In this special New Year’s Day programme, we look back at some of the best of our interview programme One on One in 2009. Among those featured: Catholic intellectual Martin C Putna, historian Igor Lukeš, academic Peter Demetz, former Radio Prague man John Tregellas, jazz musician Rudy Linka and the great American cartoonist Robert Crumb.
In February we spoke to Martin C Putna, a leading Czech Roman Catholic intellectual who is also head of the Václav Havel Library in Prague. Jan Richter asked Putna how Czechs came to become one of Europe’s more atheistic nations.
“I think the Czech history is to blame here. I think the basic problem is that during this long history, Czechs changed – deliberately or less deliberately – their religion. Until the 15th century, the only religion was Catholicism. Then a majority of the nation chose Reformation, or pre-Reformation.
“In the 17th century, they again converted back to Catholicism, less deliberately, we have to say. And then, in the 19th century, during the National Revival, Czechs sided with Protestantism once again, but without becoming real Protestants. Protestantism became something of a national ideology but without real religious understanding and without converting to it.
“So I think this is the reason – that there were too many changes. And then finally, in the 20th century, Czechs decided, well, we had enough of all religion, and the communists were very successful in sticking to this tradition of Czech liberalism, so to speak.”
Many were hoping that after the fall of communism, there would be some kind of a religious revival in the country, but it never happened. Did the Catholic Church make any mistake there?
“The Church was absolutely not prepared for that. The Church lived either underground, or in this semi-official situation of being controlled by the state, by the police and so on, and they were not prepared.
“There was a group of Catholic intellectuals working underground – Tomáš Halík for instance, and some other wonderful priests – but the majority was not ready.
“There was a short period of revival but it only lasted for some five or six moths after the revolution, as part of the general euphoria. Everything that had been prohibited became popular and fashionable. But it only lasted for a few months and then the Czechs lost their enthusiasm for religion in general, not only for the Catholic Church – when they saw the reality of the church.”
In July Chris Johnstone welcomed the distinguished Czech-born historian Igor Lukeš to the studios of Radio Prague. Professor Lukeš, who has spent much of his life in America, is the author of “Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930s.” Given that the subject is one of the more complex figures in modern Czech history, Chris asked the historian how he personally evaluated President Beneš.
“It is obviously a very loaded question and difficult to answer in a minute or two. I would simply say that as Beneš was a politician you have to evaluate his achievements as a politician. And from everything we know he appeared to be a very smart political analyst.
“Unfortunately, when we look at him as a politician we have to come to terms with the fact that he left behind a legacy of failure and that at the big moments of his life and of his political career – obviously in 1938 and 1939 and 1945 to 1948 – we see a legacy of failure.
“When we look at him as a politician it is very difficult to give him even a passing degree, a passing grade. As a human being, I find him a tragic person who was destroyed by the maelstroms of East and West.”
Looking at the archives, both in the Czech Republic, that have been opened up in the last years, and then in the Soviet Union which have not been really opened up: do you think there will be some revelations about Czech history that hitherto have not been known.
“I am fairly confident that the French, British and German archival sources have been exhausted and that the Czech archival sources have also been exhausted or are about to be exhausted.
“Obviously, there can be great surprises in the Soviet archives, especially in the so-called presidential or Stalin’s archive. I believe that there also could be some remarkable revelations coming out of the NKVD or KGB or FSB – the Soviet special services archives.
“I am sure that the special services were very active in Central Europe and specifically in Prague. Whether it can trump what we already know about Chamberlain and Deladier and Hitler and Beneš, I am pretty sceptical. I think we pretty much understand the global picture.”
Another highly respected academic we spoke to in 2009 was Peter Demetz, who left Czechoslovakia in 1948 and later became a professor of German studies and literature at Yale. He is also well known as the author of Prague in Black and Gold, and other works. Professor Demetz’s family was part Jewish and part German and he went to both German and Czech schools. Jan Richter asked him which mentality or group he had most identified with.
“The question is asked from today’s point of view. At that time, you could have an identity as a citizen of the Czechoslovak Republic. There was President Masaryk who to my youthful mind, and even now, represented the best of the Czech liberal and rational tradition.
“You could be of any nationality and yet profess your belief in the importance of the Czechoslovak Republic which, being surrounded by Germany, Austria and Hungary, was one of the rare cases of a functioning parliamentary democracy, in contrast to many of the neighbours who either had totalitarian or semi-totalitarian regimes.”
A significant scholar, Pavel Eisner, said after the Second World War that “Anglo-Saxons will never understand Germans as much as Czechs do”. Do you think there’s some truth to that, that Czechs have a special insight into the “German soul”?
“They may have a special insight but they also have a particular perspective. They may have been too close to German developments, especially in the 1930s. And that may have, permit me to say, narrowed these perspectives.
“You remember the famous saying by 19th century Czech historian František Palacký that the meaning of Czech history was in the conflict between the Czechs and Germans, in the tension between them. Though it may be true for many centuries, I think it’s not enough.
“There were other aspects of the Czech experience – let’s say the difference between Hussitism and Catholicism, and so on.”
I always found it difficult to imagine that after six years of having been occupied by a foreign power, students like you would study the language and culture of the occupiers. How did you feel studying German after the war? Did you first have to forgive them for what they’d done?
“I tried to oppose them. At that time, when you studied German literature, you studied in a way that was not Nazi-influenced. That means you wanted to rescue something of the German heritage that was untainted by the Nazis. And that was also a requirement when you studied Marxism, for instance.
“I remember that my professor in 1946 or 47 once asked me and said, well, there is a meeting downtown and we have to talk about the question whether in 46 or 47 it is necessary to study German. And I told him, well, maybe if you are interested in Marx and Engels, you’d better know your German.
“Because if you want to interpret a sacred text, you have to know what they are saying. And I think that what the few German scholars did at that time outside Germany, was developing a scholarship in opposition to 1933.”
Somebody else with an interest in history, though taking a rather different approach, is Tom Zahn. He’s a Prague-based genealogist whose company tracks down clients’ long-lost Czech and Slovak relatives, in many cases re-uniting both parties. Zahn had done research into his own family tree in Ukraine, he told Rosie Johnston, and that’s how he ended up a professional genealogist.
“Some people had seen the work that I had done for my family, because whenever I spoke with anyone about it I showed them this genealogy that went back to some time in the 18th century, 1713-1718. And they said ‘Wow! Can you do that for us?’ Because at the time these records were not available through any other source. You had to come here and find somebody here.
“So, it became a little bit of a niche for us. I came back with the idea that we would start doing this research for people. The first one, I can remember, I had to go back to Slovakia and I was hitch-hiking. I took a wild bus ride from Levoča into the mountains and I thought ‘I’m going into a different country’ and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
“But when I got to the office there – this woman in this village office in Tichý Potok spoke perfect English. And this was really a surprise and it was a successful job and the family was happy. So one thing lead to another, and after a few successes I guess word started to get out, and from that point on, we really officially began to do this work.”
Englishman John Tregellas saw his own life story take a major turn after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Tregellas, whose mother’s family had come from Moravia, moved to Prague very soon after the Velvet Revolution, as he told David Vaughan, who was his colleague here at Radio Prague in the early 1990s.
“I worked for Radio Prague for about two years after coming over here. My appointment was sealed in true Czech fashion by the then head of the English Section over a pint of beer, somewhere at the top of Wenceslas Square within five minutes’ walk of the Radio Prague studios.
“I am very grateful in retrospect for the experience that I was given, because essentially someone with no journalistic training was allowed to walk into a studio and start editing tapes, interviewing business and political leaders. It was a particularly fascinating time because everything was in flux and therefore whatever area of society you chose to cover, you were bound to come up with some interesting information.”
And the radio was very different from today. It was very relaxed for a start. We didn’t worry very much about deadlines and it was all extremely low-tech…
“That’s true. I had very usefully taken a touch-typing course whilst I was still in England, and that was enormously valuable because in the radio we still typed out our news bulletins on typewriters, vintage circa 1960, which required a great deal of force to get the keys to strike through the carbon paper.
“All of the editing was done by splicing physical tapes on large machines, and as far as the relaxed atmosphere is concerned, I seem to remember we used to roll up to an editorial meeting at about 10 o’clock, at which the day’s tasks were distributed, and then I would make a bunk for the radio canteen, where they had a wonderful array of Czech pastries, all with different names, and I tried to work my way through all of these and learn their names.
“By the time I’d got through that it was almost time for lunch, and I do seem to remember we knocked off at about four in the afternoon. So it wasn’t a very taxing working day. But you probably remember the old pre-revolutionary saying: ‘We pretend to work, you pretend to pay us’.
“We weren’t paid enormous amounts for doing this work, but it was a wonderful time, because every evening you could spend a lot of time with friends in the activity that was very popular back in those days – well, not popular but almost inevitable – of trying to find a place in a pub.
“As you will remember, before and just after the revolution there weren’t enough spaces in pubs and we used to spend whole evenings going from one pub to another, trying to find a place where they would let us sit down.”
Among a number of great Czech musicians we spoke to last year was Rudy Linka, a jazz guitar player who now lives and works in New York. Every summer, however, Rudy is home in the Czech Republic, bringing top class musicians to town squares around the country with the Bohemia Jazz Fest. One year he brought the world-renowned guitarist John Scofield to Prague – and the two ended up busking on Charles Bridge.
“That was really funny. We went on vacation to Prague, I think it was in 2000 or 2001, and John’s wife bought a book about Prague and she was studying it. It said, all the musicians in Prague play on Charles Bridge, this is the thing to do.
“Before we left she said, you guys take your guitars and play on Charles Bridge. And for that money we will go and have dinner, and we cannot spend one dime more than what you make.
“So we had our two acoustic guitars and we went to Charles Bridge and we sat down right in the middle and took them out and tried to play. The moment we started to play there was a little crowd around us, because people were watching us and thinking, this is not happening, these guys look like somebody…
“But also immediately these two police officers showed up and started to ask if we had a permit to do that, and of course we didn’t. I was pretending that I don’t speak Czech and John was being totally honest saying, I don’t speak Czech, and of course they didn’t speak English.
“They just wanted to take us to the police station. And luckily enough there was a Czech TV crew walking by, because they’d been filming something on the other side. And they started to film this. This Czech reporter said to the police, these guys are really famous. The whole thing was caught on tape and they showed it on the main news the same day.
“The police said, OK, you can play one song. So we played one song, we didn’t make any money because we didn’t have the permit [laughs], and we almost got arrested. It was one of the most bizarre periods in my life, I think.”
Our final extract in this special programme comes from another interview I did. It was meant to be a One on One, but then the interviewee’s partner came too and it turned into a kind of double interview. The legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, also a cartoonist, were in town for the Prague Writers’ Festival, and meeting them was one of the highlights of my year. With his tie and boater hat, Crumb looked different from many of his original, hippy fans in the 1960s. Did he feel a bit of out of step with the times?
RC: “Yes I did feel out of step with the times. I tried to be a hippy but I really couldn’t pull it off…”
AKC: “Too square.”
RC: “I was just too…weird, and I don’t know…because hippy was a style – long hair and attitude. And I didn’t like any of the music. I tried, I really tried, to get in there and loosen up and be groovy, but it was hopeless, I couldn’t do it [laughs].”
And Aline were you a hippy chick, or was this before your time?
AKC: “No, I was at the love-ins and be-ins, I had tonnes of boyfriends, I wore no underwear and had short skirts and had hairy legs and lived on communes. I had a ball. Robert was like an old man in a young man’s body, and now he’s like a young old man, he kind of grew into it. He was just completely square and strange and eccentric, always, and he hasn’t really changed at all…But I had a great time.”
RC: “When I first met Aline in 1971 she was a classic New York Jewish girl hippy of that time, straight out of Central Casting, completely [laughs].”
Among your works Robert is Kafka for Beginners. What’s your relationship to the work of Kafka?
RC: “Before I did that book I had never read Kafka, I didn’t know anything about him. And then the guy who wrote it, David Mairowitz, proposed that project to me so I started reading Kafka and then I developed a deep kinship, a brotherhood with Kafka. I felt so close to him by the end of the project, it was spooky. I felt his ghost was looking over my shoulder. It was quite a deep experience, actually.”
You’ve described cartooning as a lonely job. But is it a lonely job in a bad way, or do you like the fact it’s a lonely job?
RC: “I like that it’s a lonely job, that I can sit in my room by myself and do it. Because I mostly like to just be in my room…dealing with other human beings is stressful for me, I’m somewhat autistic or something, I don’t know.”
But you two also work together – how does that work in practical terms?
AKC: “Well, when we get into writing together we kind of become a comedy team like George Burns and Gracie Allen, they were like an old vaudeville team and TV team, and we kind of get into the George and Gracie mentality, where Robert puts out a line and I take off with it. He takes notes really fast. We get into a reporter mentality if we’re covering an event, we just have a way of being in that comic strip. And then when we’re actually working on it, we do everything in pencil first, first all the writing, and then we each pencil our characters in, and then we each take a page and do the inking, and then we switch pages.”
Was it a big change for you, working with another person?
RC: “Sure, it’s a completely different thing…”
AKC: “You did it with your brother.”
RC: “Yeah, I used to do it with my older brother Charles when we were kids. That’s when we learned to draw comics, it was his idea really of doing it together and going back and forth, I’d take on one character and he’d take on the other. That’s how Aline and I work. We first started doing that in 1972, not that long after we met. But it’s easy to do that with Aline, because I just feed her a lead line and she just goes into her Jewish comedy routine with it. It’s easy, that practically writes itself, those things we do together. But she’s also in her own right a story-telling cartoonist that does her own autobiographical comics which are great in their own right. She was the first woman cartoonist to draw personal, autobiographical comics.”
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