Golden Eels and Long Ordeals: The life and times of Ota Pavel

Ota Pavel

Today's 'Czech Books' looks at the journalist and author, Ota Pavel. A favourite among Czechs, Ota's stories about his childhood, his fishing rods, and sporting heroes have been turned into films on a number of occasions. I take a look at the sometimes troubled, thoroughly extraordinary life of the man behind the microphone.

Ota Pavel was born in 1930, the son of Leo and Hermina Popper. He was descendent of a Jewish farming family, and had two brothers, Jiri and Hugo. His father was a vacuum-cleaner salesman, and a very successful one too. In his time, Leo Popper became Czechoslovakia's leading Electrolux salesman, and eventually the world's number one agent. In the story 'At Sweden's Service', Ota documents his father's humble beginnings. Here's an excerpt:

"The Electrolux outlet in Pilsen gave him a trial, and hesitantly handed him one vacuum cleaner in a wooden case. They didn't give him any money for expenses and so he had to walk all the way to Rokycany, case in hand, because he couldn't afford the train. He stood for two hours in the town square in Rokycany before he plucked up the courage to visit his first client and recite the sales pitch he had been repeating to himself all the way from Pilsen:

"I am an Electrolux representative, selling vacuum cleaners with the quality assurance of being 'made in Sweden'" This man didn't tell Dad to go away. In fact in the end he fell for the pitch. In this one day, Dad sold four vacuum cleaners in Rokycany, which was quite a feat for a newcomer, because people had held on to their brushes and brooms for hundreds of years and considered these vacuum cleaners, at two thousand crowns a pot, the work of the devil and pointless to boot."

I talked with Ota's older brother, Hugo, about how it was for the three brothers growing up. He told me that thanks to their father's job, the family moved about a lot. When they were young, the Popper's lived quite peacefully, but the war turned that on its head.

"The war really did affect our family, as of 1939 we were no longer allowed to go to school and had to move house. 20 000 Germans came to Prague and Jewish people had to give up their homes to them. First of all we moved to the Jewish quarter of Prague, Josefov, and then when the first transportation of Jews took place we had to leave the capital. So we moved to our grandparents' house in Bustehrad. As you could imagine, things were difficult. At the time they were handing out food tokens. Our family didn't get any. We had to leave everything behind. And then on the 15th February 1943, Jiri and I were sent to the concentration camp. We went to Terezin and Ota stayed at home with Mum and Dad. Dad was sent to Terezin for the rest of the war at the start of 1945"

Ota writes about this time frequently in his books. One of his most celebrated stories on the topic is 'the Death of the handsome deer'. In it, he tells of how his father risked life and limb to bring his sons one last meal before they were sent away to Terezin.

"In the third year of the war, the order came for my brothers to go to the concentration camp, and at home my Dad said:

"Before they go, these boys need to eat - Meat. I'm getting us some fish"

Dad was not allowed to ride his bike, except to work, he was not allowed to leave the house without permission, and he could no longer catch fish; after all, he wasn't living on the Riviera, but in the Protectorate, under the close surveillance of the police and the Gestapo. He went to see his most excellent friend in Bustehrad, Doctor Quido Jerabek, who wrote that he was too ill to go down the mines. Quido had no idea that Dad was planning to go to Krivoklat Castle for the weekend.

Dad left our Bustehrad home - number 54, without his star, which he'd ripped off and stuffed in his pocket, he put his bag on the back of his bike, along with his sacks and his portable eel trap. Mum did a lot of cursing. Dad cycled that night through Zehrovice and Lany. Along his path, the stars shone, whereas the one in his pocket just sat and read 'JUDE'. He thought about all the things that can possibly be thought about; About how twisted and warped the world was, and how before he went around like a lord in his American Buick and now he crawled along the ditches on his creaky bicycle like a poor Jew. He rode along the serpentines of Krivoklat and pushed his bike up the hill above Visnovka, and then he peddled along the Berounka river, where the foam gathered in the pools where the pike swam, just like they had the year before. The water roared just as it had then too, and the adders sprawled across the main road in the heat."

After the war Ota's father and brothers came back from Terezin. The family changed their surname from Popper to Pavel. In 1949 Ota became a sports journalist for Czechoslovak national radio. His friend, Arnost Lustig, helped him find the job. During his time at the radio, Ota befriended many of the sportspeople that he reported on, and indulged his passion for all things athletic. He stayed at the radio until 1952 when he was called to do his military service. Some years later - this time being interviewed for Czechoslovak radio - Ota explained why he liked sports journalism in particular:

"I would say that I understand sport in some ways, because I was very athletic and did a lot of sport; on top of that I played hockey with Sparta and during the war I enjoyed playing football for Bustehrad"

Throughout his career, Ota wrote many stories about the sportsmen that he knew, and the sporting events that he had witnessed. 'The Mistake' is one of the few stories that he writes in the voice of another person. In this story, the 'voice' is supposed to be that of his friend, the celebrated cyclist Jan Vesely. Throughout the forties and fifties primarily, Jan Vesely was the Czech track and road cycling champion no less than 25 times. He also once won the 'Peace Race', an amateur cycling competition, with participants from all over the communist bloc. This excerpt from 'The Mistake' depicts Jan Vesely's unsuccessful return to the competition a decade after his initial victory.

"Long live Vesely! Long live Vesely!"

They were shouting, just as they had shouted then. They didn't even know what it had been like, but I thought about it continuously - even now, during the most important race of my life.

At the time I didn't suppose that ten years later I would perform very well in the 'Peace Race', but nor could I ever have guessed that I would give up quite like I did. I hadn't trained properly in the last year. I had wanted to stop cycling. I was old now and had competed for more than twenty years. What's more, my kidneys felt cold and my back hurt, but I couldn't give up - they would say "he's chickened out!"

I'd actually let myself be talked into starting. They had said "It'll be fantastic, Honza, you'll end your career gloriously, in this jubilee tenth year of the 'Peace Race'". It was their mistake, but it was largely mine too, because I had never learnt how to say 'no' to anything. Experience taught me how.

Straight away things went a bit topsy-turvy, it was the first stage from Prague to Brno. I started to slip towards the back alongside the Hungarians and Finns. I thought to myself, "I'm just warming up, everything will be fine!" I arrived in Brno 72nd and got off my bike. People surged towards me just like they had back when I was good.

It was on one of his postings as a sport's reporter that Ota had his first attack of manic depression, an illness which was to dog him for the rest of his life. This attack happened at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Ota disappeared, and most of the Czechs there with him thought he must have emigrated. In the end, he was found in a psychiatric ward by his family and friends. Hugo Pavel explains what happened:

"In 1964 Ota was a sport's editor and in Innsbruck there was a mix up, and the Czech ice-hockey team ended up with the bronze medal. Ota went into the hockey players' changing rooms, and when he said that third place wasn't so bad, one of the hockey players shouted "Jew, go and get gassed!" That really struck Ota, and he started seeing Hitler, Eichmann and Kaltenbrunner. The horrors of his childhood came rushing back. Ota left the changing room, and had his first attack of manic depression. He went up into the hills, set fire to a barn and rescued all of the animals. The Austrians found him and took him to a psychiatric ward"

Between 1964 and his death, nine years later, Ota was hospitalized 16 times in all with his depression. It is during this period that all of his books were published, to both public and critical acclaim. His final book, 'Jak jsem potkal ryby' is a collection of stories centered upon fishing. It has been translated into English. Fishing was a hobby of Ota's from when he was a child. Trips to the rivers he fished in as a child took on a new significance in his final years, as it was then that he felt most at peace.

The Czech actor Jan Werich once said that if only Ota Pavel had written in English, he would have the world at his feet. My shaky translations you've heard in this programme will probably not go towards changing that. However, I leave you with a treat; one of people's favourite stories, on Ota's own favourite subject - fishing. Here's an excerpt from 'the Golden Eels', this time translated by someone good:

"The sky cracked, and darkness sprayed out of it. It struck me: the saints were coming in! Unknown celestial archers shot arrow flashes of lightning into the woods and river. Someone banged on dustbin lids. Water erupted from the sky. The river eddied and bubbles floated on it large as fists. The trees nodded, afraid of breaking and dying.

And somewhere a bird cackled.

Then it occurred to me to look at the rod. The rest signal was down, the gut was unwinding into the stormy river, as if someone in the water were insatiably swallowing it. That's a fish, running with the bait! And the second rod was rocking like the arm on the pump we got from Grandpa Novák. I jumped up and grabbed the rod to relieve it and stop it snapping. There emerged the mysterious head of an eel. I dragged it across the grass to that puddle full of water. I cut off the line and tossed the eel into the puddle, where it couldn't do a bunk. I leapt to the second rod and jerked it back. Another eel! I pulled it close in and threw it up on the bank with the strong line. It literally leapt to the puddle. I fastened a hook. Another hook. My hands were shaking with anxious excitement, the water pouring over my face. A third eel. A fourth makes it golden already. I'd been awaiting these moments for years on end...

"They're here, golden eels!"

One of them got stuck on the river bottom. Pepík Vlku, who rushed down from Luh and saw everything, pelted for a boat. I'd been sitting there waiting for the main rod, I'd lost a good twenty minutes. Now I mustn't miss even a second. There must have been throngs of them down there. They rose from the bottom like herds of antelope. Every time they found my bait and took it instantly like farmyard hens. Maybe they were afraid that the end of the world was nigh. Maybe it was, and only some power or other prevented it.

A seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh.

...Nothing lasts for ever. Neither beauty, nor joy, nor pain. The sky healed over with blue silk and sent a yellow sun down to earth. The thunderburst passed, the eels vanished.

Was it an illusion?

Was it a dream?

I stood over the puddle, and in it the eels writhed and wriggled. They were neither big nor small. They were just right. It was true about the golden eels. I loaded them into my satchel and hurried over the hill of sweet-smelling thyme to Branov. Prosek stood on the doorstep, twisting his military moustache and laughing a foxy grin.

Translation: James Naughton

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.