite of the First Republic. You asked about the events. So probably the most dramatic, dark, obscure event happened in 1948, that was shortly after the communist putsch and Jan Masaryk, even though he was a democratic minister, he stayed within the new communist government to live only a couple of days more. And then he found his death actually in the courtyard of the palace after a fall from the window of his flat. So that’s a mysterious story. There were four criminal investigations, that’s also being described quite in detail in the text but up until the current times, this mystery is really staying with us – was it natural death, was it murder, and so on. And it’s part of the bunch of legends related to the palace. It’s one of them, actually, the legends from the past talking about the aristocratic inhabitants of the palace. This one is quite modern but it has all the Černín symptoms, I would say. So it’s really difficult to understand and you have to take positions when it comes to the answer how was it, how did it happen.”

On a more cheerful note, there’s also a romance involved in the story. Who is the object of Černín’s desire?

Černín Palace,  photo: Miloš Turek
“Well, so I would repeat, he is a man, he is a nobleman, he finds his object of admiration and love quite nearby because on the opposite side of the square there is a much smaller building. It is Saint Loreta, a place of pilgrimage, and a copy of the house of Virgin Mary, a place of Catholic cult. And Saint Loreta being of Italian origin and being a she, attracts his attention, his admiration, and he tries to play all the possible ways in which men can attract the attention of a lady. Not very successfully, because there is a deep difference in their nature, their beliefs, their character, so he tries quite desperately to shock her, to win her over, but it’s pretty difficult for him.”

Is the palace just a passive observer of the happenings inside or does he interfere?

“That’s a question the people who are working here ask themselves, I would say. Because that’s a shared experience that there is really something strange inside, the outsiders describe it as a feeling of anxiety of something strange, because the palace is really way too huge for a normal person, so if I admit these observations, then it’s clear that the palace interferes indeed. And I was really curious about his reaction to my book because I work here. So after the book was published, there was a huge question what the reaction would be.”


“And I think that I can feel some benevolent ignorance which I would say goes hand in hand with my description of the character. So I hope we will be able to live together even further.”