Preparing for november 22, I’m getting my tongue around the language my grandfather brought to this country. Strange. Strange because his first (and much loved) language was German, and that was what they spoke at home; but the other language they had spoken for twenty years had been Czech – their national language. Between the end of the Habsburg empire in WW1 and the beginning of WW2 (when my family escaped the Nazis by coming to London in 1939), Czechoslovakia enjoyed a period of independence. Independence and unity. Nowadays, the Czech Republic is ‘free’ but Slovakia goes it alone. In those days, for a short period between Austrian and Russian rule, the three states of Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia were one – the Czech language identified them as this unique and unified culture.
Dvorak’s Gypsy songs were written in the 1880’s. In German. But Dvorak (ambitious self-promoter that he was) quickly realised they should be translated into Czech so as to evoke the really exotic and colourful world from which they originated. They are songs about singing, about dancing and playing the triangle. But also about wildness and freedom, poverty and death. The Czech lyrics are edgier and more complex than their broadly romantic German predecessors, and it has been a joy translating them so I really understand what the lyricist was getting at.
I first spoke Czech in 1988 when I visited Prague and Brno in order to discover a bit about my grandfather’s origins. I stayed with Hanka, the granddaughter of a friend of his, and resolved to learn her language though of course it was much more important she learn mine. I like to think it was partly due to my coaching that, when the Velvet Revolution happened a year later, she was able to fly off the the US, releasing herself from the Communist repression we had wept over a year earlier. On that first long visit, my Czech speaking didn’t exactly flourish beyond the basics for polite socialising, but I do remember getting my tongue around the rolled-and-lisped ‘r’ in the middle of Dvorak’s name. And I remember singing lots of Czech – firstly, folk songs after meals, accompanied by Hanka’s acoustician father on guitar – ‘vinicku bila, vinicku bila..‘, and then the Mass.
Catholicism was strictly banned, but very weekend we bundled into the shabby Skoda and travelled out of Prague to their little dacha, where we gorged on vegetables unavailable in the city, and went discreetly to church. In a shabby white 19th century gothic building, I stood up the in gallery and read the soprano line of some old Czech liturgical setting. And everyone congratulated me, though I had understood not a word.
It is 30 years since the Velvet Revolution. I went that year too, and co-incided with a visit from the Pope who managed to relay his inspirational sermons out of the same speakers on Wencaslav square where only weeks before Communist propaganda had blared. Free of religious repression, people were turning to Christianity in hoards – Evangelical versions, as well as Catholicism. But my friends had left for bigger, richer places, and the secrecy and tears had gone with them.