Good Reading : June 2008
JUNE 2008 ı goodreading 17 behind the book know much about my father, either, because he divorced my mother, bitterly, when I was little and I didn’t see him for many years – until I was a young woman of 28. My father does not talk about these tragedies. In a very Czech way, he pretends nothing has happened so that he can go on with life. It wasn’t until I got to Prague that I discovered remaining members of my living family and records of my dead family and along the way discovered the father I had never known. Although my grandmother had died, remnants of her family, cousins of my father, still lived in a little village six hours’ bus ride south-east of Prague; the village where, indeed, my grandmother had been born. One day, a strange man came to my flat. From the way he greeted me, I could tell I was supposed to know who he was, but owing to my complete lack of Czech and his of English, it was a while before I realised that this was my father’s cousin. My father had called him and asked him to check up on me and to take me back to the village. As sweet as that was of him, my father had failed to tell me of these plans. I only discovered that was the purpose of his cousin’s visit when I called my father to get him to translate for us, the dictionary and phrase book having proved almost entirely useless. I found that my father would frequently make arrangements for me from across the other side of the world and be astonished when I objected. When he next arranged for me to visit my relatives he not only didn’t tell me when, he didn’t tell me for how long; I was appalled to find that he’d booked me in for two weeks. Two weeks living with people with whom I had barely a word in common! The prospect filled me with dread. It often occurred to me during my year in Prague that I was far too much of a coward to be having this adventure. In fact, when I met my relatives, I met very sweet country people living in conditions that made me grateful for World War II. If my father hadn’t had to escape, I might have grown up in a Czech village on a potato farm. It was very beautiful, very picturesque and very clear that life in a poor village is hard on the complexion, among other things. As I passed by people missing fingers and eyes, and heard the story of my cousin’s husband who was killed when a tractor rolled over on him, and met people my father’s age who looked about a hundred years older, I thought of my father who loves to tell me how if it wasn’t for the fact that my stepmother has to stay in Sydney for her work he’d move back to his village, to the simple life of the country. ‘They have everything they need, darling,’ he says as he tucks into the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream he bought from the 24-hour Coles downstairs. ‘Oh, sure they complain, but that’s just habit.They have chickens and apple trees and fresh air.What more do they want? No, it’s the simple life for me. Much better than Sydney. ’ He munches down some more Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. ‘What is there in Sydney I couldn’t get there? Nothing! You should try this, darling, it’s delicious, but not as good as the Butter Pecan.’ One rainy day, I was in my flat flipping through a guide to Prague I had brought with me from home. It was a 1973 guide my father had and it provided many amusing insights into history, as it was written by the communists. I used to enjoy comparing its prose to that of the 2005 guide, the wildly different ways in which, for instance, the Prague Spring of 1968 was described.The one called it a brutal tank invasion by the Russians, the other a benevolent intervention by the Father Bear. Communism really was a curse on Czechoslovakia. I was musing on this when a piece of paper fell out of the book onto the floor. Picking it up,IsawIhadin myhands afamily tree, typewritten in blue, leaching letters on ancient paper. It seemed to go back quite some way, to my great-great- grandmother.There was my grandfather’s name, and my father’s, and right at the end, mine.This piece of paper was the beginning of my discovery of my dead grandfather. The trouble with my father not alking about his history is that I know very little of it. It used to be a matter of great shame to me that I could never remember which concentration camp my grandfather had been sent to. A Jewish historian once told me that children of survivors who never talk of the experience all have this problem – we’re chronic forgetters. It’s our way of supporting our parents in their coping mechanism. I felt less shame when I heard that, but still I found it impossible to remember any details.With the names of my dead relatives in front of me, I determined to visit the camp, Terezín, where my grandfather had been interned. For some reason, couldn’t tell my father what I was going to do. And it took me almost the ntire year I was in Prague to work up he nerve to do it. Finally, in the dead of winter, on a snowy, slush-grey day, went and it changed me profoundly, although I was back in Australia before I realised that. So how did I break it to my father that I’d written about him in the book? I didn’t. I’m counting on the fact that he’s too lazy to actually read it – he’ll just pretend to read it and then boast about me to all his friends. It’s the Czech way. Me, Myself & Prague: An unreliable guide to Bohemia by Rachael Weiss is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $24.95.