Come With Me to Prague

“Of all the triumphs of life-haters today, of fun-haters today, of beauty haters today, of thought-and-love haters today, of the Forces of Satan, if you will, the one that most troubles my heart is the inducement of some Czechoslovak politicians and police to behave like cannibals toward the most humane and generous and gifted members of their society. […] These people are rooted like the saplings in a tiny nation whose people have created a major fraction of the Earth’s most important architecture, sculpture. painting, music, poetry, imaginative prose and most recently motion pictures. […] If a flying saucer person were to ask me what Earthlings considered to be their most habitable city, architecturally speaking, I would reply without hesitation: Come with me to Prague.”

Kurt Vonnegut- Taken from an archived article in the Czeský Rozhlas

If you are wondering what would have brought me to this quote by Vonnegut (aside from the fact that he is a writer and this blog is about writing and writers) it has to do with music and research for my novel- which at my latest page count is 242 with 9 more sections to go till the second draft’s completion.

The story takes place in Prague in the tail end of the 90’s and although it is told from the perspective of an American living there both these. I know a lot about American’s living in Prague since I was one of them, but I have some Czech characters to write and where do I get the perspective on them? This has posed a challenge in the sense that, sure it has been easy to find a lot of books on Prague and the Czech Republic that gives one a basic understanding of what it was like to be there between the years of 1939 to 1989, but what if you were too young to really know what it was like to live under an oppressive regime? Your parents did, your grandparents did, you know your history but by the time you became a young adult it had already been 10 years of a new democracy.  The main Czech character is 24, and would have been 13 when the Velvet revolution took place. My huge question was what was it like to be a teenager growing up in a new democracy with opportunities your parents and grandparents never had, yet at the same time experiencing an overwhelming flood of consumerism, influx of foreigners and a struggling economy.

My story is fiction, as I mentioned before, but the characters are based on real people. I remembered a conversation with the woman that Zuzana is based on, she had told me that her father was a member of the Czech Philharmonic– this is a very different upbringing from someone whose father work in an industrial plant (which is where many people worked). So I started with music. Actually, to be really honest and to give you a bit of insight into how geeky researchy I can get, I went back through Czech History dating all the way back to the 5th century when Bohemia and Moravia were first formed through separate tribes. No, I do not expect my characters to know this far back into their own history, but I felt that if I wanted to avoided making stock characters of Czech people why not know the birth of those people? I skimmed of course until I got into the 20th century and along my journey through Czech/Czechoslovakian history I found what I wanted to latch onto- it was called Charter 77 and then something called the Jazz Section. The Jazz section lead me to that quote from Vonnegut. I could write several pages of blog posts surrounding things that I discovered and the amazing roles that  take place within music and art during revolutions. There is an undying need of  human beings to have a freedom of expression. There is always a hope for humanity when you find what is going on underground, what you find people will die for just so that others can see a beauty in living. I have posted a list at the bottom of this post of links, in case you are curious to do some of your own readings and explorations.

I have to say I do not find doing research to be the least bit tedious (I suppose it depends on the subject but I haven’t been detered yet) in fact it can be a problem as I can easily get off track, but this was the most rewarding experience so far. As I would go for a walk I would imagine the main Character, Annabelle’s conversation with Zuzana as they visited a small town outside of Prague. On my walks Zuzana began to speak in my head and she began telling the story of her family. As soon as I returned home I sat down and hand wrote out Zuzana’s family history dating back to her grandparents on both sides. When they were born, how they met and married and the years Zuzana’s parents were born and then her siblings and so on, it was a lush history that took me through 6 decades of Czech History. Will I write any of this history down in my novel? Hardly, but without a doubt I know who Zuzana is and why she is the way she is, and although a small character in the book she is a rich and beautiful character.

When the women get off the train in the small neighboring town, Zuzana tells Annabelle that when she was a girl her mother moved her and her two brothers to live here.  It was after her father was arrested. She says:

My family is of a long line of teachers and musicians. It is almost expected that myself and my brothers will also be teachers or musicians but now that Czech is open my brothers do not agree. They both have left  the Czech Republic. Which no one has done since before 1930. Even before the war I don’t think anyone had wanted to leave. Not from my family. It is good in Czech to be a teacher or a musician, at least it was.”

Since I was basing a lot of Zuzana’s family history around the music of Jazz, that was what I decided to listen to while I wrote- so once a again thanks to pandora.com, along with this line of incredible musicians; Charlie Parker, John Hendricks, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Shorty Rogers, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Al McKibbon, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Stitt, Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, Lucky Thompson, and  Joshua Redman.

And of course,  always following with Mr. Stephen King’s advice, I’ve been reading. My reading material has been of course from Czech writers. I just finished Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal- it is a perfect book for a lover of books. The main character/narrator compacts trash and has spent his 35 years saving books from the hydrolic press, he has been unwittingly educated. It is a beautifully written book and at some parts disturbing, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

I can be by myself because I am never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link about the 1986 trial when six (7?) people of the Jazz section were arrested.

An article on the Prague Spring of 1968

A very in depth essay on the fall of Soviet Communism from 79′- 2000

A young artist whose paintings are between the period of 1990-2000 and music that is popular now with some of the Dj’s and musicians forming right after the revolution. A blog with music info (among other things) in Prague specifically and the Provakator a webzine that the blog spot mentions in a post. And lastly an article about the The Plastic People of the Universe another dissident musical group out of the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia

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One thought on “Come With Me to Prague

  1. Hello,
    That would be partly my case, as I was born in 80, I was 9 when the revolution took place. The revolution itself in my memories is something i didn’t understand, but people around were really happy and …awake. Like if they literary slept for those years, somehow there was suddenly a lot of enthusiastic folks speaking about things.
    Now I sense the communism like something harmful, because as an adult I came around enough information to know it. There is still enough buildings, which were ‘nationalized’, read stolen and let to fall apart. Still enough people who tell you how did it felt, when the communists did whatever they want, in consequence of which the rest of people couldn’t do even the basic things.

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