stalin statue
November 11, 2014

Book review: Gottland

Polish book about Czechness is finally available in English

On the pages of Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia, a renowned Polish journalist, Mariusz Szczygiel, makes a trip to what is now called the Czech Republic and takes a closer look at how the 20th century treated the little Czech nation.

Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia
By Mariusz Szczygiel (Author), Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Translator)
Melville House, 288 pages
Available from online retailers and bookstores

To find out, he follows the (mis)fortunes of several Czech individuals, whose stories are often as peculiar as that of Gregor Samsa, a traveling-salesman-turned-a-beetle from Kafka’s Metamorphosis. You will read about an eccentric shoe-merchant and business pioneer Tomáš Baťa, a 1930s movie star and Joseph Goebbels’ lover Lída Baarová, or Otakar Švec, a sculptor, who was ordered to design a monstrous statue of Stalin at Letná, and then killed himself when it was finished.

Szczygiel, who works as a reporter for the influential Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, is a true master of his craft and brilliantly combines personal insight with an in-depth research and facts. This literal delight comes in carefully measured chapters, pace and tone of which change depending on whose character is being introduced.

The title Gottland of course refers to Karel Gott, the most celebrated Czech pop-singer of the past half a century, who became – according to Szczygiel – a kind of God for otherwise famously non-religious Czechs.

But was it his (undeniable) talent what secured him this special place in Czech hearts? Or was it the fact that just like the majority, he traded his consent to the communist regime for an easier life? That is the kind of questions underlining Szczygiel’s narrative and while the answers are –at best – bittersweet, there is no hint of judgment or dislike in his writing.

A self-proclaimed Czechophile, Szczygiel initially meant Gottland to be a book for Poles, who value heroism and sacrifice above all, and to whom the godless and ready-to-conform Czech mentality is hard to understand. It was first published in 2006 and later translated to several languages including Czech, French, German, Russian, Italian and, most recently, English. Szczygiel received a couple of literary awards for Gottland, including the European Book Prize in 2009.

Gottland is more than an anthology: it is a report on “Czechness.” Full of revealing observations, it is a valuable reflection for Czech readers, a non-negotiable must-read for expats and a great insight into the Czech mentality for the rest of the world.

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