Friday, 29 July 2016

The Magic Realism of the Czech Republic

This blog is taking part in the Magic Realism Bloghop again this year. Last year I blogged about Franz Kafka's Prague. This year I want to talk about my experience as a British writer in the Czech Republic.

On the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group a few months ago someone asked how many of the members had connections with another country than that of their birth and many magic realism writers and readers replied that they had at least a foot in another country and culture. It seems I am not alone in being an expat writer - I do all my writing when I am in my Czech home and none when I am in England.

I suppose it should not come as a surprise that so many magic realists have a dual national or cross-cultural experience. One of the key characteristics of magic realism is that it often deals with a cultural duality, usually (but not exclusively) where an indigenous culture exists alongside a more dominant Western one.

How does that work in the context of Czech magic realism? It is obviously the case with Franz Kafka, who was Jewish in a then German-speaking Prague. But it is also the case with Czech culture too.

For three centuries after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620's Czech culture was marginalized and oppressed. The ruling Hapsburgs operated a policy of Germanization in the country. Books in the Czech language were burned, and the language banished from schools and public administration. After a while only peasants spoke Czech, as anyone who wanted to get on had to speak German. When the Czech national revival began in the 19th century, nationalist writers looked not to the German-dominated towns and cities, but to the villages and farms of the countryside. Here they found the Czech language, storytelling and folklore still alive. One of the most famous of the folktale collectors was the woman whose portrait appears on the 500 czk note: Bozena Nemcova.

Nemcova's novel Grandmother (published in 1855) is set in one such small Bohemian village and the grandmother in the story is the fount of a lot of country lore and traditional wisdom. The book is considered a classic of Czech literature and was hugely influential on the burgeoning Czech national identity. Of course it has elements of magic realism. And it follows that so too does the Czech identity.

The Czechs are well known as being the most atheist people in Europe. But as I have discussed in previous posts they also have a liking for folktales and magic. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. The Czech rejection of the Catholic Church is partly a rejection of the Church in its role as a tool of Austrian cultural repression; for example Jesuit Antonin Konias is said to have burnt 30,000 Czech language books. Czech enthusiasm for the Slavic and Celtic water, tree and house spirits is part of national identity.

No wonder as a writer of magic realism I love it here.


Kathy Bryson said...

Interesting how religion and magic coexist. Gods, spirits, spirits, gods - bit of mystery there.

Malcolm Campbell said...

Magic is often a refuge against conquerors whether they come from outside one's country and culture or whether they represent a science/technology/business mainstream way one's own country is governed. This post aptly illustrates what I would see as the real history and culture of a place as opposed to that imposed from outside the home and village.

Robin Gregory said...

Thank you for this lovely thumbnail sketch of Czech history and MR literature. Since the church wasn't able to control the country, it would be interesting to know more about what spiritual movements developed outside of religion. I find it amusing that non-religious people are called "atheists" when very often it is spiritual practices that veer away from dogma that lead teachers, mystics, poets, artists and writers to a more intimate relationship with the great mystery called God.

leighpod said...

The world is a dreary place when the angels have been drained from the streets. Our humanity rests and is passed down in our folktales. Indeed, this is why the conqueror seeks to destroy the language of the conquered, in order to destroy the people's connection to their past-- to their humanity. Zoe, we cannot thank you enough, all of us who participate, who are able to take these few days to contemplate an alternative world view, to indulge ourselves in greater, deeper thoughts, to let this wonder of magical realism escape whisk us away in order to find the deeper truths it leads us to.

Lynne Cantwell said...

Rats - I thought I commented earlier!

As someone with both Czech and Irish ancestors in her family tree, I'm not at all surprised to hear you talk about magic realism existing in the Czech lands. The Slavs have always been prone to thinking of their land as magical, but the Celts likely made it worse when they passed through. :)


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