Mariusz Szczygiel on Gottland and Czech Identity

The international bestseller Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia, published in English in late 2014, was awarded the European Book of the Year prize in 2009. The book attracted the attention of a group of young Czech filmmakers, who decided to use the text as a starting point for their collection of filmic interpretations.

“The film is inspired by my book, but it doesn’t illustrate it,” Szczygiel said. His remarks were relayed by Gottland translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who has also translated works writers including Ryszard Kapuscinski and Wojciech Jagielski.

Szczygiel explained to the Frontline Club audience his reasons for learning the Czech language. He wanted to tell the extraordinary life story of Czech singer Marta Kubišová but, as none of her family, friends and colleagues spoke English or Polish, he was unable to interview her. “So I did learn the Czech language for a particular singer,” he admitted.

Szczygiel elaborated on his views on the differences between Czech and Polish people with a number of personal stories. “I’ve got two posters at home,” he said. Both of them were designed to promote the 1965 Czech New Wave classic, Love of a Blonde by Miloš Forman. “The Czech one says [the film is] a comedy, the Polish one a psychological drama.”

Despite the many evident differences, the author concluded that the nations have more in common than one would expect. “Deep inside we’re exactly the same: sad, depressed. We have similar dramas inside. Except in one case it comes out as humour, to kill it a bit, and in the other version it comes out as melancholy,” Szczygiel said.

“I don’t speak about stereotypes; I give you facts,” Szczygiel remarked. He then went on to give an example of a feature of Czech identity that he has found to be largely true: “When a Czech man sits with his beer, it’s as if he was sitting in his own private church.”

Lytle concluded the discussion by asking about the second volume of Szczygiel‘s portrait of the country, Udělej si ráj (Make Your Own Paradise). The book has not yet been published in English, and explores, amongst other things, the regular occurrence of strictly religious Polish people living side-by-side with their atheist Czech neighbours, whose homeland is often described as the ‘most secular country in Europe.’

Click here for more information about Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia.