The Prefect

The Prefect

When Milan Kundera was fashionable in the Eighties, two things stood out from the books even then:

(a) the taste (and talent) for philosophic abstraction;

(b) the dick-measuring (more commonly termed misogyny).

At the time he was outed as an informer (2008) he of course got the backing of several Nobel Prize winners who foolishly claimed Kundera had “refuted” the accusation. Others more subtly tried to shield him in the jargon of technicalities but Kundera himself did not explain beyond stating he could not remember. Neither did he sue.

On that same list of prominent backers we can also see a couple of his fellow Jerusalem Prize grabbers. Kundera’s 1985 acceptance speech for his share of the cash is remarkable for its brown-nosing of Israel but nowadays that can be seen as part of a pattern.

When the scandal broke in 2008, no one for or against him seems to have asked what he was doing as prefect of the dormitory in the first place. What kind of student, of person, would have landed that job in the Czechoslovakia of 1950?

Anyway, he was then let continue with the fantasy of his dotage – that he was a French writer – and the very next year he took his turn at the depraved mutual back-scratching of arts celebs, when he publicly backed Polanski.

Bohemia and Slovakia

Bohemia and Slovakia

The first meal anywhere is often the simplest and most functional. Burgers and chips (hranolky is the Czech and Slovak word for chips or fries). The first Bratislava pub was Čierny Pes (‘Black Dog’), a proper, cavernous Slovak bar where the teenage waiter was thrilled with the big tip. The bill for half a dozen drinks was no more than thirteen euro. It was down the narrow cobbles of Na Vŕšku then to the Irish Uisce Beatha, which has a reassuring “No Stags” sign on the door. The barmaid (L.) was a pretty and polite Slovak brunette with an Irish ex. Pretty and polite and honest.

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After breakfast at “Re-Fresh” at the far end of the street below Michael’s Gate, the bright morning after the night before meant a sweaty climb to the Castle. At least the castle shop had a couch, to cool off on. I bought some postcards to justify the seat. I usually feel tired in galleries and museums. Like Alan Bennett, I’m always looking for a seat or glad to find one. Why is that? Is it a mixture of slow walking and poor ventilation? August 1998 involved a morning visit to the Munch museum in Oslo. There I was tempted to lie down on Munch’s bed in the basement. In the gloom it proved impossible not to laugh at the morbid captions e.gDead Mother with Child. There I bought a poster and two cards. The poster was of a cheerful painting called Weeping Nude.

Upon descending from the Castle we stopped at a place (J. J. Darvoben) beside the cathedral. The woman smilingly corrected my chléb (Czech) to chlieb (Slovak) when P. wanted some regular bread to go with the toast on the platter my two companions shared.

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Three times in recent years I’ve had to cancel trips to Bohemia, thanks to a funeral, a snowstorm and a virus. I’d bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Zaplatím prosím (‘The bill, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

Podvod … podvodnik (‘scam … scammer’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

Jídlo (food);

Voda (water);

Díky (‘Thanks’);

Žádný problém = (‘No problem’);

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

All these phrases are immediately intelligible in Slovak, with the odd spelling change. The main thing to look out for is the fact that some key verbs are different or are used differently but the upside is that Slovak doesn’t have that funny ř that’s everywhere in Czech.

The last phrase on the list alludes to The Good Soldier Švejk, a book that starts in Prague, moves through Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, and ends up in a part of Galicia that is now in Poland.

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Complications set in, in Prague, after Švejk is told to obtain for Lt. Lukáš a particular type of dog. How exactly he is to do this is unspecified but anyway, it should be noted that both Gogol and Hašek write of dogs in a similar way. They make them members of society, with their own perspectives, fears and weaknesses.

It is only in a school reader or natural history primer that a dog is a faithful animal… allow even the most faithful of dogs to smell a fried horse meat sausage and it is lost.

An old associate delivers a stolen dog to Švejk, who has already slyly elicited its favourite food from the maid who walks the animal. He and his accomplice then tie the dog to the kitchen table so they can discuss forging a pedigree and what new name to give it. This is how Fox becomes Max.

When it was untied, it made its way to the door, where it barked three times at the handle, obviously relying on the generosity of these evil men… [then] it made a little pool by the door, convinced that they would throw it out… Instead Švejk observed: ‘It’s a cunning one, to be sure, a bit of a Jesuit.’ He gave it a blow with his belt and dipped its muzzle in the puddle

Unfortunately a colonel soon encounters Lukáš walking the dog (his dog) on the street. Lukáš and Švejk are transferred to a regiment at České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, as a prelude to being sent to the East. The second part of the book opens with the pair on a train, from which Švejk is removed after a mishap involving the emergency brake handle.

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This incident recalls a story told to me by a Jewish Englishman in a Belfast pub on a snowy day in 1987, the year I first read The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, enjoying the luxury of a Cuban cigar, when a representative of state security slid back the door to tell him to put it out. The railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like the smell. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

Švejk wanders around the Bohemian countryside, encountering tramps and deserters and getting arrested as a suspected Russian spy before finally being put on another train to rejoin a horrified Lukáš, who’d hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail.

There were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see in Bohemia. These included the Prague buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below. The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of the dodgy Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, which was part of a different entertainment format, this time imported and licensed from the BBC.

At the time Kundera was outed as an informer (2008) he of course got the backing of several fellow Jerusalem Prize grabbers but no one seems to have asked what he was doing as prefect of the dormitory in the first place. What kind of student would have landed that job in the Czechoslovakia of 1950?

Anyway Kundera was let continue with the fantasy of his dotage that he was a French writer and the very next year he took his turn at the depraved mutual back-scratching of arts celebs, when he publicly backed Polanski.

In Prague I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognizes another beetle’).

Bratislava in contrast lacks the snotty self-regard of most capital cities, probably because it’s a relatively new one. Meandering, photo-taking, was an essay in afternoon relaxation that September. This was exemplified by the boy and girl in a courtyard playing chess with pieces that were almost as big as traffic cones.

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Three years earlier (2016) I was in a café off Hlavné námestie, the main square in the old town, with a pot of tea. The Earl Grey (“Early Grey” on the menu) was nice but the kitchen was closed and there was a terrific downpour outside.

When Smooth Criminal came on the Michael Jackson CD, I could move on, through the rain which had eased a bit at best. That song always puts pep in the step. I got some novädzi gúlaš nearby, at a place where a young-ish American with long hair slicked back behind his ears was wearing sunglasses. On a rainy night. At an unlit table. He ignored both waiters who thanked him as he departed. On the walk back to the hotel I passed an English stag party near Michael’s Gate. Two of them were the regulation shirtless, on the rainy night, outside a pub. The trams made an eerie, whistling sound in the wet. The wheels were whining.

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I got truly soaked in the morning, trying to get some more Staré mesto (‘old town’) photos. It had started so well, when I was idly peering through tall railings at the presidents of Switzerland and Slovakia inspecting a guard of honour at the palace. I’d headed off with a short blue plastic mac but it was no use in the next deluge. I had no time to take shelter.

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By the time I got on the plane my pants had dried, at least. The row in front was all fat Roma but the row in front of them was a young family of Dubs who quizzed an unenthusiastic steward about chicken nuggets (“No”) and food allergies (“Just cheese then?”).

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The late September afternoon in Bratislava meant a siesta. Later we ate in the book-lined cellar bar of Pod kamenným stromom (‘Under the Stone Tree’) on Sedlárska. We drank again in the same two pubs as the night before. A Chekhovian young (English) lady with a dog was sweet to me before she left Uisce Beatha. She had already told JP that having the dog was useful for getting chatted up.

It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia. It’s only a tenner for the hour on the train northeast to Trenčín, which is easier to reach than gems like Banská Štiavnica or, still to the east, Košice, which is only an hour from the Ukrainian border. The seat numbering on the train was tricky but at least all the Slovaks seemed confused too. I got there around one so I had something to eat at a place called Speranza. It was the only place in the quiet old town that had half a crowd outside. A cheesy beef and potato dish on a menu entirely in Slovak ensued but at least I make sure to know words like that.

On the way out of the Hotel Elizabeth, to do the Castle, I saw the Roman inscription on the rock of the castle hill outside the windows. There’s a back landing used as a viewing gallery. Carved by men of the second Auxiliary legion in 179 AD, the message was only rediscovered by a local clergyman in 1852.

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The Castle was a steeper hike than the one in Bratislava but this was also after two nights on the beer. When paying in, I found the pretty woman of the pair in the ticket office seemed to take a shine to me, complimenting the effort in Slovak and then emerging quickly to help scan the ticket at the barriers outside, which had me completely baffled. I was already ready to melt but then saw the climb went on. And on. Still, after a cooling-off period, while sitting watching a wedding party get their photos, I did the top tower and all. Mátušova veža. The top of the castle.

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The narrow stairways and doorways up there proved no obstacle to the young and ignorant. Twice, when I stepped back to let someone in or out, the twenty- and thirty-something tourists would pass my shoulder and drive on regardless. On the way back down, I again passed a restaurant (Pod Hradom – ‘Under the Castle’) with what seemed another wedding party. I’d paused within earshot, out on the steep, damp lane, while climbing those steps and cobbles, just to listen to a Slovak folk song (kind of Jewish, I thought), which was accompanied by an accordion. There’s a big synagogue in the old town.

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It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia, even at Petržalka. From there a taxi took me to the airport for €34 in December 2019. No complaints. Petržalka station is south of the Danube and the trip took more than the unrealistic twelve minutes indicated online and he did go over the right bridge for the airport. All the drivers at the rank looked like gypsies, I was in a hurry, and my guy did say tridsat’ (‘thirty’) when I asked him, before getting in. I’d paid that before, from the airport to the old town, north of the Danube, in a group of three, of whom one remarked it was for nothing for the actual journey.

When I sat in for the airport he mentioned the meter, which turned out to be secluded between the front seats. At the airport, when he praised the effort in Slovak and added he had a brother in Kilkenny, I added a fiver for Ireland. Afterwards I thought he probably just knew of the beer of that name but I was just glad to get where I had to be, in time. So a poor man made a little extra? More power to him.

Why tolerate a little chiselling? It can mean an easier life. At Keleti station in Budapest, in the August heat wave of 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the ticket office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of those hatches to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going in the Balkans. Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees, a few of whom were already there when we got out.