Prague in ’68
Author: Gautam Emani
Evzen recounted, “The commissar came to the peasant and asked him how the potato crop had been that year. The peasant replied that it had been good. The commissar then asked how good it had been. the peasant replied that the potatoes reached up to the knees of God. ‘But,’ replied the commissar, ‘you know there is no god.’ Replied the peasant, ‘Well, you know there are no potatoes.'”
Evzen got up from his rock-perch where he had been drawing primal designs in the dust between sprouts of grass. He got up and kicked away the primitive symbols, releasing a spurt of sandy grain. He then lit a cheroot, and leant against the tree–there were rows of them by the road, planted by the Soviets as a sign of prosperity–and took, in short, quick inhalations and slow exhalations, all while tugging at the tufts of his goatee, and spat out: “Bastards!” Stroking his beard was something Evzen did when he was anxious. A nervous tic.
Honza viewed his companion silently because that was his way. Honza and Evzen were teachers at the local division school. Neither hoped much from their pupils, in fact, they didn’t hope much from anyone.
“You’ll see,” said Honza, “Dubcek will change everything. Done is totalitarianism. We can have communist cake with democratic icing!”
“You fool,” spat Evzen,” they’re all the same. Besides, the Soviets will crush him.”
“Well, anyone who allows power to use its conscience, delete censorship and provide greater rights to criticise the government is a person I want to follow.”
“You think Moscow is going to allow farmers co-operatives and trade union power, you old goat?”
“Ah Evzen, the school day is done, and my neck aches, whaddya say we get some beer at the Inn.” Nevertheless, he worried what the Soviets would do after the brazen attempt by Dubcek to instigate reforms.
“Ah, okay, you old fuddy-duddy,” said Evzen grinning and put an arm around his old comrade’s shoulders. “Besides home is too dismal for me. What with that fat cow of a wife of mine. How in the hell did you get such a skinny girl?”
After a couple of beers, Evzen’s brain crawled with ants. He swiped the beer mug from hand to hand, and then swept away some of the condensation on the bar. He needed a woman, he decided, other than that gunny sack of his wife, who just lay there. He chose the bustiest girl.
She slapped his ass as they went up the stairs, him at two a step.
While he was fucking her from behind from her came the usual “Oh fuck me! O sweet Lord fuck me!”
Obviously, she wasn’t much of a Christian girl. Then as he was working up a sweaty rhythm, she uttered the words he could barely believe, “O fuck me, Dubcek.” Mid-throttle he stopped, he slapped her pale ass and got off her, “I’m done.”
“Why, my sweet prince? Did I say something wrong? Was invoking Dubcek too much for you buckaroo.”
Evzen heard the condescension in her voice. He said, “What’s so great about him anyway. He’ll end up like all of them in a cold, clammy grave.”
He stepped out into the street and it was the same as that: cold and clammy. Dismal. A dismal wife, a dismal street, dismal politics. Thirty, barely, and he felt like an old man. He shivered.
He caught up with Honza, who looked equally miserable. “Done so soon?”
“How was your luck, Honza?”
They sat on the curbside.
“What’s the trick, Honza? How does one be happy?”
“Damned if I know.”
Tossing a stone he had pried out of the street, Evzen wondered about Dubcek. He was a leader and like all leaders with power, he had an agenda to stay in power, especially if he was populist.
Out loud he said, “The Soviets will crush him.”
“I suppose so.”
Branislava, Evzen’s wife slapped a pile of slop on his plate, and set a bowl of soup next to it.
“I’m going to a meeting today,” said Evzen.
“What kind of meeting?” she asked, wiping the sweat from fat jowls reddened by the cooking.
“Some old union meeting.”
“You know Evzen, that you shouldn’t dabble in politics, it’s bad luck.”
“Shut up you old hag. As a man, I can do what I want.”
Branislava wished she had a normal husband, not one who changed his position every day.
She said, “Just yesterday, you were decrying the impotence of the unions, exclaiming, ‘They’ll crush him, they’ll crush him.'”
“As a man, I’m amenable to change. So shut up woman.”
The meeting was in an old warehouse with rotting walls and rotting scaffolding.
It was stuffy and sweaty from the throng of eager men. A little less cold and clammy as a grave.
An older man, with a Trotsky beard, banged a gavel from his spot at the centre of a long table at the back end of the room.
“This meeting is in session. Thanks to the grace of the honourable Mr Dubcek, we can meet here and proclaim our freedom.” “Populist,” thought Evzen.
There were cheers. Amongst whose was Honza.
“The question remains, however, how long the Soviet Premier Brezhnev will take kindly to the opening of the lines of information through our brothers in the Fourth Estate, and the organisations such as ours and the farmers.”
Evzen was reminded of his school, with him banging the imagined gavel except it was a pointer stick with which he loved to beat the naive little brats, who knew nothing but thought they did. He was reminded of the meetings of the resistance in the Great War, where his father had been a soldier, blowing up bridges and railway tracks and his mother had been a nurse. He sat on these meetings with a toy tank with which he’d blow up the other kids’ toys: “Boom! Boom! Boom!”Then, coming of the Soviets had been cheered in the streets of Prague like Honza was cheering in that very room right now. But, Evzen felt there was nothing to cheer.
Evzen truncated his part in the meeting by walking out amidst the cheers and shouting. He was soon followed by Honza.
They sat on the curbside.
Evzen lamented, “Beer doesn’t work. Girls don’t work. Politics don’t work. What is a man to do?”
“I guess,” said Honza, “one must immerse oneself in work and hope for the best.” Evzen wanted to slap him.
The little brats were far too noisy and worrisome the next day.
No matter how hard he hit them the noisier and truculent they got. When his back was turned to the class, as he wrote an arithmetic problem on the blackboard, a child threw a piece of chalk at him and the class laughed. Some of the children pointed at the culprit and Evzen’s stick knew no mercy.
In the lunch break, Evzen asked Honza, “Same with you?”
“Same with me.”
“Those snivelling brats.” Evzen spat out a wad of salty phlegm.
“But,” Honza replied, “You must remember that these children have little, and little to entertain themselves, and even more little to use their energy. Times are tough for them too.”
“If you’re so scared of Dubcek’s being crushed, why did you support Novotny’s removal?” asked Honza.
“Because I’m scared. Because like any man I fear for my country. Dubcek was a Stalinist to boot and I’m unsure what all of that means for Czechoslovakia.”
All this noise was making Evzen depressed and disappointed. The noise of the school kids, the noise of his loose-mouthed wife, the political noise in Prague. His uncle owned a farm in the countryside and so he thought he’d get away from the noise by doing a stint there.
He took the train for most of the way, marvelling at the verdant scenery, with its felt grass and chilly leafed trees, that so belied the supposed poverty of his nation. At the station, his uncle met him with a horse cart and Evzen felt revived and cheerful by the bounciness of the buggy.
The next morning at five they milked the cows and Evzen was surprised, yet pleased, to hear his Uncle and his cousins discussing Kafka’s “The Trial”, not that he particularly liked the book, but that in this pastoral setting the novel appeared transformed, he had so soon found a sense of freedom that the dark, inescapable fear prevalent in the book seemed like a fairy tale. “Go fuck yourself, Kafka”, he thought sanguinely in the shed lit only by a kerosene lamp.
He was finally rid of that blue-tattered-shuttered and brown-doored schoolroom, with the boys’ desks mottled by the inhabitants’ signatures and even slogans, yes slogans because the boys were trapped, trapped by a demonic, (no, Evzen didn’t believe in demons but it was a word that fit)
ghoulish (neither ghouls) system, running their parents and them into the ground.
Later, after a bath in the refreshingly chill river, they had the delicious cow’s milk, with bread and cream, in the cool sunshine of the kitchen.
During breakfast, Evzen asked his uncle how come they had such lofty intellectual discussions and not pursue a degree. “Ah,” said his uncle, “degrees are for intellectuals and professors.” Looking at his sons, he laughed and said to Evzen, “you city folk are always after something.” The laughter provided Evzen with his perfect alibi for running away to the country.
He wrote Honza a telegram: “Fuck the school rig come here stop.”
He wanted to say so much more but didn’t have the money for a more verbose telegram.
It seemed world’s away from Prague here. Uncle was the most light-hearted of gentlemen, easy to laugh with, and treating back-breaking work like a simple chore. Aunt was always humming a tune or singing softly to herself and the cousins were busy jostling each other in a friendly way.
Evzen felt like he could finally breathe.
When Honza arrived, the two of them would take long evening walks through the goat paths in the surrounding hills, hardly seeing another human being. They talked about their childhoods, so different during the war yet so full of magic and secret mysteries as only boys could find. They talked philosophy, not politics. They even talked about art and books, things to which the government had denied access.
Wasn’t this true freedom and happiness? thought Evzen.
Evzen spent some of his time perusing the almost inexhaustible collection of magazines his uncle possessed from TIME to National Geographic. He leant back into the dusty rug draped over a well-worn armchair. He was particularly interested in the TIME’s tribute to fifty years of the Statue of Liberty. He read about the monstrosity of the Nazis.
One night, while they were drinking mead by the fireplace, they heard on the now Free radio that the Soviets, with their Warsaw Pact allies, were intending to invade Czechoslovakia.
That night Evzen awoke breathing heavily. In his nightmare he had either become offal and contorting limbs or he was swimming through them in a sea of maroon-brown blood, underneath the tracks of oncoming tanks.
He emerged from the tsunami to see a version of the Statue of Liberty. Except that the Statue’s face was now Dubcek’s. He saw Dubcek’s face transformed into Jesus’ on the Cross. “Socialism with a human face?!” “Socialism with the Lord’s face!”
The Soviets were coming and only Dubcek could be the Savior.
In the early hours of August 20, 1968, 500,000 Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, East German and Russian armored vehicles and tanks crossed the border and entered Prague.
Evzen realized more than ever, that this was “our” (Czechoslovakia’s), no, his fight.
All along the train ride he ignored the landscape and scenery, and sitting hunched continued to stroke his beard into a fine tip. Honza asked him, “Why the sudden reversal in your political affiliations? Till now you hadn’t much to say about Dubcek, and now you say we need him?”
Evzen looked at him with glazed, manic eyes and then bowed his head mumbling to himself.
“Huh?” prodded Honza. “We could have stayed put at your Uncle’s instead of getting embroiled in the turmoil.”
“You don’t understand,” said Evzen.
“But do you?” asked Honza.
When they had arrived in Prague, the situation was clear, Czechoslovakia was an occupied nation. Tanks stood before the train station and people were being frisked for arms.
Pushing past the soldiers, Evzen made his way, determinedly, like a possessed man toward the heart of the city. He instantly, like on radar, made way to the Free Radio Station.
There, was a pitched battle between the Warsaw troops and about 100,000 Czechoslovakian citizens. The troops tossed tear gas canisters, which were picked up by handkerchief-ed hands and thrown back at the troops. Evzen grabbed a Czechoslovakian flag and boarded a tank waving it with mad, blazing eyes.