A Country After My Own Heart

A Czech novelist and his wife, Zdena, come to terms with Canada

JOSEF SKVORECKY March 1 1974

A Country After My Own Heart

A Czech novelist and his wife, Zdena, come to terms with Canada

JOSEF SKVORECKY March 1 1974

A Country After My Own Heart

A Czech novelist and his wife, Zdena, come to terms with Canada

JOSEF SKVORECKY

I am a landed immigrant, which means that I am still only a guest in Canada. Common decency requires guests to be polite to their hosts and to say nice things about their way of life. Sometimes, this is pretty difficult. When some Canadian friends of mine who are adherents of an odd sort of Eastern religion (which is, I suspect, a product of American imagination about Eastern religions) take me to an eating place they consider kosher, I find it difficult to praise the delicate taste of broiled grass and mashed moss. But I overcome myself, consume the mess and then, secretly, take the despicable Yankee concoction called Alka-Seltzer. But there are many things about Canada that a guest may praise without having to resort to politeness.

For instance, my first night in this country, one of the most blissful nights I have experienced in my life. I shall never forget the feeling of security, of an utter absence of that central European nightmare called the Doorbell-Ringing-At-Four-a.m. Prague was only some eight hours away; the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, was only a couple of weeks away, and here I was in Toronto. On the other side of the Atlantic were the Jodas fascists,* one of whose leaders I had heard threatening a friend of mine only a few days before; “We’ll close the borders and it’s ‘Good-bye, Charlie!’ We’ll get you all.”

After a period of utter hopelessness, my wife and I began comforting ourselves with the great little pleasures of life in Toronto. We rented a furnished apartment. It was as simple as that. What is so strange about it? Well, the vast Atlantic divides the people of Canada from less drastic but nevertheless very bothersome central European experiences. At the time my wife and I were married in Prague in 1958, I lived in a sublet room and she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her

'An ultra-Stalinist group which, among other patriotic things, demanded the extradition of reformist newsmen to the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police,

mother and her younger sister (no bathroom, toilets shared by three other apartments on the outside corridor). So she moved in with me — not because 1 could not afford to pay the rent for an apartment, but because there were no apartments to be had. There were waiting lists at the housing office. You joined them and you were evaluated. You got points: for having children or tuberculosis, for living in a wet souterrain, and so on. Most points you got if you managed to bribe the housing commissioner. These gentlemen were the most frequently replaced of functionaries; invariably, after amassing a sizable fortune from bribes, they failed to please some customer and were found out.

But I bribed too little, so we continued living in our sublet room. The whole suite consisted of our room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The bathroom was accessible only through the kitchen, where the landlady spent her days; consequently, we were not allowed to use either the kitchen or the bathroom (the toilet was fortunately separate). We ate cold food and once a week we went to the public baths, which meant waiting in a line for a couple of hours. And there was no laundry room; my mother-in-law did our washing for us in the classical manner, the only remnant of which in this country seems to be the washboard used by some of the tradition-minded Dixieland bands. This is how the more fortunate young couples lived in Prague.

However, in 1960 the housing situation deteriorated so horribly that the state was forced to start cooperatives. The government decided to sell apartment houses then under construction that were meant for the first people on the housing office waiting lists. The price of a one-bedroom apartment was 21,000 crowns, and people were mistrustful. It was a lot of money, more than the annual income of a senior editor (my job then). I received 16,800 before taxes. But we paid the money and got our Blue Heaven. No elevator, no swimming pool, of course, but a laundry with an old-fashioned machine that got broken twice a month. With the help of bribable artisans, however, it was always repaired.

Our experience with this moody machine was the reason why, during the first weeks of our stay in Toronto, my wife did all our laundry in the bathtub. We didn’t trust the door on the first floor with the sign LAUNDRY and did not feel any temptation to see the Canadian equivalent of our tin monster. No doubt also, in a building of that size, there would be waiting lists of tenants with appointments to use the laundry in three weeks’ time, as there had been in our apartment house in Prague; and that had housed only 14 families.

Here, our European experience proved false. One day, by chance, my wife glanced into the laundry room and discovered that it was lined with automatic machines, similar to those which had been in the two or three public laundromats in Prague. Armed with her scanty knowledge of English, she entered the laundry room and started asking for the overseer. For that is how it was in the public laundromats in Prague: in each of them a bulky lady took your money first and then your dirty linen and started the washer. You were not allowed even to touch the machine. It was a good precaution, since no vending or otherwise automatic machine survived two weeks in Prague. People always tried to fool them with buttons or homemade coins.

Well, my countrymen are

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enterprising people. The popular belief in this country is that in a socialist society there is no private enterprise. In fact, it thrives there -more than in Canada, with no bankruptcies and only an occasional jail sentence.

A delicatessen shop, for instance, might get 50 kilos of Italian salad (a popular item in Prague) each day from the central supply station. The manager gives orders to his shopgirls. These clever kids buy 10 kilos of cheap carrots, boil them at home, cut them up and mix them with the 50 kilos of salad. The alchemy produces 60 kilos, but the store is charged only for 50. What remains is divided according to the old pirate laws. The customers notice nothing; and if they do, they attribute the low quality to a new restriction in the state food regulations.

This is teamwork, but there are also individual entrepreneurs. Once, during a world hockey championship, my TV broke down. I called the municipal repair shop. A girl’s voice said: “Okay. You live in the Brevnov district of Prague ... let me see . . . our man will

come in the second week of June.” This was in March. “But I want to see the championship!” I wailed.

“I can’t help you. We have to work according to our plan, and Brevnov comes for treatment in June.”

“But I have to see . . .”

“Unless,” said the girl, “unless you speak to our repairman personally. Shall I tell him to call you back?”

In five minutes I had a call from the man. He started in the official way: June was the month assigned for Brevnov, he couldn’t make it earlier. Unless, of course, I would like him to come after hours.

The same day, five minutes after five, the man was in my apartment. He repaired my set with spare parts he had stolen in the municipal shop, and consequently was able to charge me less than the shop would have charged me for the same man’s services had he come during his working hours and in June. After that, I became his frequent customer.

Not that Canadian entrepreneurs were that much less efficient. When the

SKVORECKY continued 1968 wave of Czechoslovak immigrants was given refuge in Canada, all kinds of salesmen, kindly concerned about our welfare, descended on us. I got off relatively unharmed. A young man came to my door, offering to deliver five books a week for only five dollars a month.

“Books?” I asked, amazed.

“Yes,” said the man. “Books. You know what they are? Things to read.”

“But five a week? And what kind of books?”

“Excellent books,” he assured me.

“But can I choose them?”

“Sure you can. Here’s a list!”

He produced the list and my English vocabulary was enriched: what he meant were magazines. I hardly knew their names: Field & Stream, Argosy, Mademoiselle. One was called Modern Screen, and 1 selected that first, thinking it was a film magazine. As a result of that subscription I would now be an expert on the love relations of Jacqueline, had I time to read Modern Screen. I also get Field & Stream, although I hate killing animals for sport, and Mademoiselle, although I have no daughter.

The salesmen of Czechoslovakia are no less professional. When we moved into our cooperative in 1960, 1 had just returned from a four-month stay in hospital with a stubborn case of hepatitis. One day, when I was alone at home, a very competent individual undertook to insure my life for a large sum of money. Everthing was prepared for me to sign, when the man said casually, “You’ll have to see a doctor. But of course, you’re healthy?” I mentioned my hepatitis. The man’s face fell; he took the papers without my signature and mumbled something about returning the following day.

The next day, my wife was at home when the doorbell rang. “Good day,” said the man — a different salesman — at the door. “I have a very good deal for you. You know how much funeral expenses are. Now, I can insure your husband so that when he passes away all his funeral expenses will be covered . . .” whereupon my wife slammed the door and had a dizzy spell.

But I should be writing about Canada, and I want to. Undoubtedly, it is a beautiful country, but there is not much need to write about that: it is so self-evident. The wonderful mountains, the nostalgic squadrons of wild geese (do Canadians know that quite a few Czech popular songs are about Canadian geese?), the more-than-impressionist colors of the Indian summer, the beauties of the Far North where God, perhaps, still dwells, unmolested by the merchants with religion. I am beginning to feel a love for this country, which means that I am becoming Canadian, I suppose.

Which also brings me to the necessity

of touching upon that very touchy subject: Canadian nationalism. To be quite frank, I have mixed feelings about any nationalism; in fact, I fear it if it takes hold of the feelings of a numerically great nation. In such a case it inevitably becomes chauvinism which, in its turn, changes into delusions of grandeur, of universal messianism and super wisdom. That is the first step: then follows idiocy, and finally acts of inhumanity, committed in the name of a purification of humanity.

But this is a danger that does not threaten Canada. Hers is the nationalism of a numerically small nation, living in the neighborhood of a mighty state whose interest in Canada is not always identical with an interest in the well-being of the Canadian people. However, even this kind of nationalism has its dangers. It cannot violate the lives of other peoples, but it can become narrow-minded, unjust and even vicious. I speak from experience for I come from a nation whose fate it has been to live in the neighborhood of exploiting and oppressing Big Brothers for the last 350 years. They were, of course, a rather different kind of Big Brother; not only disinterested in the well-being of my nation, but also deeply interested inTorcing their ideas of political order on it, with concentration camps, racial and class discrimination, hundreds of political executions, ruthless exploitation of its natural and industrial resources and with no free press to point this out: in short, with all the pleasures of dictatorship. Consequently, I can understand why, after World War II, a majority of my people agreed with the expulsion of more than two million Germans from Czechoslovakia, irrespective of their political past, their age and state of health; had the German governments been as humanly unwise and politically cunning as some other governments have been, and had they kept these people in their refugee camps for 25 years, what a beautiful fuel for German chauvinism that could be now! I can also understand why, after the Soviet invasion, some people boycotted plays by Gogol and books by Dostoevski, and even refused to drink vodka. But nowadays I see that the treatment of Germans was rather inhuman, the treatment of Russian classics rather foolish and the holy war against vodka downright idiotic. I have come to feel that any nationalism must try to avoid feelings of hatred that encompass everything that comes from the land of the Big Brother. Otherwise, in the case of Canada, we might end up in some ridiculous display of rejecting bourbon, or worse, in the tragic rejection of political democracy, which surely is a different thing from economic democracy, but nevertheless a good thing to retain

even in a strictly socialist state.

For political democracy is one of the great things about Canada’s powerful neighbor that should not be drowned in the tide of nationalism. The Watergate investigation, the Angela Davis trial, the Ellsberg trial could never happen in any of the other Big Brother countries of the world of today; and that should be appreciated by everyone who still believes that freedom of the press is not just an obsolete bourgeois sweetener of the bitterness of capitalist exploitation. Am 1 sounding too Nixonian? Well, my admiration for the neighboring country does not stem from its President frolicking around Flollywood pools with Leonid Brezhnev, noted author of a by now half-forgotten doctrine concerning the limited national sovereignty of small nations. I merely happened to spend most of my life under systems where people were being executed for their opinions and where a trifle like bugging was an accepted, if disliked, part of everyday life. 1 could tell you quite a few stories about bugging, but 1 suspect some of you would not believe me. So let me tell you just one, and it is about Canada.

Recently I had a phone call: a female voice speaking in Czech. It belonged to an old lady who had been permitted to visit her daughter, now the wife of a Toronto Wasp. “Are you sure that nobody is listening to what I say?” said the lady.

After five years in Canada I have lost some of my central European sensitivities. “Well, there is my wife sitting on the chesterfield,” said I.

“I don’t mean that'. You know what I mean!” she interrupted. Then I knew what she meant.

“Oh no!” said I. “There is no bugging of private citizens’ phones in Canada.”

“Are you absolutely sure?” inquired the lady. “Because I don’t know — I just dialed the number a friend of yours in Prague had given me, and instead of you there was this woman who said: ‘What number are you calling?’ I got so scared that, instead of hanging up, I told her your number — I hope I didn’t do anything stupid — and then this woman gave me this number, and it was right'. What does all that mean?”

I instructed the frightened lady in the mysteries of the Bell information service, but I am not sure that she was totally convinced. During the remainder of her stay she only wrote me notes, sealed with wax containing the impression of the Queen obtained from a dime.

I hope you believe me when I say that this lady had good reasons for her anxiety. A Canadian businessman to whom I told this story did not believe me. He had just returned from Prague, where he had been selling Canadian products to the Czech government. “It’s not so dreadful there as you people make out,”

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SKVORECKY continued

he said, by “you people” meaning us reactionary exiled socialists. “I didn’t see anyone sad in the streets. The restaurants are full of pleasant-looking beer drinkers; people promenade in bright clothes on St. Wenceslas Square. Everything is apparently in order again.” He was right, of course. He only overlooked one detail. Thirty kilometres east of Prague, that is, some 20 miles, there is a small town called Lysa_nad Labem. Two miles from that small town there is a big military camp called Miada. In this camp, there is a Soviet tank division, an inconspicuous reminder to the independent Czechoslovak government that, should they decide something not to the liking of the power that commands those tanks, the division might do some slight manoeuvring in the direction of Prague.

I don’t see any Yank divisions in the vicinity of Kitchener, and with all that’s going on now in the U.S. I am not worried about seeing any in the future. And that’s one of the things I like about sweet Sister Canada and her Big Brother, with all his distasteful shortcomings. As for Canada herself? Well, I hope I have enumerated a few things that endear this little big country to my heart. But shall I tell you about a particular thing of beauty that is a joy to me forever? It is the students’ directory of the University of Toronto. Why? The Eisensteinian montage of the first and last names listed there. The beautiful contrast of the hopelessly non-English names these students inherited from immigrant parents, driven out of their old countries by hunger, racial discrimination or some sort of political savior — and of the hopefully English first names the students were given by their homesick and hardworking progenitors.

I have made up the following names, but they could belong to my students. Linda N. Ujihara, Marshall J. Postnikoff, Jeanette Fuentes, Alastair M. Kuzma, George Makebe, Pearl Marie Stribrny. When I browse through the pages of the directory, I am reminded of the old jazz bands which later, in the era of swing, were the first to break the race barrier and displayed similar Whitmanesque poetry: Art Rollini, Irving Fazola, Bix Beiderbecke, Leon Rappolo, Gene Krupa, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Venuti, Max Kaminsky ... To us, Czech students of an “inferior” Slavic race who were trying to imitate the swinging sounds these very “inferior” musical wizards were making, their names were a manifesto. And so are my students at the U of T. In these incongruously named children a dream is being realized. It has not yet obtained its final shape. Let us hope it will be as beautiful as the deep woods, the golden wheat fields and the Polar light up north over this young continent. ■