My Prague – Gerald Turner

Gerald Turner at U Parlamentu, photo: Ian Willoughby

Gerald Turner is a leading translator of Czech literature into English and is currently preparing to take on no less a work than Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Though now mainly based in his native England, throughout the 1970s Turner lived in Prague, where he lost his enthusiasm for communism and fell in with lots of notable figures on the city’s art scene. Our tour of “his Prague” begins at the pub U Parlamentu in the Old Town.

Gerald Turner at U Parlamentu,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“This is the pub that we didn’t usually come into, because it was a 12-degree [beer] pub.

“We drank across the road at U Svitáků, as we called it then. Everybody still does, but it doesn’t exist anymore.

“I can’t go to U Svitáků, so I come here now.”

Are there many pubs from your day, say from the ‘70s, still around in Prague?

“There are a few, but they’ve changed character a great deal.

“The ones we used go into… U Glaubiců on Malostranské náměstí, which has been restored again but lost its character.

“Of course there was Neruda’s old pub, U Dvou slunců, underneath the Castle steps.

“U Bonaparta. But they’ve all become some sort of tourist places.”

Is there any one that still retains something?

“No, I don’t think there is [laughs]. I can’t think of any – not offhand.”

Who comes to this pub U Parlamentu, which is just by Staroměstská Metro station?

“Mostly people from the old art scene – the old UMPRUM [Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design] people.

“There’ll be some of the old guys from the Arts Faculty.

“But we’re all in our 60s and 70s now.”

You’re from the UK and you’ve lived in Ireland. How do you think Czech pubs compare to pubs there?

“Well, there’s almost no comparison, apart from drinking beer, of course.

“Czech pubs don’t have bars.

“As you know, they have a counter, at which most potmen don’t like you hanging around, except in the country, where they might know you.

U Parlamentu,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Then you’ve got the whole system of the štamgast table.”

The regulars’ table?

“Yes, the regular guests.

“That exists in Germany and it’s the rule here. And woe betide you sit there uninvited.”

As somebody who lived in Prague in the 1970s and on and off since then, for you when was the best time to live here?

“When I was a young man of 24 and 25 – that was the best time of my life [laughs].

“I had the privilege of being able to travel, which was not true of almost anybody here.

“And I was relatively well paid. I travelled a lot around the country.

“Through having met up in the 1970s with key figures from the art world at that time and what would be called the underground, I used to go off to Ústí nad Orlicí to see Jan Steklík.

“He would send me hand-drawn postcards saying, for example, The leaves here are turning the colour of beer – come over.”

Were some people wary of you as a foreigner? And were others drawn to you as a foreigner, at that time?

“People from the art world, like Steklík and the other people in the Křižovnická škola, as it was called, the Crusaders’ School, they were attracted…

“I hope I look a sort of decent-looking bloke, you know.

“They took to me very early on.”

When you walk the streets of Prague today, do you feel much of the magic that you felt years ago?

“It depends where I am.

“I find it painful to walk up Nerudova St. these days.

Interior of U Parlamentu,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I like to wander in Vinohrady – there I do feel the magic of my old days here.

“What I’ve come to love is Žižkov, where this great propensity that Czechs have to start up little businesses…

“All these basement bars connected with one particular winery in Moravia – these is really a great development.

“That’s where I tell people to go: go to Žižkov, go to Vinohrady.

“So, that’s where I find the magic [laughs].

“The other day I actually went to Libeň island, where there’s a real hark back to the old days.

“There’s a little pub there in this little settlement of shacks, which is beneath the shadow of the new apartment blocks there, where they’ve set up a sort of old country pub.

“And the old boys, the people I knew, of my generation, they go there and sit and talk about mushrooms and such important matters.”

U Křížovníků as was,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Not far from U Parlamentu, on the corner of Veleslavínová and Křížovnická, is a restaurant serving Vietnamese food and sushi. But back in Gerald Turner’s day this was a noteworthy bar – and one that even gave its name to one of the more significant informal art groups of the time.

“Beer places used to close around 10 o’clock, so everybody would graduate around the corner to the wine place.

“The wine place was called U Křížovníků.”

At the Crusaders, I guess?

“Yes well, I think it relates to the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, which is the church just by Charles Bridge.

“And at that time it was a wine place. Previously it had been a beer place, in the 1960s – that’s why everybody knew it.

“That’s why the people around, the Crusaders’ School, graduated towards it. Because they knew the old waiter that had been there for years.

“Now it’s a sushi bar and restaurant, but I think that the interior is probably very similar to what is was in those days.”

Wasn’t there an art movement called the Crusader School of Pure Humour Without Jokes?

“That’s right, that’s sort of the established translation.

“That grew out of the friendship of Karel Nepraš and Jan Steklík, back from the 1960s, which is where Paul Wilson came to know Jan Steklík.

“Coming from Ústí nad Orlicí Jan Steklík was between two metropolises. He had Brno as his main local city and Prague.

“And they were associated with the teachers at UMPRUM.

The former U Křížovníků,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“By the early 1970s, after 1971, a lot of them were under a cloud.”

What was the kind of gist of the Crusader School? Was it a kind of prankster group? Or was it more serious?

“It’s hard to define what is serious, sometimes.

“It was very serious pranks.

“We were living in that Absurdistan that already by 1971 or 1972 this regime had become, this country had become.

“So to engage in absurd games which we did, like playing with matches and the famous games that they thought up, like playing Ludo with small glasses of rum – and various others, all centred on drink of some kind – this was a protest.”

From outside the one-time U Křížovníků, Turner and I head across the Old Town to Michalská, home to a couple of the most old school wine bars in Prague. One of them has chalkboards advertising its wares outside and tile floors and high stools and tables inside. Named Víno Blatel, it has a mainly older clientele when we enter at around 6 pm.

Gerald Turner on Michalská,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I think this is very unchanged since I used to come here.

“There were some fairly hardened alcoholics that used to come here [laughs].

“I was always amazed at the way this place was full at the most odd times of the day.

“There was always a very relaxed atmosphere in these places.

“I assume, as anywhere, that you kept your lip buttoned about anything apart from the most banal.”

Is it kind of gratifying or reassuring for you to see these old school places that haven’t changed much since your day?

“Absolutely. And I think that cities have a duty to retain these places.

“Because they are a link with the past and with the culture of the country.”

You are translating The Good Soldier Švejk. Are there many places in Prague that still have any traces of either Švejk or Hašek – or rather are there places that the author or character would have visited?

“Like we were saying, it’s hard to think of any of the old pubs that would resemble what Hašek would have known.

“I was lucky enough to come here in the ‘70s, when some of the pubs still had a similar atmosphere to them.

“I haven’t been to U [Zlatého] tygra for a long time, but I hope they haven’t changed very much there.

“But the place I can think of maybe is U Černého vola, up near the Foreign Ministry, which was revived after 1990.

“In fact it was a buy-out by the local drinkers, if I remember rightly.

“I feel up there there is an atmosphere of the old times.”

How daunting is it for you to be translating one of the best-known Czech books of all time, and for me one of the best and definitely one of the funniest?

“It’s terrifying [laughs].

“I’m in the preliminary phase. At this moment I’m getting my head round it and re-reading it again.

Víno Blatel,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I suspect that the last time I read it in Czech I skipped some passages.

“When Dub got too boring or Cadet Biegler got too boring, I jumped on.

“But that’s the great thing about a great novel – you can pick it up an open any page and there’ll be something there that is rewarding.”

When you’ve translated Vaculík or Klíma, and you’re going to be doing Hašek, does it give you a stronger sense of connection to the Czechs and to the Czech Republic?

“Oh, certainly. Certainly.

“I was amazed this time re-reading Švejk that the language was what I came to learn in the early 1970s.

“It is Prague Czech and presents no great difficulties to me, apart from of course the specific words that are used in the army and German – which I’m not a speaker of.

“But that would be a problem for every reader of the book.

“Even when it’s translated people will come up against specific terminology which is foreign to them.

“And it doesn’t matter.”