Richard Fidler: Prague and an uncanny sense of oddness

Richard Fidler, photo: archive of Richard Fidler

The Australian broadcaster and writer Richard Fidler is author of two bestsellers, Ghost Empire, a fascinating reconstruction of the history of ancient Byzantium, and Saga Land, a very personal journey into Icelandic history. His writing is lively and engaged, but he is also meticulous in his research. Earlier this year Richard spent two months in Prague on a residency made possible through the UNESCO City of Literature programme. He is writing a book that will look at a thousand years of Prague history, each episode told through the story of an individual who lived at the time. When we met to discuss the book, Richard started by reading an extract from the chapter he had just finished writing. It tells the story of Richard’s friend Jaroslav Kovaříček, who today is also a well-known broadcaster in Australia, At the time of the Soviet-led invasion, exactly fifty-one years ago, he was still in Prague.

Jaroslav was standing near the statue of St. Wenceslas as the gunfire strafed the crowd. The protestor next to him caught a bullet and fell to the ground, but it was too dangerous to stop and help. Jaroslav ran up the slope towards Vinohradská Street, towards the radio building, but was halted by the flaming barricades. He turned into a side street and was stopped short by a row of tanks, with a Soviet officer standing next to them. The tank commander caught sight of Jaroslav and gestured with his hand to come forward. Jaroslav thought: This man is my enemy, I should want to kill him. I must not talk to him. But there was something oddly compelling about the gesture, and so, against his better judgement, Jaroslav walked towards him. To his astonishment, the Soviet officer embraced him. There were tears in his eyes. ‘It was Brezhnev’ the officer said. ‘It was Brezhnev who ordered us to do this. I am a soldier. I see what we have done here. And I am so sorry.’ Jaroslav, sleepless and overwhelmed by the morning’s events, wept too. Jaroslav asked him in Russian what he was doing here. The officer explained he’d only just completed a degree at a university in Leningrad when the army had called him into national service. ‘For the last three months we’ve been in training’ he said miserably, ‘and I haven’t seen my family. While I was away my wife gave birth to a son, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to see him. I know that when we get back, they’ll keep us in isolation so we won’t talk about what we’ve seen here. They always do that.’ ‘I realised’ Jaroslav said later, ‘he was in a much worse situation than me, because at least I was free. So I really felt sorry for him. He and I were both young men, both ordinary people. We were really crying, it was all so tragic.’

That is a foretaste of the book, a scene from August 1968.

Richard Fidler,  photo: archive of Richard Fidler
“I’m writing a history of the city in English, beginning with its origins in the 9th century and pretty much concluding with the Velvet Revolution, but with a postscript about events since then. I’m trying to encompass in a single volume all the drama and history that has taken place in this unique city in the heart of Europe, at one of the important crossroads in Europe.”

That is a massive task, there are so many different aspects.

“I suppose it is to satisfy my own curiosity, which is what I do with every book I write. I write history primarily, mixed with personal stories and with a bit of mythology from the place I’m writing about as well.”

It’s not the first time you have taken on this epic scale, is it?

“I’ve written a similar history of Byzantium…”

… another thousand-year history…

“Indeed. I enjoy these overarching histories that move with tremendous velocity, and then you have these periods where not much happens and suddenly everything in the world happens. Then a place like Prague becomes caught in the cross currents of European and world history. This place fascinates me, it always has, from the moment I first came here. I’ve never forgotten coming for the first time in 1990. So in a way it’s to satisfy my own curiosity about the place and to understand it.”

You came here in 1990. That was a very exciting time to be here. It was just a few weeks after the fall of communism, everything was in a state of flux, there was an atmosphere of euphoria. And there you were, a young Australian, in the middle of it.

“Indeed. I was watching the Berlin Wall fall from London, where I was working at the time, and couldn’t wait to get over here. Seen from the outside there was an air of inevitability about what would happen in Prague, as the steamroller of history was going through the former Soviet Bloc. When I arrived here in very early January 1990, Havel had just been made president. He’d made that galvanising first speech, where he’d talked about ‘living in truth’. And the place was amazing. Apart from being the most beautiful city I’d ever been to – although it was still very run down – it was full of excitement and euphoria and conversation and fantastic beer, and that strange unsettling beauty of the place that has always captivated outsiders like me.”

And when you say outsider, you really are from a long way away. Australia is not only far away geographically, but also spectacularly different in terms of its history, landscape and climate.

“I come from a country where there has been Aboriginal civilisation for tens of thousands of years, but the built environment of Australian cities is not very old. There is a kind of longing among many Australians to be in a place where the buildings, the houses, the churches, the streets – everything about it – go back hundreds or thousands of years. And there’s an odd sense of familiarity that a person like me gets when I come to a place like Prague. It took a long time to put my finger on it and then I realised. It’s the kind of abandoned landscape of imagination of my childhood – the stories and folktales I was given as a kid. So there’s a kind of odd feeling of déjà-vu that people like me from the New World get when we come to Prague.”

So, in a sense, you were living in the New World but you grew up with an Old World language, psychological framework and literary framework which haunts you.

Photo: HarperCollins Publishers
“Absolutely. I think Prague is part of a special college of cities all over the world – like Fez and Marrakesh and Edinburgh and Galway and Paris – and there are probably many others I haven’t been to as well – where you have a slight sense of being off kilter. There’s a slight otherworldliness to them. I know it annoys a lot of people from Prague when they hear outsiders like me come and talk about ‘Magic Prague’, but that is the effect is has on people – that feeling that it is close to the realms of the subconscious. This is the city that gave us the robot, the human as a cockroach and the Golem. So it’s hardly surprising that such things could happen in a city whose very name means ‘threshold’.”

‘Práh’ – the Czech word for ‘threshold’. And here you are, nearly thirty years later. This time you are staying in a high-rise housing estate on the edge of the city, so it’s far from Magic Prague. Also, it must be very different from the Prague you came to at the beginning of 1990.

“It couldn’t be more different. Living in Barrandov is fine. It’s good that I should see that side of Prague and live in its midst. It’s very pleasant. The supermarket is just a couple of minutes away and the number 12 and 20 and number 5 tram are just around the corner from where I’m staying, and that’s all very convenient. It’s good to be staying in a situation like this. A third or a half of Prague’s population lives in the ‘paneláky’ so it’s a good chance for me to see that more modern way of life that many people here have.”

And are you still hypnotised by Magic Prague, even when you are in a supermarket in Barrandov?

“No, I’m not. I think that’s fair to say. Nor am I when I am going down Karlova Street and across the Charles Bridge. It’s just too overrun. I can’t complain. I’m one of those outsiders who are flooding the city. That’s fine. But you can still get that feeling if you get up early enough in the morning or stay up late enough at night. For some reason, last night I was walking around Malá Strana [the Lesser Quarter] and, I don’t know why, but even though it was Friday night it was empty. And there it was again, that lovely feeling that you get from that slightly off kilter architecture, the feeling of things being on top of themselves, the strange images on the wall, the golden lamplight, that uncanny sense of oddness that lies within Prague and makes it very compelling for a New World person like me.”

You are writing a history of Prague for an English-speaking reader. Tell us more about what you’re trying to do.

“Czech history, I’ve discovered since I’ve been here, is extremely well known among Czech people. Czech people are a lot like the Irish, I think, in that sense. Irish people know so much about there history. Like Ireland, the Czech nation is a small to medium sized nation living alongside great powers and has often suffered the thoughtlessness and cruelties of those great powers. But beyond the Czech Republic – as I’m sure many Czech people realise – the history of this place is just not well known at all. Many outsiders are familiar with Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution, there’s maybe a faint memory of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, but beyond that, nothing. Nothing at all. No one knows about Rudolph II, no one knows about Charles IV, no one knows about Bořivoj and if they know about Wenceslas it’s through a Christmas carol that doesn’t depict him properly as a duke, but as a king instead. So I think there’s a wonderful story to be told here to an English-speaking readership that has yet to discover the intense series of cascading dramas that have taken place in this city over the last thousand years.”

Photo: HarperCollins Publishers
You are not just a historian but also a broadcaster – a communicator. Your previous books about Byzantium and Iceland have covered subjects that are pretty dense, but I think your gift as a historian and writer is in bringing these stories to life in ways with which a contemporary reader who is not a specialist can engage. How are you doing this with Prague?

“Just to pick up on that last point, I don’t think either of those things, the sagas of Iceland or the history of Constantinople, are difficult in any way. It’s only perhaps other historians or storytellers who have made it so. I think these things are intensely fascinating.”

The history of Constantinople is difficult just in the fact that you get dozens of different emperors, all with similar names, many of whom end up sooner or later having their heads chopped off or being castrated. In that sense it is pretty dense.

“I suppose so. There’s a million emperors named Constantine-this-or-that, Justinian-this-or-that or what have you. It’s the same in Prague as well. In Bohemia there are so many kings called Wenceslas or Bořivoj or Boleslav or whatever, but so be it. I think the best thing is to own up and say that this might be a bit confusing. But that’s not really the point. I suppose the thing that history does for us is to place us in the great stream of events and people. That’s the joy of it for me. I don’t find these things difficult at all. I’m always driven by what makes me curious and as a broadcaster I think I must be confident that I can ‘infect’ other people with my curiosity about things. I try to do that on the page as well.”

And in this book you are going to be telling the story through particular figures, historical characters who are going to be our guide through a particular episode. We’ve already heard a brief extract which introduces Jaroslav Kovaříček. Could you tell us more about him and about some of the other characters who are accompanying us through the story of Prague.

“My plan is to have individuals, real individuals, as emblematic of that age. And they’re by and large not well-known people at all. Their stories are very much of the time in which they are written. Jaroslav Kovaříček is a radio broadcaster from Australia. That’s how I met Jaroslav, but he was born here in Bohemia and went to Charles University to do a degree in musicology in the 1960s. He was very much involved in a group called the Society for Human Rights during the Prague Spring era. Jaroslav was never interested in ‘socialism with a human face’. He was decidedly anti-communist.”

When you talk about ‘socialism with a human face’, this was the idea propagated by the reform communists, especially Alexander Dubček, during the Prague Spring of 1968. At the time it was seen as a way of sustaining socialism in Czechoslovakia, but not of the Stalinist kind.

“Yes. Jaroslav was never into that. He didn’t think there was any point in reforming socialism. He wanted to do away with it altogether. Like Havel, he saw it as an abnormality. During the events I’ve just read out there, he had an extraordinary encounter with a Russian tank commander, while dealing with the chaos of that day, 21 August 1968. It then has an echo, some years down the track. Jaroslav lost heart after Dubček and the reformists returned from Moscow and announced that there was a need for ‘normalisation’. He thought it was time to get out. So he migrated to Australia and became a radio presenter on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Classic FM network. I was a fan of his before I knew him. So when I was planning to write this book on Prague, without knowing his story, I tracked him down and drove up to the north coast of New South Wales where he lives to get his story and interview him. So he’ll be a very important part of the book.

Paul Wilson,  photo: David Vaughan
“Another person I’ve been speaking to, who has been really wonderful and incredibly helpful, is Paul Wilson, who maybe some listeners will be familiar with because Paul was a Canadian literary student, who came to Prague in 1967 and hung around, stayed here, after the Soviet invasion. He befriended Ivan Jirous and the members of the Plastic People of the Universe – and eventually joined them as a singer and guitarist for two years.”

This was a band that was around in the 1970s and they got into a great deal of trouble with the authorities, not for political reasons, oddly enough, but for being noisy and rebellious and iconoclastic.

“I think that gets to the heart of them. That was the thing that really interested me when I spoke to Paul about this. Why was the regime so bothered by these dirty, underground, long-haired rockers, given that their songs were not political? They wanted to live outside communism, not confront it. And he said the Communist Party and the secret police were terribly worried about why so many people were going to their gigs. They imagined there was this vast secret organisation that was bringing young people from all over Czechoslovakia to these Plastic People of the Universe gigs. They figured there was some sinister organisation that they hadn’t detected. It amused me. They’d say, ‘Who’s organising all this? What’s going on?’ ‘Well, no one is. This is spontaneous, through word of mouth.’ And they went, ‘We don’t believe you. We know it would take hundreds of people to organise the kind of concerts you’re holding.’ And they replied, ‘No, you just have to have people who want to come.’”

It was simply that they were offering a breath of fresh air. The moment people realised, they flocked to the concerts.

“I kind of love the Plastics’ music too. It’s very Velvet Underground influenced, which is one of the most important bands in my life as well. Paul was eventually arrested and forced to leave the country – in 1977, I think. He returned during the Velvet Revolution and worked as a translator for Václav Havel after a while. So, there is a great story there to be told as well.”

Let’s return to Jaroslav Kovaříček and the very end of this chapter, where Jaroslav comes back after the fall of communism and there’s an interesting and slightly ambiguous encounter.

And so, after an absence of two decades, Jaroslav returned to Prague in January 1990. ‘It was very strange’ he recalled. ‘I used to have refugee dreams, where I was back, but I couldn’t get out. So suddenly I’m crossing the Vltava River on the Charles Bridge with Jana and her camera crew, and I think I’ll wake up at any moment. I had very strong emotions.’ Jaroslav called on some old friends for dinner. Afterwards, he wandered into Wenceslas Square to enjoy a Prague sausage and some proper Czech beer, which he’d been longing for in Australia. It was close to midnight, and the Square was quite dark. ‘So I went to a kiosk and ordered a beer, and I saw a group of young people, with a young man, sitting on a box, playing guitar, and they were all singing.’ Jaroslav noticed the guitarist was Russian. ‘And I thought - that’s how it should be: young Czech people, young Russian boy. Singing together. Enjoying it.’ Feeling mellowed by the music and the goodwill, Jaroslav approached the Russian guitarist and bought him a beer. He asked him where he had come from. ‘Leningrad. And where have you come from?’ ‘I have just come from Australia,’ Jaroslav replied. ‘I had to escape in 1968, but I'm sure you don't know anything about that.’ ‘You mean the invasion?’ ‘How do you know about that?’, Jaroslav asked. 'I was born that year in Leningrad’ the singer said. ‘My father was sent here. He was the commander of a tank. We didn't see him for years afterwards. And when he came back he was telling me all about what happened here, and he felt so ashamed.’ Jaroslav looks at our astonished faces across his kitchen table. ‘Now I can't prove it’ he says, ‘but I think there was a good chance that this boy was the son of that tank commander.’

It’s a nice unlikely coincidence, but it’s a typically Prague story with an unexpected and inexplicable ending.

“For Jaroslav there’s nothing magic in that. It’s just what it is and what he thinks. He was careful to say to me that he couldn’t prove it was the son of the tank commander. This is what I’ve found again and again in Prague’s history, that things are inflated. People take on this symbolic role. And the truth around it? It’s hazy. And this is tricky when you’re dealing with a situation in a country that’s still recovering from communism, where up is down and black is white and truth is lies and all those contradictions that came into the system.”

August 1968,  Prague,  photo: František Dostál,  CC BY-SA 4.0
It’s also tricky when you’re trying to write a history book.

“I think you just acknowledge the ambiguity. I think that’s fine. You put it in the correct context and let people take the resonance from it that they can. This is how people are. They see resonance in these moments.”

You are about to go back to Australia after two months in Prague. What are you going to take with you?

“Well, obviously a much greater familiarity with the city after two months of walking and walking and walking around the city. And I must say that if Prague after two months isn’t quite as mysterious as it once was, it’s been replaced by a deep affection, I have to say, for the people I’ve met here and the kindness and hospitality that’s been shown to me.

“I love it here. I feel very comfortable here. I like the humour here, I like the culture. It’s not a very big city, with a million-and-a-half people or thereabouts. It’s about the same size as Adelaide in Australia, but unlike Adelaide – which is a lovely place too – in Prague you feel like the whole world is here. It’s a very satisfying city to be in. I think if I ever lived here, I’d be very content.”

When can we look forward to reading your book?

“I’m hoping some time later this year. Up till now I’ve written medieval history. This book will be a bit different. It will have plenty of medieval history, renaissance history and then history going right up to the present day, which takes a fair bit more work.”

And there are people who are still alive who will be telling you, ‘You’re wrong!’

“Indeed. I’m hoping to be told that as well. I don’t mind that. I want to be as accurate as possible. But my approach to history tends to be quite personal. I like to indulge in the bits that I like to write about. I’m not trying to write a comprehensive academic history by any means. It’s more personally based, and it will include personal stories. I think that’s a way of acknowledging the subjectivity of my approach by trying to be as fair and close to the documented facts as possible.

“I think that one of the benefits of being a radio person – and you will know this as well – is that you have to be able very quickly to stand back and take a 30,000 ft view from it and proceed on that basis, and make decisions along those lines.”