BOHEMIA'S FURTHEST SHORE: CZECH INFLUENCES ON NEW ZEALAND CULTURE
For Tomáš Jedlička
My first awareness of things Czech in New Zealand would have been in the early 1980s. Everyone had Bata Bullets (Baťa or Baťovy závody), the largest manufacturer of shoes in the world and famous for utopian worker communities like the one in Zlín. Czech cartoons were broadcast on New Zealand television (then entirely state controlled) like the exquisite Little Mole (Krteček), created by Czech animator Zdeněk Miler, where any rare Czech dialogue might as well have been Charlie Brown’s teacher’s garbled underwater utterances for all I was aware. New Zealand would return the favour by selling Czechoslovakia our own Children of the Dog Star (1984) where it was dubbed into Czech as Děti ze Síria. Rumour has it that the Czechs thought it had been made in the 1970s rather than the ‘80s because the fashions were so old-fashioned even by Eastern Block standards, and someone had gotten the Roman numerals wrong for the production date. And for some reason known only to themselves, in 2009 the Czech band Mako!Mako released the song “Taumata” which consists mostly on New Zealand’s longest place name Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.
Back when I was a boy in the 1980s, we still thought robots were going to give us more leisure time, not more unemployment. Like all little boys I was in love with robots (but a bit too young for Star Wars) and as every book on the subject told me, I was well aware that the word “robot” came from the Czech word robota, meaning serf labour, popularised by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). I didn’t actually read R. U. R. until many years later when my mother’s old high school English teacher (by then elderly and very frail, but wonderfully literate lady in every sense of the word) lent me a copy of the David Wylie translation, by which time I had discovered Kafka, though not yet Milan Kundera (though I had of course heard of the 1984 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – based on his novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí – mainly because the sex scenes were infamous). Some people might have made the connection with the television programme Mobil Masterpiece Theatre’s use of the closing bars of Dvořák's Serenade for Strings.
The Czechoslovak Republic was formed in 1918 out of the former Austro-Hungarian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia, and for a while Carpathian Ruthenia (Podkarpatská Rus – where Andy Warhol’s parents came from), and in 1993, separated in the so called “Velvet Divorce” (an amical dissolution when compared with the bloody strife of Yugoslavia’s disintegration – At worst is the rivalry in Ice Hockey and Football.) into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Although what is now the Czech Republic lies at the heart of Europe with centuries of history torn between Habsburg/Germanic and Slavic (and later Soviet) cultural forces, yet retaining a strong sense of itself nonetheless, there are some national character traits that resonate with the New Zealand temperament – mind you, that is the sort of thing that can go both ways.
New Zealand has the archetype of the “Good, Keen Man” (after Barry Crump’s 1960 book of gruff, blokey book antics, and the “Man Alone” from John Mulgan’s 1939 novel of grim masculinity. The Czechs, on the other hand, have (though by no means is it universally celebrated) what they call svejking, švejkování, or in infinitive švejkovat, in English: “Švejkness”. This useful expression derives from Jaroslav Hašek’s classic unfinished novel (published after the author’s death in 1923) Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války (“The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War”), published in English as The Good Soldier Švejk. The pittoresquely episodic story is a dark, raucously vulgar (in the best way) and cynical proto-Catch 22 (with parallels to the existential absurdist horror and futility of Kafka, but with more laughs) comedy set in Austro-Hungary during the First World War. The main character manages to survive one disaster after another through a combination of self-interest, laziness, casual submission to events and feigned stupidity. This might sound a strange persona to adopt as a popular national personification, but those were more or less what allowed the Czech spirit to survive, and indeed, psychologically resist, oppression by the Habsburgs, Nazi, and Soviet rule. Māori popular culture, no stranger to occupation and marginalisation, has also, arguably, adopted among its many masks, a kind of defensively amiable and feckless persona for similar reasons, one simultaneously celebrated and parodied by many popular Māori entertainers, most famously Billy T. James. One may think of the “She’ll be right” attitude in broader Kiwi culture – perhaps a Cultural Cringe resignation to the authority of Britain, Europe, Australia, and the United States. Czechs and Kiwis are fatalists.
Another popular Czech motif is Malost (littleness), closely tied to the Czech sense of národnost (nationality) – though again, not universally a source of pride: “malé, ale naše” (little, but ours), the nationalism of the “little Czech” (malý český človĕk) from a little country (malý národ) – compare this with “the little kiwi battler,” “World Famous in New Zealand,” and the politically celebrated insularity of Middle or Mainstream New Zealand. Such concepts no doubt played a part in the way Czech immigrants to New Zealand identified themselves in relation to their old and new homes. Aside from its use to refer to the artistic demimonde, Bohemian is also a common poetic term for the various disparate Czech lands, particularly in other countries, but internally categories are no less confusing. A group of nineteenth century colonists who settled in Pūhoi, close by Auckland but deep in the bush, identified itself as Bohemian rather than Sudetští Němci or Sudentenland Deutscher (specifically from Stod, near Plzeň) as First World War anti-German panic gripped New Zealand. This, however, made them no less ethnically Czech, despite their speaking Egerländer – a guttural Czech dialect of German named after Eger (Cheb in Czech), a Czech town close to the German border. Puhoi Egerländer diverged to become a distinct dialect, though one now rarely spoken.
It is also worth noting that the infamously subversive New Zealand painter Heather Straka’s surname, via her adoptive father, comes from those Czech settlers (try saying that three times fast) – this will become important later, as we shall see.
After the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, between 300 and 400 Czechs came to New Zealand. The 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion led to another 200 coming to New Zealand out of the exodus of 24,000. The number of Czechoslovakia-born people in New Zealand spiked at 663 in 1976. After the fall of Communism, Czech immigration tailed off drastically. It would be difficult to say that New Zealand has much of an established Czech “community” as such; waves from various regions, for various reasons, at various times created multiple and deeply felt divisions. Over time many of these have mellowed, but even so it is not such a straightforward matter as with the Dalmatians, for example, the Italians, or other European groups. Also, after centuries of hybrid population and being forced into cultural skins not their own, Czechs assimilate quickly. That is not to say, however, that they have not had a significant impact on the deeper and iconic aspects of New Zealand culture – a modification Czech sense of U nás – “at our home”, “in our country”, “among we”, or plainly “here”.
Surprisingly we have forgotten that Gottfried Lindauer (1839–1926), celebrated painter of scenes of Maori life in an Academic palette of tea, beetroot and gravy hues, before he went to the Academy in Vienna, at home he was called Bohumír (the literal Czech equivalent of Gottfried) when growing up in Plzeň – the Pilsen that gave its name to Pilsner beer. Only Kiwis would name a French-style sparkling wine for a man born in the heart of beer country. Mentally we have made an Austrian of him, but in 1863–64 he painted murals for two churches in Moravia (despite later lapsing from Catholicism and religion in general) and in 1864 he established an atelier in Plzeň under the patronage of a local doctor, where he specialised in painting portraits of the local gentry. It was only when he was called up for service in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1873 that Lindauer moved to Germany, and the following year sailed from Hamburg for Wellington on the Reichstag on 6 August 1874. Lindauer maintained close connections with the Bohemian community at home and here, including the naturalist and collector, Václav Frič, and the ethnographer, Vojtěch Náprstek. The Naprstek Museum in Prague holds two of Lindauer's Māori portraits and two drawings of moko designs, as well as some Māori artifacts and photographs of Māori gifted by the artist. I have wondered if Lindauer might have been drawn to Māori subjects as much out of empathy for the displaced, as a fashionable taste for exoticism. Czech writer and traveller, Josef Kořenský (1847–1938) was in no doubt about what kind of artist Lindauer was when the two met up in New Zealand in 1900, “a Czech artist… was standing there in this far foreign land”.
This rather interesting Sudentenland connection puts Straka’s notorious Romantic Traffic paintings of 2005 into some sort of context. These works consisted of Māori portraits, many copied from Lindauer originals with the addition of all sorts of Christian, diabolical and colonial symbols, raising significant questions about the sacred cows of representation, appropriation and re-appropriation in contemporary art. Most of the controversy came from the artist not seeking permission from iwi, but who, if anyone, has exclusive rights to the image? At what point does clam, or reclamation, become or cease to be truly meaningful?
No less significant than Lindauer, but earlier, was the Bohemian-born cabinetmaker Anton Seuffert (1815–1887). Seuffert worked in both Vienna, and London where he married the Austrian-born Anna Piltz in around 1855. He emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and two children, arriving in 1859 in Auckland where the family settled and produced a further five children. Seuffert’s major achievement was his expertise in fiddly marquetry and his extensive use of native New Zealand woods, often depicting native flora and fauna, and for nearly thirty years he deployed both producing exquisite bespoke furniture. In 1862 a writing cabinet made by him consisting of 30,000 pieces, valued at 300 guineas, which was purchased and presented by the citizens of Auckland to her Majesty the Queen Victoria” – still in the Royal Collection.
The Czechs are renowned for their handcrafts, from folk art to the highly skilled. Seuffert’s nine Louis XV bonheur du jour escritoires are so famous they are known by the names of their owners, including Governor George Grey. He also made tables, ornamental inlaid boxes, the panels for the Governor Grey's library at Manion House on Kawau Island, and fern-presses – the wood-covered decorative albums of pressed ferns of “Pterodomania”, the name coined by Charles Kingsley, of The Water Babies fame, in 1855 for the fern craze that struck late Victorian England. New Zealand, for obvious reasons, was a favoured source. In 1869 Queen Victoria's second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, visited as Captain of the HMS Galetea. Seuffert built the Duke a bedroom suite for his use during his 1869 stay, for which he received a Royal Appointment. The Seuffert firm has passed on down through his descendents and still exists today.
A much later Czech contributor to New Zealand culture was Bedřich Turnovský (1916–1994), born in Prague to an old Jewish family (the surname comes from the town of Turnov near Prague) by then secular and assimilated. Turnovský’s father Max was a jeweller, who sent his son to the German-speaking schools (the Czech Jews, especially in the Prague area, culturally identified with the Germanised Czechs of the urban bourgeoisie and the aristocracy – the Nazis came as a profound shock). The family wasn’t notably musical (though Czech conductor Martin Turnovský, born 1928, was from the same area) it was at the tender age of seven that Turnovský attended his first opera and fell in love with music. He was sixteen and still at the Realgymnasium in 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany, and joined the German-speaking chapter of the Social Democratic Party in the struggle against fascism, prominent but ultimately unsuccessful in attempts to persuade France and Britain to intervene. Tipped off that he had been placed on the Gestapo death list when Germany invaded in 1939, he fled to London. His parents were to die in a concentration camp. His fiancée Liselotte Wodaková, soon followed him, and they were married. Fred and Lotte Turnovsky, as they were now known, arrived in Wellington in 1940 with little more than the legally required £200 and their wits. Turnovsky went on to found the Tatra Leather Goods Company (after the Tatra mountains on the Slovak-Polish border), which became very successful, to the point he was to be the first New Zealand citizen to become a member of Lloyds of London. Prior to and post Sovietisation, the Czechs were and are entrepreneurial and industrial capitalists to reckon with – a people of business, as suggested by the original motto of the Baťa shoe company – “Náš zákazník – Náš pán”, (‘Our Customer – Our Master’).
Missing the live music of Europe, Turnovsky helped to establish the Wellington Chamber Music Society (the first in New Zealand), helping to establish others throughout the country, and ultimately forming the New Zealand Federation of Chamber Music Societies in 1950. In 1953 he helped found the New Zealand Opera Company, and later the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (later Creative New Zealand). In later years Turnovsky concluded regretfully that arts council funding merely shielded governments from direct exposure to the funding needs of the arts. He was awarded the OBE in 1965. At the same time Turnovsky was one of the leading figures in New Zealand business in the 1970s, championing industrial development, and because of his public involvement in music, Turnovsky was appointed to the cultural sub-commission of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO (1962), was a member of the national commission (1963–88) and its chairman (1974–78). If only more New Zealand businesspeople were such patrons today. For the Czechs, their artistic heritage is intrinsic to their national identity. The young Czech patriot who had arrived with nothing in New Zealand bereft of cultural activity, and horrified the six o’clock swill, ultimately became one of his adopted home’s most patriotic improvers and cultural champions.
Enshrined within Czech culture is the popular expression zlaté české ručičky, “golden Czech hands” – the Czech reputation as engineers and craftspeople in their application of skill, hard work, and attention to detail, as well as the lidová tvořivost or “popular” creativity of the people. This is literally obvious in the case of Seuffert, but also, I think, more metaphorically true in the case of Lindauer as an artist and recorder of Māori, and Turnovsky as businessman and patron of the arts, in their efforts on behalf of a developing culture. These zlaté české ručičky, more colloquially, are the equivalent of the New Zealand ad hoc, mend and make do, Number Eight Wire improvisational approach. I’m sure travelling Czechs would contribute much more, but prejudices about accents and funny names still abound among New Zealand employers.
I lack space to include several others. One could also mention artist, poet and playwright Friedrich Öst (1905-1985), a refugee from Prague fleeing the Nazis and a minor contributor to the enrichment of New Zealand culture. Öst’s wife, Greta Ostova (b. 1916), was a cellist and later a member of the newly formed New Zealand National Orchestra. And there was Professor Pavel Tichý (1936–1994) who taught for many years in the Philosophy Department at the University of Otago. Brno-born, he worked in the field of intensional logic and founded Transparent Intensional Logic, also known as Tichýism, a theory of the logical analysis of natural languages. We might also recall that Auckland painter and printmaker Jenny Doležel (born Auckland, 1964) is of Czech ancestry, and several others.
Without doubt, the Czech Republic still holds a wealth of inspiration for New Zealand culture in terms of art, literature, and particularly its rich cinematic history – which I really had no idea about until introduced to it by a Czech friend and was totally dumfounded. And of course, like us they like good beer. The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita of any country, with the first monastery breweries operating in the twelfth century, though as to whether we’ll ever get them drinking our beer… That remains to be seen.
This essay first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Landfall as "Bohemia's Antipodes". The title “Bohemia’s Furthest Shore” derives from a rather curious piece of literary geography. The Czech lands are familiarly landlocked and ever have been, however in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (which also contains the fabulous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”) takes place on the fictional coast of Bohemia. Ben Johnson was scathing in his ridicule of this (and the inclusion of a dessert there as well), and it has been the source of much amusement ever since – Robert Louis Stevenson has the country of Seaboard Bohemia in his 1883 novel Prince Otto. Shakespeare was following his source material, Robert Greene’s Pandosto (1588) in giving the Bohemian lands a coastline, but while the genre of Pastoral is not known for being overly concerned with technical accuracy, in the thirteenth century, for just shy of a decade, Ottokar II of Bohemia ruled over territories stretching (as one stretches the point) to the Adriatic. It has also been suggested that given the allegiance of the court of King James with Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the Bard simply swapped the roles of the rulers of Bohemia and Sicily without amending the text out of diplomatic sensitivity so that the play might be performed at the wedding of James’ daughter Elizabeth and Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, in 1613.
The dedicatee of the essay, by beloved and dear friend Tom, introduced me to the diversity of Czech cinema. So many wonderful films, from the New Wave to the schmaltzy and nostalgic.