Some countries have a place in your head long before you visit them. The idea of their football team is enough to take you back there. For me, the Czech Republic is in that place that means possibility, and all that follows from it. It begins, this place, with typewritten pages chugging slowly from a fax machine. It's after midnight, its been a long day and the pages are coming slowly: as if the fax machine is reading them word by word, running a finger under each line, before they emerge.
The fax machine itself still seems to me dazzlingly high tech. This is long before email, and though people have computers, they still use them like typewriters. It is November 1989, and I'm in Cambridge, in the office of Granta, the literary magazine where I have been working for a year or so, above a hairdresser's salon. It's cold enough in the office to see your breath and no else is around, but I don't mind. I'm twenty-three and it's about the first time I've felt even distantly part of something more important than myself. The pages are stuttering through painstakingly from Prague, bringing news of a revolution made in a theater called the Magic Lantern.
I'm not sure the events in the Czech capital were being called the Velvet Revolution yet but in my head that's how it already seems. The name arose from the stealth with which a group of writers and dissidents took political power. But the velvet I'm imagining in the Granta office, next to the fax machine, is the velvet of the Magic Lantern's seats, in my mind purple and shadowed and rising into the dark, while the future of Europe is being recast into the night on a lamplit stage.
The fax that is coming through is one of a series that has been emerging all day, rolls and curls of copy in languages that none of us in the office understand -- neither Bill, our editor, or the rest of us, Ursula and Angus and me -- but about which all of us are unusually -- uniquely -- heady and uncynical. We have been trawling for translators, wondering how typesetters will cope with all those diacritics, watching deadlines come and go, listening to the news on the office transistor radio and changing our stories hour by hour. On any little magazine moments of genuine excitement are infrequent, perhaps quarterly, if you are lucky; but for a few days now such moments have been coming thick and fast.
The faxes have arrived in response to desperate letters and phone calls first to Berlin and Warsaw, now to Budapest and Bucharest and Prague. The letters had asked simple questions, the only ones we had been able to think of in that month when the news was delivered breathlessly by foreign correspondents, and you thought anything at all might happen: What does it look like? And, um, how does it feel? And, do you think you might find time to tell us (today, please, or sooner if possible, in one thousand faxable words)?
They had all been sent, these begging letters, by Bill and Ursula and Angus and me, to addresses that seemed either too long or too short, or to writers on fax numbers we didnt quite believe. They were sent mostly to novelists who had been imprisoned, poets who had lived whole lives under surveillance, short story writers who had been exiled or worked as nightwatchmen and streetsweepers and milkmen and gravediggers. The letters had gone out more in hope than expectation. There was, after all, a lot going on. The Berlin Wall had fallen and within a week or two, successive greatcoated governments had melted into air.
There were, no doubt, that night in Prague, constitutions to be written, powers to be shared, hopes to be raised, toasts to be drunk. But even so, a few of those who had watched all of this first hand, who had scripted it even, took the time to respond to our magazine above a hairdresser's salon. That, I was telling myself then, keeping vigil for that latest fax, was at these moments exactly what real writers did (and I was very keen, then, to know all about what real writers did, would have wanted to witness one of those moments myself, write about it even, though I would probably never have mentioned that particular ambition to anyone).
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As a child, I had not thought it was odd that Europe was cut in two, and that the other part was unknowable, and out of reach. Born in 1965, in England, I could barely imagine anything different. The facts of that separation seemed then as distant as the war that my parents, and other impossibly old people, talked about as if it were yesterday.
But the split had an effect; it seemed so irrational and so permanent. These countries less than a days drive away were, it appeared, as cold and distant as Greenland or Siberia. I learned to group them easily together, a bloc, PolandHungaryYugoslaviaCzechoslovakia on the blue globe on my bedside table.
They all had footballers who looked like soldiers with sharp knees and elbows and when I saw games that long-haired English teams played against them the television cameras would scan across the watching crowd of pale-looking people in big coats and hats who clapped gloved hands together and made hardly a sound. Their policemen had dogs. Their breath went up in clouds in the cold night air. I spent probably rather too much of my spare time back then playing endless homemade European Cups in the back of school exercise books, with dice and blunt pencils and bendable rules. I would painstakingly copy out team sheets full of Olegs and Milans; then always make sure that the Spartas and the Partisans and the Lokomotivs went out early on.
Czechoslovakia, as it was, seemed to me a lot like its football teams: at the very least no fun; or worse, lifeless and sinister. Those footballers came from behind an "iron curtain," you were told in commentaries, a phrase that always triggered in me as a small boy, and still triggers now, the thought of those concertina grilles in old elevators, that if you were not careful could snap shut and trap you inside and rumble you to an unknown floor of a department store or a hospital, and thereby separate you from your Mum and Dad and everyone you knew forever.
I was in my teens when those particular ideas about Czechoslovakia started to change. It was then that I began to read some of those writers who risked their liberty to whisper and shout and laugh through that iron grille and explain that the place where they lived was not in itself at all cruel and cold -- that was just the people who tried to keep it all in check, who organized the tanks and the secret policemen, and who did not want any of their subjects to publish books or write poems or perform plays or make jokes or fall in love.
Underneath this structure of power, in spite of it, these whispering, brilliant voices said, the necessity of doing those things, of "living in truth" as Václav Havel declared, was in fact worth risking everything for. Even better, the lightness and absurdity and sex and fantasy that was produced as a result was far more real than anything you came across growing up in suburban England.
I started, as many of my friends at that time seemed to start, backward, with the exile Milan Kundera, read his tales of laughter and forgetting, and the great comic seductions set in his homeland with its "surplus of poets." I went on to Ivan Klíma, the direct bleak comedy of life under Soviet rule, and Havel, his extraordinary letters to his wife Olga written on smuggled scraps of paper from prison. I graduated from there to Bohumil Hrabal, read and reread his wonderful anecdotal novels of Prague, great discursive yarns that sounded as if they had been overheard before closing time (which was in fact often the case). And from there to "The Good Soldier Svejk," Hrabal's model for his Czech heroes, and Kafka, read how in his native city it was not possible, in 1984, of all years, to celebrate the centenary of his birth. This was, I couldn't help thinking, exactly as he would have wanted it.
In this way, I suppose, I built in my head an image of a country, and in particular a city, Prague, which became as real to me as if I was wandering its streets. I had by that time decided to place all my faith in words, and solemnly believed that the world could be understood with the techniques of practical criticism; Czechoslovakia, it seemed to me, was a place where words counted for everything, where authority could be undone with irony, where poets were, from the outside at least, the most important people in society. (I had been reading a lot of Shakespeare.)
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I only went to Czechoslovakia once before the revolution. I had become on leaving university a sort of travel writer, not quite the poet that I imagined, and I was invited on one occasion on a curious press trip along the Danube on a flat-bottomed gin-palace of a cruiser. Our flash boat set off from Vienna and moored at one point in Slovakian Bratislava. We were shown around for a couple of days by a young couple who had somehow invested in an antique charabanc; he drove and she talked. Our guide was very proud of her blue jeans, but when we asked her any questions about her life she was struck dumb and gestured around the bus, as if it might be bugged. When she sat us down to eat she stiffened visibly if we said anything that might be considered critical of her country, and glanced nervously around the room. She seemed by the end both relieved to be rid of us and desperately sad that we were going.
I didn't write about any of that. The brief was hotels and restaurants and I quickly stopped being a sort of travel writer soon afterward. At least, later, I could half convince myself, working at Granta, that I shared some vague common cause with those writers who worked against such fears. We published a few of them for a start, Kundera and Havel and Klíma, and we stayed up late cutting and pasting, literally then, sentences and paragraphs together, our own entirely safe and commercial version of samizdat, the carbon-copied stories and essays and poems that Czech writers circulated in the evenings. By the time 1989 came around I was hanging on these writers' every word.
A year or so after Havel had become president, in that most theatrical of denouements (like the return of the Duke in "As You Like It") that had him skateboarding through the corridors of Kafka's "Castle" in a sweater and jeans, I went to a conference where I met some of those samizdat editors and writers. The conference was organized by the financier George Soros and was aimed at finding a way of sustaining the little magazines now that their purpose had disappeared, and their words no longer quite mattered. These men and women with pamphlets that they'd published as if their lives depended on it were now out of a job. I remember talking to them a bit about mailing lists and subscriptions and serialization deals, all the things that kept Granta going. They could not quite understand that in the new Czechoslovakia truth might not be enough, and would have to be replaced by marketing. Or, at least, they could see the irony of it all. Inevitably, we ended up talking football in place of ideas.
Not long after that I had lunch with the novelist Ivan Klíma at a smart west-London restaurant. He insisted on eating only a bread roll and some soup and while I gabbled about the importance of his writing and how it must feel to have triumphed, to be free, he talked bleakly of sacrifices endured. He differentiated sharply between the writers who had left, Kundera in Paris, and those that had stayed, gestured wearily toward the years his generation had lost. When his books were not available, he said, everyone had wanted to read them, but now they were in the shops.
When I eventually went to visit Prague I'd have like to believe it would be like meeting a lifelong pen pal for the first time. I was sent there for a couple of weeks to write a literary sort of guide to the city for the newspaper I then worked for (I was still trying to be a real writer, or to find a subject that counted, but realizing too, that such things don't come along very often and that all of life was anyway not contained in sentences and paragraphs). I began that tour at the Slavia café where Havel had courted his wife Olga and I sat among earnest Czech men with booming laughs and old ladies in raffish hats and scarves and lovers meeting in the afternoon and students deep in conversation (just like the old days except that now there was only me at the next table eavesdropping and taking notes).
I made my way around the city in the coming days in search of the place I had in my head, always imagining I might find Bohumil Hrabal sitting in a corner telling tales. The city had quickly been colonized by weekend visitors and American students and British stag nighters. It was January and sensationally cold, and every other bar had strippers in it, sliding down poles as proof of liberation. I drank a good deal of perfect pilsener and I came to realize that Kafka was the author of the greatest of all hangover tales: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect..."
In my mind, Prague had lived through its writers, and I wanted to convince myself in those first few years after the revolution that it had been recreated by them. I did my best to relive Kafka's notion of Prague as a place of "People who cross dark bridges passing saints, with faint candles / Clouds that parade across gray skies, passing churches with darkening towers." Walking through the castle at night I rarely saw a nonuniformed soul in its chill, gray arcades. But every evening of that first stay I took to wandering past the couples snogging by the carved saints on Charles Bridge and on up to Kafka's tiny old house to watch the stars begin to move over the city.
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It couldn't survive. But on subsequent visits to Prague, I thought I could see it in the faces of old men and young women: that Czech mix of solemnity and devilment. And I sensed it too in the way the football team began to play, with great theater, never for a moment forgetting it is all a game. I loved the fact that the greatest of all Czech players, Pavel Nedved, came of age in 1989, and joined the first Sparta Prague team that stopped looking like soldiers. He had his hair long. He has played for all the years since, for his country and for Juventus, with what looks to me like the authentic spirit of the Velvet Revolution in his boots: deft and strong; mischievous and quietly powerful.
For most of that time, in theme bars of Prague and in the new Starbucks, you would hear men talk of the style and substance of the Czech finalists in Euro '96, the team of the young Karel Poborsky and Patrik Berger, and the untouchable Nedved. That is when the same men were not grumbling of how Havel was outstaying his welcome, how he had his head in the clouds, that the Czech Republic was a modern European country now and you could not just keep harking back to 1989.
Havel, himself, it seemed to me, having had once to make up the country as he went along, never forgot the staging of it all. I loved the story of how just before he left the castle in 2004 he hosted President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld at a NATO summit. He choreographed an evening's entertainment that included a rococo dance (full of bewigged courtiers and simulated sex) as well as a top-volume rap version of "La Marseillaise" and John Lennon's "Power to the People." ("It may," he conceded afterward, "have been on the verge of what Mr. Rumsfeld and certain others could tolerate.")
In a valedictory speech Havel looked back on the events of his extraordinary life and the revolution, and answered once and for all that old faxed request of how it felt to him in November 1989. "At the very deepest core of it there was," he suggested, "ultimately, a sensation of the absurd: what Sisyphus might have felt if one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down." It's almost ancient history now, of course, but as anyone who has ever wanted to be a writer -- or anyone who has ever lined up for a football match -- knows, it takes a long time to forget those first teetering moments when anything at all seems possible, and all you have in front of you is a blank page, and no words have yet been set down to spoil it.