A Key to the Czech Heart?
In many reference sources, the Czechs are often claimed to be one of the most enigmatic and difficult to comprehend cultures in Europe. As a foreigner living here since 2004, I can attest to the fact that there are a great many quirks and idiosyncrasies to the Czechs that I have yet to fully appreciate why they occur. In fact, I have met more Czechs than not that had trouble explaining such things adequately.
Happily, for non-Czechs and Czechs alike who would like a better grasp of the people and their ways, there is “Gottland”. Written by award winning Polish journalist, Mariusz Szczygiel, this book is very likely the most in depth and accessible volume on the subject available to the general interest reader.
“Gottland” was first published in Polish in 2006, with the English translation made available in 2014. Szczygiel, an admitted Czechophile, initially intended the book for his fellow Poles to better understand their Czech neighbors. However, anyone who lives among the Czechs or is planning to do so can benefit greatly from reading this book.
A Unique Approach and a Unique Format
“Gottland” follows a timeline starting at the very end of the 19th century and finishing in 2004, when the Czech Republic joined the European Union. As such, the many key events of the 20th century which have shaped the Czechs are touched upon. This is much more than just a history book, however.
The author approached writing the book in a very journalistic way. Seeking out famous individuals to interview who were affected either positively or negatively by the Socialist regime. There are also interviews with surviving family members to represent those famous individuals who passed on before the author started work on the book.
Even well after the fall of Socialism, many of the individuals the author found to interview were initially hesitant or circumspect in their participation in the book. This speaks volumes for the lasting psychological impact of the fallen regime and many of the stories told in this book are poignant, bittersweet, heartbreaking and sometimes outright harrowing when those being interviewed do open up.
The author also spent a great deal of time in archival research, through which he gives the reader a very good insight into the social mechanics and devices that the Communist government used to influence everyday life. Insight is also given into what some individuals did to ensure themselves a comfortable life under that system while others rose against it.
The end result is a book that feels very much like a photo album done in words. While there are one or two long entries, most are quite short vignettes; perhaps a sentence or two or a paragraph. Regardless of length, everything written in “Gottland” carries great impact.
It is not just non-Czechs who will get something from this book. I would heartily recommend it to the younger generation of Czechs who were not yet born or were only young children when Socialism ended and have difficulty understanding those generations who knew it first hand.
Awards and Accolades
This book has been reviewed very favourably in many quarters and deservedly so. It has also won at least two literary awards in Europe and has been translated into several languages beyond its original Polish including: Czech, English, French, German, Italian and Russian.
This link will take you to the page for “Gottland” at the Melville House publishing website. There you will find publication information and further reviews:
These links will take you to two further reviews of the book to give you further insights into it: