[27 May 2010]
Milan Kundera begins his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in Prague in 1948. Klement Gottwald, the leader of the Czechoslovakian communist party, and foreign secretary Vladimir Clementis stand on a balcony together to address a huge crowd. Clementis lends Gottwald his hat, which Gottwald is wearing when they are photographed together. In 1952, Clementis was executed, having been charged with treason. Subsequently, he was airbrushed out of this famous photograph. As Kundera writes, ‘Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.’
This episode is brought up in Paulina Bren’s book, which filters the culture of Czechoslovakian communism post 1968 through the TV sets that were burgeoning in popularity during this period. Kundera is referenced several times—he is, after all, a highly relevant figure. Formerly a member of the communist party, he was expelled and then reinstated prior to his involvement in the 1968 Prague Spring. After the suppression of this uprising turned into a permanent state of affairs, he left the country and has lived in self-imposed exile since 1975. In 1968, Bren points out, doctored photographs like that of Gottwald and Clementis were publicly displayed by outspoken scholar Eduard Goldstücker, who compared them with the originals.
This is just one example of an incident from the turbulent year in Czech history that was 1968. But after the reforms of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion that overturned them, the regime could never be quite the same as before. There followed a period of ‘normalization’, in which a more restrictive form of socialism was reinstated. Bren asks, “What then was ‘normal’ in normalization? That nothing, and yet everything, was normal was hinted at by ordinary citizen’s own adoption of the term”. An attempt at understanding what the normalization period was actually like to live through is at the heart of The Greengrocer and His TV.
The greengrocer of this book is a figure imagined by Vaclav Havel, who portrayed this character placing a sign reading ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ in his shop window. Havel was interested in the greengrocer’s indifference to this slogan. He does not necessarily agree with its sentiment, but he is not explicitly instructed to display it. It is simply something that he knows he should do in order to get along. This figure, says Bren, has come to represent late communism. More specifically, in the context of Czechoslovakia, he represents normalization.
His TV provides much of Bren’s material. The programming of the era is a useful source for a social history such as this, since television was the media that reached most people. Of course, the content of this programming was dictated by the state, but it was widely watched nonetheless. News broadcasts were far less popular than dramas, so scheduling was arranged so that viewers tuning in early for their favourite programmes received some of the government’s messages in their purest form.
The most important figure related to television in this book, and a kind of counterpart to the greengrocer, is Jaroslav Dietl, a prolific screenwriter responsible for many of Bren’s sources. But an alternative foil for the greengrocer might be found in the most prominent fictional character from TV, Major Zeman.
The Thirty Adventures of Major Zeman was a crime serial that chronicled the history of Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1975. Zeman was a detective whose calm demeanour was intended to project a message that under communism everything was under control. This was an important programme in that it was among the first to try and appeal to the tastes of the audience. The state was by this time concerned that viewers would try to pick up programmes from outside the country, seeking a higher level of entertainment. In East Germany, for example, West German TV was far more widely watched than the home-grown programming.
Bren’s analysis of Major Zeman makes for interesting reading, but some of the other examples are more lacklustre. The problem is that a number of programmes that Bren considers don’t come across as particularly compelling viewing. This is not to say that she has chosen her examples poorly; normalization era Czechoslovakia was simply not the site of the highest quality TV production, and this is perfectly understandable. This is certainly a valuable book in that it addresses an important period in history at a fresh angle. But in the same way that normalization era viewers in Czechoslovakia switched off their sets for certain programmes, it becomes tempting to put this book down when these shows are discussed.
However, it would be inappropriate to omit these programmes, given the context of Czechoslovakian communism. If Bren had concentrated more closely on the more exciting examples, then they would become rather like Vladimir Clementis’ hat, a detail left behind in a picture that has been censored. As The Greengrocer and His TV stands, we have a clear picture with no interference.