Why Eastern/Central Europe

28 Mar

No, I didn’t exactly come to Eastern Europe because of its history, though there are plenty of historic things to see in this part of the world, and the history of the countries in this part of the world is very interesting. I think there are two reasons I came to Eastern Europe and have lived in this part of the world for a long time. The first is what I call the Cold War factor, and is very simple: I’ve been here before, but not as a spy, as a child. After my family (not spies either) were evacuated from Indonesia just before the civil war in the 1960’s, we went to Warsaw. Some years later,  the family went to Ceausescu’s Romania.  Poland and Romania were very different countries then. I could tell lots of stories about that period but I’m leaving this for my memoirs which I will of course publish and sell.

The second and compelling reason: I went to the Czech republic mainly, but not entirely,  because of their literature and classical music, and back to Poland mainly, but not entirely because of their films. What do I mean by this? Let’s take the Czech Republic first. Since the ’70s, I had always been a fan of Kafka, especially his two ‘Prague’ novels, The Trial and The Castle, the second of which has a very evocative opening chapter of a city like Prague. But even more importantly, in the 1980’s and early 1990’s I devoured the frequently beautiful and often very funny novels and short stories by Kundera, Skvorecky, Klima and Hrabal. I think I was trying as an adult to recapture, in a way,  the experience of the Eastern Europe that had indelibly imprinted itself on my mind. In the 1980’s especially, I didn’t think I would ever return there but something else told me that this was my destiny.

I recognised so much of what these great authors were talking about, without always knowing why. The landscapes they shared as well the people they portrayed seemed at once familiar and at the same time different. Emoke, that marvellous short story by Skvorecky, for example, relies on a lot of fabulous external description to make comments on the internal life of the narrator; Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being  evokes parks and spa towns in this part of the world perfectly; and even though Hrabal is at times surreal and at times exaggerated there is something about his work which evokes the Czech Republic as it was then.

Then there was Smetana and Dvorak, both of whom in their best compositions evoked this world, especially the Bohemian countryside, small pretty towns and of course Prague itself Don’t ask me to put my finger on why – just listen, especially if the Czech Phil. or a Czech musician is playing their work. Then there’s Janacek, a Moravian rather than a Bohemian. And his music is as distinctive as the landscape is there.

I was not disappointed by Prague; it was as beautiful as it is evoked in the best Czech novels about the place, and in the pubs I found some of Bohumil Hrabal’s characters, but as a whole three years was enough for me. I was there from 1995-8, among the three most interesting years of my life, and it was changing fast.

Poland, apart from my childhood memories, had a pull as well through its films. From the ’60’s to the early ’90s Polish cinema was widely recognised as one of the best in the world, and rightly so. Apart from the great directors Polanski, Wajda, and Kieslowski and the lesser-known but just as good ones such as Zanussi or Skolimowski, there were a host of other talents, not just in the directing side of things. They had superb cinematographers and good actors, too. And they gave a view of Poland which was at once interesting and at the same time ran contrary to the stereotypes of greyness and gloom that Poland has had to fight hard to shake off since the changes. Poland has its lovely cities and countryside, too, and as might be suggested by their greatest films,  the people are at once charming and highly intelligent.

Polish history, like their language, is complicated, and they are anxious that people should not just come to Poland to look at Auschwitz, but to see the country’s rich heritage, to see the more positive side of it.

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