“Karel Kryl was scary”: Hynek Pallas on growing up in a Czech cultural hub in Sweden

Hynek Pallas

Journalist and film critic Hynek Pallas grew up in a notable Czech household in Sweden, where his dissident family settled after being forced out of Czechoslovakia. From their home, his father Jiří Pallas ran the label Šafrán 78, releasing music by artists that were banned by the Communists, including such names as Vlastimil Třešňák, Jaroslav Hutka and Karel Kryl. I discussed all this and more with Pallas when he came to our studios on one of his regular visits to Prague.

The first thing I’d like to ask you about is your family background. Your parents came from Prague, is that right?

“Yes, I’m born in Prague, my parents are from Smíchov and Nusle.

“I was born in 1975 in Smíchov; we lived on Zborovská, with my grandmother.

“My parents were already involved in underground activities, my father specifically with music, and my mother was around Petr Uhl: the Trotskyists.

“So when 1977 came around they of course both signed Charter 77.

“By that summer of ’77 my mother was pregnant and they gave my parents an ultimatum: You can choose between mental asylum, prison or leaving the country.”

Was that part of the so-called Operation Asanace, or Clearance [when the Communists systematically drove dissidents out of Czechoslovakia]?

“I knew that if Czechs came knocking on our door randomly, it wasn’t a good thing.”

“No, this was pre-Asanace.

“They started to target families, people with small children – it was much easier to push them out this way.

“Asanace started I think in ’79, ’80, though I guess that’s pretty fluid: the choice was pretty much the same.

“So… that’s a long story, but Austria had welcomed all those who had signed Charter with open arms.

“But they were advised not to go to Austria. It was too close: ‘You will never get rid of Czechoslovakia.’

“And they heard about Sweden, which they didn’t know anything about.

“They were looking at Sweden but got declined several times, so they were looking at Italy.

“And then someone at the Swedish Embassy… a person who in later life popped up – they didn’t know who it was at the beginning – helped them out.

Jiří Pallas | Photo: Elena Horálková,  Czech Radio

“They were welcomed in Sweden and left in late ’77 and my sister was born a month later in Uppsala.

“So that’s the Czech background.”

I was in Stockholm a few years ago and I met a few Czechs who had emigrated there are 1968, but not so many. Was there a big Czech community when you guys arrived in Sweden?

“There were a lot of ’68 Czechs, and Slovaks. They were concentrated in Gothenburg, on the west coast, and Stockholm.

“We came to Uppsala because my grandmother knew someone.

“Also Vlasta Třešňák had a friend, where we were going to spend the first night.

“He was a photographer, but it turned out he was living in a shed in someone’s garden [laughs].

“So there we arrived: me two years old and my mother, heavily pregnant, was supposed to sleep on the floor.

“Other people got the CIA money, but my parents struggled without it.”

“They got help – went to the social services.

“But there wasn’t a Czech support network, in that sense.

“Other immigrants already in Sweden, and later, had that, but the Czech community was then, and also later, more complicated.

“Especially when you consider that a lot of these people could, and wanted to, go back and forth.

“The government actually made it possible for them, if they did things: favours.

“So I grew up with a… not that it was always pronounced, but I knew that if Czechs came knocking on our door randomly, it wasn’t a good thing.

“We had a stream of Czech students – I was like 10 years old – who would knock on the door and, very sweaty and nervous, ask to see my parents, or they wanted records signed.

“And it turns out of course that they were spying.

Vlastimil Třešňák | Photo: Ben Skála,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.5

“There was a lot of that going on, and that of course makes it hard to build a trusting community.

“There were exiled Czechs who after my parents arrived…they started a record company for exiled musicians and illegal music, and also Havel’s plays and stuff on vinyl, so of course that created sort of a hub for people to arrive.

“So several Czechs came to Stockholm or to Uppsala during Asanace, like Vlastimil Třešňák.

“Some stayed and some went on. Pavel Zajíček and some other people.

“Even as a child I remember it as a very cultural community.”

I presume your family were not among those who were allowed to come back?

“Not at all – they were definitely not allowed to come back.”

I was wondering then, as a child growing up in Sweden, what was your imagination of Prague or of Czechoslovakia? How did you envision it?

“Differently at different stages. I was a two and a half year old kid when I arrived, so I had a formed child’s language.

“After 1990 in the Czech exile wanted to have been part of being a dissident, which was BS.”

“All my childhood cartoons and all the first years are very vividly from the Czech canon, so to speak.

“My grandmother came a lot, she was allowed to come to Sweden, so that was a very living part.

“But I had no visual idea of Prague. I remember – it could have been ’87, ’88 – I found a box of slides.

“You look at slides and they’re very saturated colours: it was Prague, but it was like a fairytale city.

“And that has stayed with me, even though it was only one or two years before we actually returned.

“So to me it formed very much around the language, which we spoke at home, and how the language was connected to my childhood stories and so on, and to domestic language.

“Even though I didn’t think about it that way. It was just like a secret language in a way: this is what we do at home, and that is society.

Jaroslav Hutka | Photo: Czech Television

“I had Czech in school, the first years, and then I just stopped.

“I stopped answering my parents in Czech. Me and my sister spoke Swedish amongst ourselves.

“And then later I took up Czech again, once we had returned.”

You mentioned people coming to get records signed by your dad. Your father, Jiří Pallas, cofounded the label Šafrán 78 to release banned music. What kind of artists was he putting out? You mentioned a few already.

“First of it was an album that had a Swedish title: Lämna vårt land ifred – Leave Our Country Alone.

“Zakázaní zpěváci was the Czech title, and it was a fun and fascinating story.

“Just a month after we arrived in Sweden, these two left-wing journalists [Jörgen Widsell and Robert Aschberg], Maoists, came knocking on my parents’ door. Swedish guys – young.

“They asked them if they could help in any way. Maoists of course hated the Soviet Union.

“My father went, Of course, you could go to Prague and record some music.

“So they came here in 1978. I think there was a hockey championship on and they were supposed to be covering it.

“Then they recorded Vlasta Třešňák, Hutka. [Marta] Kubišová agreed to be on the record, which was the big thing. Charlie Soukup.

“Ucho, The Ear, by Karel Kachyňa is a masterpiece, an all-time, very unknown masterpiece in the West.”

“It’s fun, because one of these journalists [Aschberg] is now an extremely famous personality in Sweden and he has written about it; it’s his recollection of recording illegally in basements where there was a water tap – all these things.

“Also about how the secret police knew about them and followed them.

“And how someone – this has come out years later – in the Swedish national hockey team actually helped them to smuggle the tapes out.

“A Maoist publishing company actually helped my father to do the first record.

“Then came Karel Kryl, which I guess was the best-seller, relatively speaking, and Charlie Soukup, which is my favourite: Rádio.

“There was Vlasta Třešňák, who I became close to as a person, who I really like. His albums were then recorded in Sweden.

“Also Jaroslav Hutka, and a play by Havel.”

How were these recordings distributed? I guess there would have been a market for them here, but that would have been illegal. Also there would have been demand among exiles around the world, I imagine?

“[Josef] Škvorecký helped out, in Canada. And [Pavel] Tigrid in Paris.

“So it was an exile network – where we got books and magazines.

“Unfortunately no CIA money; other people got the CIA money, but my parents struggled without it.

“It’s really hard to explain, when you don’t have the obvious shifts in politics that you have in Hungary and in Poland, that bad changes can come in other ways.”

“So they were distributed in the exile network and they were smuggled into Czechoslovakia with the help of everyone from students to actual smugglers.

“There were labour unions in Sweden which helped; they smuggled presses to Poland.

“So it was a pretty established network.

“Sometimes the cover [of a record] was classical music and you put it [banned music] in the cover.

“And then once in the republic, they were basically taped to cassette and then multiplied by cassette, so there wasn’t money in it.

“In Sweden I would say that very few Czechs actually dared to buy them and to be in contact with my parents.

“It’s like when you have legendary concerts, like Bruce Springsteen in 1975.

“Everyone says, I was there – and you know if everyone was there, that’s not possible.

“It’s pretty much the same.

“After 1990 in the Czech exile wanted to have been part of being a dissident, which was – sorry for my French – bullshit.

“But Karel Kryl came, and did tours in Sweden. Again supported by – and this is important – the left wing in Sweden.

“We had a lot of strong support from left-wing people.

“There were of course basically Stalinists who hated my parents as well.

Karel Kryl | Photo: Jiří Sláma,  Czech Radio

“But that was the core support.”

Did you meet Karel Kryl?

“I met him as a child – I was 11, I think – and he scared the shit out of me.

“He lived on our sofa. I guess he was a complicated character.

“I remember he always stayed in his bathrobe and he smoked a stinking cigar.

“My recollection is that my mother smoked under the kitchen fan, but no-one else was allowed to smoke indoors, but Karel could have this little stinking cigar.

“And as I remember it, he was not very fond of children.

“I remember others. There was a stream of especially men through our living room, but Karel stood out.”

The first time we spoke was a couple of years ago when you wrote an article about Daisies by Věra Chytilová, when there was a BBC poll of the best films by women. You’re a film critic. Tell us about your interest in Czech cinema. Which films in particular do you personally rate?

“That’s hard. Of course Daisies – it’s an all-time favourite.

“I can’t really rate them, but I think Ucho, The Ear, by Karel Kachyňa is a masterpiece, an all-time, very unknown masterpiece in the West. I think it’s an outstanding film.

“What’s interesting about the ‘60s especially is that I keep finding films that are amazing that I haven’t seen.

'Daisies' | Photo: Bontonfilm

“The other week, just before I came here, I received a package from this DVD label in England called Second Run.

“They had released a Slovak film from’66, I think, called Before Tonight is Over.

“I had never heard about the film before. Maybe I had read about it as in footnote, but you know, these films haven’t really been widely available.

“I love Menzel’s Larks on a String.

“And I think that my interest in especially the 1960s – even though it’s not limited to it – is that my interest in cinema comes from the fact I have an interest in politics, in sociology and in art.

“And the art form where everything comes together for me is film.

“Because it’s always subjected to the financial side, the production side, what’s happening in society at that moment.

“So the ‘60s in Czechoslovakia was the perfect time, where all these forces were pulling – and you can see it and feel it in the films.

“It’s so interesting. How does censorship affect films? How come they could make all these films?

“It’s so interesting.”

I know you follow Czech events quite a lot. I know it’s an enormous question, but how do you view the state of the country in general, 30 plus years after the fall of communism?

“Oh yeah, it’s an enormous question.

“We have elections coming up and I’m coming back to write about them and cover them.

“I’m not sure what term to put on it… I was seeing that Babiš was handing out ice creams the other day.

“It’s like a kind of cynical nihilism, there’s no materialistic struggle around politics that actually matters.

“People get poorer, everything gets more and more expensive – you’re now the second most expensive city in Europe or in the world or whatever.

“It’s moving in a direction that gives a lot of reason to be nervous.

“When I talk about this in Sweden it is of course very hard, because Central Europe is treated as a whole, if at all.

“You have Hungary and you have Poland, so it’s always compared.

“It still has that shadow or that stamp from Václav Havel, so it’s like ‘the country that did better’.

“And people do not realise that Klaus won, and it’s really, really hard to explain.

“It’s really hard to explain, when you don’t have the obvious shifts in politics that you have in Hungary and in Poland, that bad changes can come in other ways.”