Indiáni v Cechách

A paper-chase to the Wild West roots of Czech contemporary culture

How do you order sweets in a pastry shop in a foreign country? Point at
them. But it would be so much more sophisticated to learn the names of
those particular sweets and to understand their cultural significance!

Ovocni kosík – fruit basket. Rakvicka – little coffin. And that
cone-shaped, chocolate-glazed, pudding-filled pastry with the spherical
‘head’ over there??? Indián. Why? Because. Very well. There must be a
fascination with Indians in this country.
On a snow-covered winter evening in a quiet mountain cottage, a casual
remark triggers a conversation about Karl May and his novels. The
result is stunning, unexpected. The three men in the room – grown-up,
serious professionals working for respected Czech literary publishing
houses – launch into hours of knowledgeable discussion of Winnetou, Old
Shatterhand and the others. The imaginary world that the Saxon author,
Karl May, created while in prison has shaped every German child’s
concept of Native Americans and the so called “Wild West”.

Even those
who were never really interested in following Kara-ben-Nemsi and
Hadschi Halef Omar across wild Kurdistan know the classics such as
Winnetou I, II & III, The Treasure in the Silver Lake and Old
Surehand I&II. If they haven’t read them, they’ve seen the
television adaptation with Lex Barker and Pierre Briece. And they are
used to explaining their weird ideas about American 19th century
history and Native Americans to their British, French, Dutch or
American friends. ut here in the Czech Republic, these characters and
ideas seem to be just as well known as they are in Germany. Even if
there are rumors that the translated versions left out the boring
fifty-page landscape descriptions that have tasked the patience of
generations of German readers… So, do the mayovky represent some kind
of unexpected, common Central European heritage?

Maybe some kind of
awkward collective subconscious, a last pillar of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire? Or are they, in the end, the eternal embodiment of heroism and
manliness, grotesquely adaptable even to socialist-realist stylistic
and moral demands? But, if that is so, what is it that makes them so
attractive to the post-68-generation, the children of the dissidents,
the generation that suffered the full consequences of normalization –
that “dark age” of Czech politics and culture after the socialist
Reforms of 1968 had been crushed by the “friendly” tanks of Soviet
Russia and Warsaw-pact neighbors???

There is something in the air. Yet it is hard to define.
Prague. Beginning of the Nineties. A small book in a shop-window
between titles like Co jsou Cesi ? /What are the Czechs? and O smyslu
ceskych dejin / On the Meaning of Czech History. On the cover there is
a blue-yellow-red drawing of three dog-like figures facing what might
be a lion. Tereza Boucková, it says on the cover, Indiánsky beh /
Indian Run. “Winner of the 1989 Jirí Orten award for the most promising
literary debut”. This is it. The first clue. A vague footprint in the
snow.

And this is how the novel begins: “The Indian has three children.
The first, a son, is called Ray of Sunlight; the second, a daughter,
White Moon. But how is the third child called? Torn Rubber.” The
narrator: “Torn Rubber”. “The Indian”: Pavel Kohout, the prose writer
and playwright, writer of stalinist hymnic poems after 1948, later
signatory of the dissident Charter 77 and involuntary emigrant to
Austria: a person who was well-known far beyond the borders of the
Czech(oslovak) Republic. Boucková’s novel obviously alludes to the
author’s conflict with her famous father, whose fame and exile used to
affect his children’s lives and careers, although he himself had left
his family long before he left the country. But the interesting thing
about this novel is not at the autobiographical level. It is in its
central Indian theme: the childlike eye of Torn Rubber swarps the
personal and political realities of the seventies and eighties to fit
into the perspectives, rules and dodges of an endless, metaphorical
Indian game.

Czech reality before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 must have been
unreal and adventurous, imagines the curious, uninformed Western
visitor and reader. People furtively sneaking through the streets,
conspiring, writing and printing secret newspapers, organizing secret
sessions, concerts, exhibitions. The Underground. A colorful world,
ruled by serenity, courage and creativity, but a dangerous one. Bad
guys, pale-skins behind every tree, ready to shoot the upright redskin
with their fire-sticks, or drug them with their firewater and then
cheat or kill them. A game of life and death.

In the spring of 1994 a thirty-two-year old author has just
published his first novel, Sestra/The Sister. Like Boucková, Jáchym
Topol is the child of a famous Czech playwright. He is also co-founder
of Revolver Revue, an underground samizdat magazine, and a signatory of
Charter 77. His book, with the Virgin of Censtochowa on the cover,
becomes a cult novel for the young within weeks. Not only because they
can see the author out in concert at night with his brother Filip’s
band Psí vojáci, reading and singing texts from the novel like: “My
sister is firewater….” The Sister hits a nerve of the existential
feeling in the time after the “explosion of time”. It’s a fateful love
story. A testimony of Czechoslovak reality of ’89 and the following
years. An action-thriller set against the background of foreign and
Czech business at the edge of legality in Prague. A hymn to
multicultural “Berlun”. And a seismograph for the traumatic collective
dreams of the common European past. The Indian topic is right there, a
recurring motif: in the ‘Indian’ nicknames of the narrator’s first
girlfriend (Little White She Dog) and of the members of the gang, in
the description of the gang as a tribe and of the business they’re
doing as the path of war, in a whole way of mythical thinking that is
specific for the protagonist of the novel, and in the mythical
allusions to the customs and rituals of distant peoples.

So yes, the old times have gone. So have the old enemies and
counterparts. The New Reality is tough, sometimes bloody. But reality
is also an adventure. And it’s a game.

The two girls in Sasa Gideons debut film Indian Summer play the
game as well. A black-haired, introverted girl comes to a Czech village
to spend the summer with her cousin. One of her first days there, she
is asked whether she has ‘Indian’ blood. The idea of being ‘Indian’ –
alien, different, enigmatic and maybe even desirable – becomes an
ideé-fixe that underlies the whole stylized summer-love-story. The
depiction of both Czech summer life in the countryside and the
friendship and competition between the two teenage girls culminates in
a scene where the two girls spend an evening watching TV: the
“Winnetou”-serial (and the death of Winnetou’s sister Ntscho-tschi).
Clearly, in the context of this film, Karl May isn’t just Karl May.

The
allusion to his Indian stories is a hidden message to insiders, but not
a clear message. It’s just a sign, maybe a sign of difference, freedom,
unreality – or maybe it’s just some kind of common folklore, a detail
that makes the spectator laugh with recognition.
The film treats the Indian subject with playfulness and a lot of
distance. In a fine and subtle way it confirms the so far collected
notions of a Czech affection to a hidden, second imaginary “Indian”
world. It’s an imaginary world, an anti-world. Nonetheless, the key is
still missing. Why Indians? Why not little green Martians?
Revolver Revue 27 contains an unexpected clue. In this issue of the
former underground magazine, which has long since become one of the
most interesting and prestigious Czech magazines for art, literature
and criticism, three generations of Czech Boy Scouts talk about the
past.

The interviews and memories evoke summers of communal camping and
singing around the campfire, survival games, clandestine visits to the
nearby girls’ camp and playing Cowboys and Indians – the memory of free
and easy, naive and harmonious experiences from a time in life “before
we were liable to cynicism, before we had suffered our first personal
and public disappointments, before we were fully aware of life and the
corrupt society around us”. And even facing somewhat uneasy
recollections of some occasional cases of harassment and bullying, the
good impressions prevail: “Byli jsme v prírode a bylo to sranda.” -“We
were out in nature and it was fun”, as one of the veteran “skauty” puts
it.
Recapitulate your Karl-May-influenced notion of Indians. Indians are
good. Indians are honest. Indians are strong. Indians are clever.
Indians are close to nature. Indians are peaceful, unless they’re
targeted by the White Man’s aggression.

So are Scouts. Scouts are honest. Scouts are good comrades. Scouts
are fair. Scouts are close to nature. Scouts are polite and don’t
swear. Scouts are always prepared to help. This might be the key.
” Junák” “, the Association of Czech Scouts was founded in 1913. The
Czech variation of the international movement is a combination of the
Anglo-Saxon tradition with the indigenous Czech pedagogical tradition
of Jan Amos Komensky. “Skauting” is meant to build independent, honest,
responsible personalities who have a social consciousness. It is a sort
of Schola ludus, learning by playing, in which the emphasis on the
(also present) military and uniformist aspects varies greatly with the
character and responsibility of the scout leaders.

But during the German occupation, the playful preparation for life
turns into dangerous reality for the first time; from 1940 on, Czech
boy scouts are defamed as ‘little freemasons’ and the organization is
made illegal, some leaders are persecuted. But some troops continue
their activities in secret. Soon after the coming to power of the
Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1948, the newly re-founded Scouts faces
difficulties again. The movement, which sees itself as belonging to a
free, democratic western tradition, returns to illegality and remains
there – with a short legal intermezzo between 1968 and 1970 – until the
Velvet Revolution. One of those to keep up the tradition of skauting
regardless is Jaroslav Foglar, the “Czech Karl May”. He is the leader
of the famous Dvojka/N°2, the oldest Czech Scout troop, and author of
countless adventure stories, the most famous of which is a series
called Rychlé sípy / Speedy Arrows. The unofficial character of Scouts
during the occupation and the “real-socialist” era adds an important
conspiratorial aspect to the otherwise harmless, non-political scouting
activities. The regular list of moral and social demands linked with
scouting is put to the test by reality. Suddenly the game, the dangers,
the adventures are real. So is the mission.

Many children of dissident background were boy Scouts or svetlusky
(fire-flies), as the girl Scouts are called. Many (former) Scouts were
involved in Underground or other semi-legal or illegal political or
cultural activities before 1989. Some of them now occupy important
positions in Czech social, political, and cultural life. Some were
“prepared” – corresponding to the skauting motto “Be prepared!”. Some
weren’t. Some of them wouldn’t send their children to the Scouts today.
Some do. But all of them feel that they have been marked by the
memories and experiences they share: the values, the community, the
notion of a split reality – a specific mixture of real danger and
adventure game, of cultural activity, of the Indian game. Today
Scouting reality is back to normal. The playful preparation for life
has lost its political ‘sur-reality’. While his colleagues at Revolver
Revue prepared their memories of their scout days, Jáchym Topol
translated a collection of genuine Native American tales into Czech.
Indian fictions, memories of the playground universe, and confrontation
with real American Indian culture – these seem to be the three ways in
which the ‘Indian’ underground identity still survives, now that the
other side, the “Pale-Faces” of the 70ies and 80ies, has gone.

+++ Karl May (1842-1912)…German author of adventure stories
taking place in North America (Winnetou I,II,III; Der Schatz im
Silbersee, etc…), Arabia and Turkey (Durchs wilde Kurdistan,
etc…)…his most famous heroes are Winnetou, the Apache-chief, and
his German Cowboy friend Old Shatterhand +++ +++ Tereza Boucková:
Indiánsky beh,
Grafoprint Praha 1992….translated to German and other languages +++
normalizace/normalization…”dark age” for the political and cultural
life in the Czechoslovak Republic, time of repression after the end of
Prague Spring by invasion of Russian and Warsaw Bloc troops in August
1968 +++ Jáchym Topol: Sestra, Atlantis, Brno 1994…Die Schwester,
Volk und Welt Berlin, 1998… Siostryczka…City, Sister, Silver, North
Haven 2000. (recommended translation!!!)… Karin Beck, “Exploding
Realities: Jáchym Topols Use of Language in Sestra” and “Jáchym Topol’s
Novel Sestra”, Columbia, New York 2000 +++ Indiánské léto. A film by
Sasa Gideon, Czech Republic 1995 +++ Revolver Revue…former
underground magazine, that has become one of the most interesting and
prestigious Czech magazines for art, literature and criticism…N°27
(1994): “I was looking for adventure”, “Racoon pulled the switchblade”,
and more — interviews with Jaroslav Foglar and others who survived
scouting +++ Boy Scouts were founded by Lord Baden Powell in 1907 +++
Jan Amos Komensky (1592-1670)…philosopher, pedagogue, clergyman,
author of literary texts
and of many theoretical treatises like The Labyrinth of the World and
the Paradise of the Heart (1631/1661) and Schola ludus / Learning by
Playing (1654) +++ Junák – svaz skautu a skautek v CR…www.skaut.cz
+++ Jaroslav Foglar (1907-1999)…famous Czech skaut-leader and author
of adventure stories…most famous is the serial of Rychlé s·ípy /
Speedy
Arrows +++ Trnová divka. Príbûhy severoamerickych Indiánu. Vybral a
prelozil Jáchym Topol. Hynek, Praha, 1997 +++

 

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