Tereza Brdečková: perspectives on truth, history and cosmopolitanism

Tereza Brdečková, photo: Czech Television

For this week's Czech Books I visited a very well known author, Tereza Brdečková, in her flat in Malá Strana, the oldest quarter in Prague. She's an author who seems to have a particular interest in the importance of not forgetting the past and in the ways individuals tell their stories. In short, how history is constructed. This is reflected in many of her works, most particularly in The History Teacher, a novel that tells the tale of a thirty-something male teacher who is utterly traumatised by the changes of 1989. My first question was to ask about the genesis of the book.

“Well, this is a novel I finished in 2004. First, I wanted to write something for my elder daughter who was something like 16 years old. I was tempted to write something like The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger. But somehow in Europe, especially here, it's never so realistic as it could be in America. At the same time I visited the United States and I was fascinated by it. So this theme of memory, it's very clear if someone with my experience goes to the United States - I also met some Native people - you realise what it means to be at home. This is the link between this ‘home’ feeling and history, as it’s well known the Natives are the only Americans who had history in this country in fact.

“So I started from this point, and I also wanted to put myself in the male perspective. I mostly write using the 'Ich form', the first person. But it happens to me very often, I absolutely don't know why, I write from a male perspective. I wanted to become something like a guy who was one of these heroes of the student demonstrations in 89, who was very idealistic, and who was himself the past of this country somehow. This history teacher, called Aron Kamen, has a father who left him, he was in exile in the United States, and for him the past was very clear, he was anti-communist. And suddenly for this boy everything is extremely complicated because he now finds himself in something like a break of two big eras and he realises that in being a history teacher he is in fact rewriting history because everything is different. For example, the Czech Lands were extremely cosmopolitan until the beginning of the nineteenth century say, then during the Nationalist movement, this was all, step by step, forgotten. So, for example, my generation grew up with the feeling that there was nobody but Czechs here and for me it was an enormous revelation that I feel bad in this country exactly because I lost this cosmopolitan past of the Czech Lands and suddenly it really became my life theme. And what is also very important to stress, especially for Western readers, is that my generation were really growing up with a lot of lies. So now, when you really want to find the truth, inevitably you come to the conclusion that you must put yourself in different perspectives, because you have the truth of German Czechs and you have the truth of Czechs and you have the truth of Jews and a lot of other people who are living here. For example I have written one story from the perspective of a woman who belonged to the Italian minority who worked here around the 16th and 17th centuries because this is also something that interests me very much.”

My mother never explained anything directly to me but her ideas were clear from the way she lived. She secretly typed out samizdat literature, banned intellectuals met in our house to give clandestine lectures. Occasionally when I came home in the evening the hall would be full of shoes and someone would usually be giving a passionate lecture in the living room. I would join the listeners and that was how I was told that we were being lied to in school. Because I grew up in two worlds this seemed natural to me until I reached a certain age. Truth and lies were closely associated, like fact and fiction. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish the one from the other and then I would choose the more attractive, the more tolerable option. Should one really not drink tap water? They were probably exaggerating. Or were more people killed during communism than in the war? Probably not. Of course I wanted to know where the truth lay. But I could not stand the fat philosopher who used to lecture in our house about the truth, spluttering as he spoke. Above all I lived in a society where everything bad also had its good side. If anyone had told me that the Americans hadn’t landed on the moon, and it had all been invented in Hollywood, I would have accepted it as a possibility… Almost any mad hypothesis could be right. Everything was, and was not, as in a fairytale.

The aftermath of 1989 actually precipitates a nervous breakdown in the history teacher. He somehow seems to represent the psychological suffering and upheaval people had to experience to adjust to this completely new lifestyle, this capitalist lifestyle.

“It starts in the hero himself. For me it was interesting to create a male figure with 'female' qualities, someone who is fragile, who thinks that to be a man doesn't mean to be strong and to hunt mammoths and everything, because this is also changing a lot. So definitely if you take everything seriously a nervous breakdown is the only thing you can do. What happens to him exactly is that he loses the meaning of words. I explain it in a very intellectual way, but the intention was to say it in a very simple way and using very clear words. And I was really very happy when my daughter liked it very much and the book was mostly popular amongst students, that is, people who were really little children in 89, and also amongst these people who were in the student demonstrations themselves. By the way, this issue is something that I really found in the archives and in reality. From December 1989 they started to have a special department in the psychiatric clinic in Prague, Bohnice, for young people who were not able to bear the situation psychologically, because it was simply too much. There was enormous energy in the air and I think that really for someone who didn't sleep for weeks and who really wanted to change the world it was definitely a nervous breakdown situation. And some people really got stuck in it, I must say, and there were also some suicides, it's very known now.”

I'll just read a section of your book which describes exactly this.

Life around me was not up to much but it had order and logic. When in 89 they arrested us in the National Avenue and took us to the Bartholomew Street police headquarters, I was neither surprised nor afraid. THEY did it. They were the ones who had taken over the police informers and the whole system straight from the Gestapo and had improved on it in collaboration with the KGB. In the country They were the ones who had set up four hundred prisons and labour camps for political prisoners. They were the ones who had closed the borders, sent into exile a million of the best people and embittered all those who remained. And They had called my father (no matter what he was like) a criminal simply because he had gone to America and there he had said aloud what he thought... I firmly believed it would all now collapse and the great Kingdom of Truth would prevail. Then of course there was no end to my surprise. But while others took it for granted that the other side of the victory of truth and freedom is betrayal, disappointment, filth and chaos, I had a nervous breakdown.

You mentioned the very positive reception of your books by the younger generation. I know that for the last twelve years you've been recording the stories of people who were born before 1930. What do you think the younger generation can learn from their stories?

“For twelve years I've shot, with the film director Zdeněk Tyc, the TV programme called ‘I'm Still Here’ and these are interviews with people who are simply old. And it's made like little documentaries or sometimes even like little fictions and when we were doing it for the first time we didn't know really what we wanted to hear. But then, if you cut it and make out of two hours of shooting half an hour, this is really fascinating, because you not only get a fascinating life story, but the personality. And step by step you learn first that, for example, being old is not a disease. That even at 85 you will still be the same Bernie as now. And you realise that really we put, in our modern society, old people somehow behind walls. And we lose enormously. Not just talking about the fantastic life stories we've got by shooting these altogether one hundred and twenty programmes during all these years.”

Also another chance to hear other truths and other versions of Czech history.

“This was the idea because we're shooting all kinds of people. For example, I was extremely interested this year in the opinions of the so-called revisionist communists who were in fact leading the 68 reforming process in Czechoslovakia, because those were people who were very much not in favour here in the 90s. But if you hear these people, who never got anything from this, who were just idealists, you realise how much this communist revisionist movement owed to the very honourable working class movement in the nineteenth century, and this was a big schooling for me.”

You are something of an unusual voice in the Czech Republic in terms of your emphasis on cosmopolitanism and how open you are to the idea of the Czech Republic in Europe. How do you see the Czech membership of the European Union as a chance of it growing into another kind of country?

“Well this was always a big chance but now this is the only chance. It would be an absolute disaster not only to be out of the game but also to be in something like a 'second' group of membership people. I'm not very positive about developments I must say. But I still hope in this energy of the younger generation, it's an enormous force.”

As well as writing a number of scripts, your active life as a journalist and social commentator, you have written another three other novels apart from The History Teacher. What's your latest work?

“My last novel, from 2006, is called 'Blind Maps', and this is about the idea of virtual violence. Because I think that a picture of violence can be as dangerous as violence in reality. I mean, we all need a certain measure of violence or aggression, and we all need to hear or read about murders or to see films. But the problem is that it was originally a psychological quality on a human scale, but if you multiply it on milliards and milliards and milliards of screens, this is something completely different. Because people absolutely don't know what they watch any more and we have really hundreds and thousands of proofs that these artificially created pictures jump back to the minds of people and create ideas and reality. So Blind Maps is a story about a man who finds himself in a mid-life crisis, this is my favourite figure you know, a man around forty-four, forty-five, a man who achieved really everything he could, family and success in his profession, and suddenly he has the impression that he has nothing. And he feels a big emptiness and falls in love, but that is a big deception because afterwards there is an even bigger emptiness. And then he falls under the magic of this virtual violence. And because it was about violence people were buying the book very much...”

Thank you very much Tereza, we could go on talking a long time about your books and all the other interesting work you do. So I'd just like to thank you very much for having me in your home and talking about The History Teacher in particular.

“I thank you.”

The extracts from The History Teacher are from a translation by Elizabeth Morrison with the assistance of Jan Čulík. This English translation of the book is yet to find a publisher. For information in English about Tereza Brdečková’s work, including information about progress on translations, please consult the website – www.pluh.org