Lifting the iron curtain of the mind

My first trip to Prague was in February 1991. It was my first time away without my eldest son, then one, and I felt extraordinarily light. Memories of the Velvet Revolution were fresh, so I rented an apartment close to Wenceslas Square with a friend for a few days. Vaclav Havel was a hero. It was snowing atmospherically. There were few tourists, and a beer and plate of ham and bread at the famous (still-unrefurbished) Cafe Slavia cost little. The local people were very friendly, as soon as they established that one was not German, and almost nobody spoke a word of English.

(It wasn’t my first visit behind the former Iron Curtain – in early 1990 a stockbroker flew a group of us to Budapest to visit a giant state company first in the line to be privatised, the Ganz works. It was astonishing, a huge plant that started with steel at one end and ended with trams, and other vehicles and electric products, miles away at the other. I was the only woman on the trip, and to go to the toilet had to be escorted by the director’s secretary, bearing the key to the cupboard where the still-scarce toilet paper was kept.)

My second Prague trip was in the autumn of 2000, as a journalist covering the annual IMF-World Bank meetings. There were English signs everywhere, half of them including the word ‘Internet’. Vaclav Havel was still widely admired, although the tourists and designer shops had arrived in force, and there were anti-globalization protests too. One evening I met a senior official for dinner in Old Town Square. We heard music seeping out from the church and walked in to a free concert, a dinner-jacketed pianist playing Rachmaninov. After half an hour we descended into a basement restaurant for a pleasant meal. On climbing the stairs afterwards, we found that a jazz concert was under way in the bar, which was packed full of young people with tankards of beer nodding away in time to the music.

So all in all, like every other visitor since time immemorial, I think of Prague as a magical place. I’ve very much enjoyed reading Derek Sayer’s [amazon_link id=”0691043809″ target=”_blank” ]Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century[/amazon_link] this past week. It’s a cultural history focused on the unsung Czech role in creating modernity. Sayer makes much of the similarity of things now thought of as opposites. For example, both the USA and the USSR signified the modern in the 1920s, both skyscrapers and socialist realism. A flâneur or radical artist could lean either to the left or the right, be a rebel or a secret policeman.

[amazon_image id=”0691043809″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century. A Surrealist History.[/amazon_image]

The surrealists are at the heart of the cultural story told in this book, and the Prague-Paris axis. I confess that surrealism doesn’t do anything for me, and the illustrations here look just enormously dated. As this is an academic book there are also too many long lists of Czech artists with unpronounceable names for the general reader. One can easily lose sight of the wood, while enjoyably wandering around the trees. Still, this is a fascinating, forgotten, cultural history.

It is particularly interesting to read of the closeness of artistic groups working in western and central Europe, and the inspiration they drew from each other. We westerners tend to think only of the thirst people in the east had for western pop culture during the communist years but before the war the cultural exchange was far more mutual. Actually, this aspect of the book reminded me of the underlying theme of Tony Judt’s brilliant [amazon_link id=”009954203X” target=”_blank” ]Postwar[/amazon_link], which is that Europe is one continent with one history, not two. But the Iron Curtain still lives in the public mind – a timely thought, looking at events in Kiev, a place which isn’t really “over there” at all.

[amazon_image id=”009954203X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945[/amazon_image]