Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mr Jelinek

Pankrac, Luděk Kovář, Wikimedia Commons

(Somewhat unseasonal, this article was originally written in the depths of winter, during the Czech Republic's first ever democratic presidential elections.)

On Tuesday mornings I teach at the second tallest building in Prague. The City Empiria, immodestly labelled a skyscraper, can be found in the so-called "skyscraper district" in Pankrác. Its sole competitor, the City Tower building, is located just across the road. It takes about ten minutes if I catch the 193 from the stop outside my door. As we approach the City Empiria by way of an orbiting, grid-like housing estate (sídliště), the bus makes a sudden left turn and heads round the back of the complex of hotels and shops huddled at its feet. There we wind up in a service industry hinterland of semi inhabited, half finished construction projects, somehow grubbier for the thin winter light that floats across it.

A building-site runs like a rusty moat around the base of the modern glass-and-steel office blocks. Empty lots await the return of workers who, inundated by the caked, frosted mud that permeates everything, have either migrated or gone on strike. This border-world of incompletion spills out over the finished buildings, sullying their anonymous surfaces. Pristine shoes are muddied as smart-suited staff clamber over the sludge to reach distant, whirling entrances. All those small touches that make a completely new place approximate reality - trimmed hedgerows, manicured lawns, pebbled paths - are absent. It's a lot like inhabiting a half-programmed computer game where some lazy designer has forgotten to give colour to the fittings in a room or to add tone to the surface of the grass. You feel you might open a door and fall into a grey, static mist because somebody forgot to put anything there.

Just down the road is Pankrác remand prison (Vazební věznice Praha Pankrác). Still the most populous prison in the Czech Republic (which comes in for a fair share of criticism for conditions inside its prisons), the Pankrác prison was a favourite spot to send dissidents or resistance members during both the Nazi occupation and the years of the people's republic. Immediately after the War the Slovak wartime Fascist leader Jozef Tiso was kept there before being hastily executed. The Nazis executed over a thousand people there. The guillotine is kept for display purposes in the same room it was put to work. This graphic memorial, surely one of the few prison memorials housed in a still-choked prison, is sometimes open to the general public. This strategy of remembrance has its risks, of course: as recently as 2011 police uncovered and suppressed plans for a full-on riot by inmates. Thousands of improvised weapons were collected. It all seems a bit like opening a memorial to mine victims in the middle of an active minefield. During communist times, at least up to the abolition of capital punishment, most of Czechoslovakia's hangings took place there (this according to Wikipedia). Vaclav Havel himself was kept in storage in the prison for a while. Czech parents still use it as a ploy to get their kids to eat their vegetables: "Eat up or you'll go to Pankrác!" It was also the sight of the famous hanging of Milada Horakova, whose bust stands outside the prison today. Her trial and execution at the prison in 1950 were among the first of many similar Stalinist trials in Czechoslovakia. If the prison complex houses a memorial to an unresolved past, then the Pankrác business complex is testament to a not-fully-thought-out future.

Pankrac Remand Prison, Luděk Kovář, Wikimedia Commons

This morning I get off the bus at the entrance to Arkady Pankrác, a hyper-modern shopping centre which is already filling-up with those, like me, seeking respite from the cold (we are at present experiencing particularly savage blasts of icy wind). The mall itself opens before its shops, which keep their doors suggestively ajar, shop assistants hurriedly making the final opening preparations inside. I wander through, a warm three minutes to postpone the inevitable start of the working day.

Coming outside I smoke a quarter of a bad roll-up, clotted, damp tobacco stuffed irregularly into thick paper. The residual taste coats my mouth and the smoke combines in the air with the sting of the cold. A ceaseless parade of workers spills out of the nearby metro and crosses the giant courtyard. Swanky offices with gastro pubs built into their lower halves slumber under layers of churned snow. A pyramidal Billa, all tacky plastic and bold lettering, sits awkwardly in the distance. To my right stands the City Empiria, a more convincingly Pharaonic monument to hubris. As the parade approaches, the workers hang their heads low, as if by looking at this vengeful sun-god one might risk a smiting.

Inside the two receptionists, largely unbothered by the advancing throng, talk animatedly to each other. In fact this is the first time I've seen them together, having previously assumed they were the same person. Even with them sitting in front of me now I struggle to tell them apart. With red neckerchiefs and accentuated beauty spots they look like air hostesses. I tell them that I am an English teacher and that I must teach at nine, and I am greeted with only the slightest glance, as the conversation continues unabated. Assuming this is enough I make my way to the gate, and behind it the lifts. At this moment, however, the conversation stops and I notice one of the receptionists eyeing me flatly from across the broad, high desk, above which only her eyes and the top of her hair are visible. "Which company?" she calls. I don't know who to address my answer to, and nor does it come as quickly as I would like. I stammer over information I have already memorized. I'm aware, as they watch, stares growing blanker, that I am doing a thing with my eyes where they flit too rapidly between addressees, as if trying to give equal weight to both. I imagine the effect is one of shiftiness. "Info-tech," I say at last. "Worldwide." I give it its full name to bolster my credibility. She nods almost invisibly and over my shoulder the automatic gate swings open. The conversation resumes, quietly at first so that I can't hear it, but quickly rises to its former babbling pitch.

Info-tech is on the third floor. I'm not sure what they do, but in previous sessions I've established they've got a man in Paris with a heart problem and some big customers in Croatia. Something of importance is apparently shared between them all, and that thing necessitates offices in Prague's second tallest building. My "client" - actually student - might be the manager. I guess this because everyone calls him "Mr Jelinek" and no one minds when he is late, which is often.

The receptionist and I - my third of the morning - do our usual routine. She pops up nervously from behind her desk with a welcoming if vaguely distracted bounce. Her energy is in strict contrast with the gate-keepers downstairs. "Mr Jelinek isn't here," she says in English. This means he'll be here soon. Otherwise she'd tell me he isn't coming. This also happens quite often. She offers me some coffee, which I accept. As she comes round from behind her desk I offer to get it myself. She let me do this before, but this time she's having none of it. Perhaps I got her in trouble by doing it myself last time.

As she marches down the corridor Mr Jelinek swoops in. He bids me welcome, strategically avoiding my name, which I don't think he knows. He apologizes for being late. This, too, is now part of the routine. In a jarring balletic sequence, and without any noticeable communication, he and the receptionist assemble coffee, newspapers, tea and water in his office.

At the conclusion of this perfectly choreographed sequence Mr Jelinek stands, thumbs through his belt-straps, poised for applause. He has swiftly removed his jacket. His thick grey-black hair is combed back neatly. A lively smile rips its way across his face, drawing lines up around his eyes and forehead. The first thing I notice - and this will be a kind of 'punctum' from which I cannot draw my eyes - is his belt-buckle, thrust, silver and polished, slightly forward, emblazoned with a Levi's logo. Mr Jelinek is every bit the cocksure gun-slinger. He has Robert de Niro's face and attitude. He has the self-assurance that comes with wild success found at a moment of psychologically rewarding maturity. Business people in former socialist countries - the few successful ones at least - have been the recipients of a near-cosmic vindication. Their convictions, once dangerous and dissident, have become a celebrated orthodoxy. He now inhabits a world ordered entirely as his once unacceptable desires would have it.

"Big news," he says as he falls merrily into his chair, arms slumping to his sides. They hang there for a moment, swinging contentedly. He watches me, still grinning broadly, sunnily exuberant. "I've had my pond finished." His pond is actually a naturally self-regulating swimming pool burrowed into the grounds of his also newly-built log cabin. "The turbine, it was no problem," he says. "We celebrated..." he makes a shotting gesture "...with some slivovice." Mr Jelinek makes his own plum brandy - one hundred litres a year. Getting through it all, he assures me, is never a chore. One before breakfast and one before dinner and you don't even notice it.
"Did you bring me any this time?" I ask.
"I forgot again." He shrugs and holds his hands out in a mock-protest of innocence. "But you know," he says with some relish, "it's all nearly done." I can see the laminated designs over his shoulder. Mr Jelinek is the type of man who makes his own plum brandy, the family trawling gaily through his acreage, cradling gently the fruity treasure. He's also the type of man who builds his own house and self-regulating jacuzzi-pond. "My girlfriend today buys the last furnishings."

Mr Jelinek sees his log cabin as a rejection of decadent urbanity, of the city's tendency to upset the traditional rhythms and roles of life. He came, he says, from the Moravian country, where every year at Easter the young men get drunk and run around the village, playfully lashing unsuspecting women with whipping-sticks. At dawn the mothers venture out looking for youths felled by the plum brandy, sleeping like babes in the quiet streets. This longing for a more rustic, full-blooded existence, a yearning to return to the ancestral village, is by no means uncommon. The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić has written quite beautifully of the way that, throughout the more recently urbanised Balkans, the country mud seems to flood the cities, trailing after recent agricultural migrants. No excuse for the Czech lands, however, which were for a long time a Habsburg industrial powerhouse. Siobhan tells me that in pre-school the kids learn to distinguish coniferous leaf-types and paw-tracks rather than, say, the highway code. The phenomenon of tramping - whereby middle-aged, middle-class men go to live in the woods dressed as dust-bowl bums and sing folk songs and drink beer - has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity.

I drag us onto the subject of work. It's rare that I ask him directly about his company, and I quickly remember why. "It's not so bad," he says. "It's busy with them, you know," he says of the Croatians. I sit and wait, sipping my coffee and hoping he'll say something else. "We're late sending consultants over there," he offers eventually. "There was some strike in France." It's clear he considers the strike, whatever its causes, a nuisance. A provocation he nonetheless relishes going to task upon. "The socialism there is terrible." There is something like exasperation in his voice. "Strikes and arguments. Believe, I know the socialism when I see it." Mr Jelinek views himself as a sort of traditionalist - baffled by both American liberalism ("the home of feminism") and European social welfarism. For him socialism is the ghost haunting the European banquet; it waits in abeyance and creeps in where vigilance lapses. (It consists, if you're wondering, solely in the  bloody-minded despotism of economic regulation!)

In the same frank way he has told me before how to slaughter and skin a rabbit for dinner (his daughter, 5, who watched, wasn't convinced), he says, "It's madness when you have a private company and you can't do what you want with it." I imagine him saying the same thing over whiskey with the boys. This august company totes comedy cigars and home made rabbit stew and they cheer him heartily. This peculiar breed of rugged individualist has, in its simultaneous naivety and nostalgia, created a fantasy world that combines back-to-the-earth pastoralism with tough free market economics. They are the noble knights of finance, ascetically rejecting urban cosmopolitanism and big statist regulation; here the financial speculator meets the rugged backwoodsman.

Czechs are currently in the middle of a presidential election, awaiting a second round run off between the former ČSSD(Social Democrat) prime minister Miloš Zeman and the effete, vaguely louche aristocrat Karel Schwarzenberg. Framed as a battle between "left and right" by Zeman, the contest amounts more to a struggle between Zeman's chauvinism and interventionist, egotist tendencies and Schwarzenberg's 'traditionalist' fiscal conservatism and loyalty to the free market. Such is the bleakness of the choice. It is clear, however, that Mr Jelinek's type favours Schwarzenberg, though not solely for his "pro-business", welfare-slashing platform (little of which would be taken up as legislation, given the largely symbolic role of the Czech presidency). What Schwarzenberg represents is a deeper sense of continuity: the durability of the region's great elite dynasties. He is associated with a kind of pan-European exceptionalism, which pre-dates the tribulations of the nation state (even, despite his Austrian heritage, the eccentricity and bureaucracy of the Hapsburgs). 

A poster for Milos Zeman, whose campaign presence was practically non-existent in Prague 

National autonomy, lacking now the glamour of struggle, is reduced to "mere" central administration, and those defying it are glamourised as swashbuckling adventurers. Schwarzenberg is the grand inheritor of a noble, aristocratic lineage, which is precisely what endears him to a public enamoured with a pastoral vision of itself and nursing a disappointment with parliamentary government. Zeman's anti-Islamic rants and obsessive interference in the humdrum workings of daily politics make him look parochial, dim-witted and sort of communist. Of course, those actually living in the villages will almost certainly vote Zeman; those in Prague Schwarzenberg. The pastoral has always been, after all, a fantasy of the urban imagination. Schwarzenberg, with his pipe and touch of the old knave, looks to me like some Rudolfine courtier, a failed alchemist who only escaped death through exile. One can easily imagine Jelinek as this particular sorcerer's apprentice, enthusiastically letting the cat out of the bag.

"How can you have capitalism," he is saying, "without freedom?"

I'm hardly going to raise any red flags - this is his turf after all. But even my short discourse on worker's representatives in Germany actually limiting the number of strikes over all has him glancing at his watch. At ten o'clock he has a video call with some people in Britain. It alarms me that, given our lesson is directly before this meeting, we've never done anything to prepare for it. I wonder why he tolerates me in his office for forty-five minutes a week. He tells me briskly it's time to go.

Schwarzenberg campaign poster: "Česká republika je srdce Evropy" 
("the Czech Republic is the Heart of Europe")

Outside the parade has dried up. A lone dog, skinny and giddy with cold, bounds up and down the big square. Two men changing the bins whistle as they clamber back into their van and the dog comes running over, hopping nimbly alongside them. I make my way down into the metro to use the public toilets. I take out my five korun coin and approach the cabin to pay. Inside, painted by a lurid orange bulb, a woman lies with her head on a desk. She is haloed by a thinning black perm. A dead cigarette lies fallow alongside her. She doesn't move the first time I say excuse me and for a moment I'm struck with terror. But suddenly she rises, cadaverous and sleepy, to accept my coins. As I leave her head is back in the same place - planted motionless on the desk. As I make my way to the escalators I notice a campaign poster for Schwarzenberg. On it is a slogan that's half geographical truism, half performative jargon for an aspirational middle class: Česká Republika je srdce Evropy ("The Czech Republic is the heart of Europe"). Tattooed on his kind if somewhat inexpressive face is a sticker which, weirdly in English, opines: "Goodbye, white pride." Two stick figures, one white, the other black, do battle over a skateboard. I hunch my collar tightly around me as that icy wind funnels itself down to the platforms.

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