The Greengrocer and His TV Is About the Politics of Television: Czechoslovakia, Circa 1968

Filtered through the TV screens of communist Czechoslovakia, this is an attempt at understanding if there was anything 'normal' about normalization.

The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring

Publisher: Cornell University Press
ISBN: 0801476429
Author: Paulina Bren
Price: $24.95
Format: Softcover
Length: 250 pages
Publication Date: 2010-03

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.