Major Zeman

Posted: June 20, 2013 in Musings
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I have undoubtedly mentioned my strained relationship with certain kinds of hippies before now and will do again, but I found myself travelling out of town today for an interview at a hippy school on the outskirts of Prague. Desperation no doubt, I applied to a few schools a while back, and some primary schools and even nursery schools amongst them. Lesson preparation was the main thing I was trying to avoid, and I wanted to find a way of staying in Prague without it.

I have written elsewhere of Rudolf Steiner and won’t do so again. I worked at a college for kids with learning disabilities for a number of years and found the work wonderful at times. The Rudolf Steiner atmosphere of being surrounded by crafts could be inspiring. The Rudolf Steiner aficionados were something else. It is a cult. This school, out in a leafy town on the outskirts of the capital was a mix of Rudolf Steiner, Montessori, and an American methodology which had taken something from the English Somerhill method of not forcing pupils to do anything they don’t want to do but assuming them to be willing and motivated to learn.

At the college I worked at, we had a student who had been expelled from Somerhill. Somerhill doesn’t “expell” students, so I should say he was “asked to leave”. He spent his time there sitting in a tree.

I don’t expect to be offered the job.

A student had texted  to cancel on me while I was waiting in the sun in the school grounds pretending not to watch a women in her twenties cutting the vast lawn with a petrol mower in a summery dress: she seemed to me to be the kind of hippy I could cope with. I would have the rest of the day free, so on walking out of the school I took a walk around town and found a restaurant. The interview had been fairly pointless but I would make an event of it and enjoy a decent lunch.

That I did, and the kebab and cous cous and the boursch soup I had was some of the best food I’d had in a long time.

On the way back from the toilet, I found a book among many on the shelf. It was a number of stories from a notorious television series Thirty Cases of Major Zeman, a propagandistic series which, though it was written from a number of factual cases, was threaded through with a great deal of communist ideology.
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One of my students had recommended one or two of the cases. Two stand watching today, he said. One was a true crime case of a body found, I think, in a well. The other was the case based upon that of the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe.

This was quite a find, and seemed to tie several things together for me. For one, the series was one of the more successful of the Communist authorities’ attempts to use television to their ends in the period I have been getting a feel for having been translating a book set in the period. Secondly, Kája Saudek, the most notable of communist-era Czech comic artists, drew a version of Major Zeman which I believed was subsequently not published because he removed the ideological element.

In reading about the series, I have seen it observed that for all its ideological component, it is quite ingenuous at times, showing exactly how power relations in the period worked, how decisions were made, without recognising that they might be viewed in a negative light.

I started reading.

There it was, almost from the off, an atmosphere. Yes, there was that dark feel you get from many a detective story: the world is full of dark urges and sooner or later we are sure to stumble upon them. But it was more than that. There was a claustrophobia. And not only that, Zeman was behaving quite differently even from the many dyspepsic, curmudgeonly and otherwise variously misanthropic detective heroes we know and love. Here he was not a page into the story bullying a woman, threatening her with penury, with the possibility that she would have no identification papers at all and could not draw her pension or turn upon any official body at all. This in part because she had argued in a shop, though he couldn’t blame her, the shops being empty of all including milk because of those fighting for “Socialism with a Human Face”, the calling card, for those who remember it, of Dubček and the generation of 1968.

The writing was not only a good deal better than you would wish to expect from anything with this burden of ideology, it was some of the best you’ll ever have read.

I decided I would translate a good chunk of it as a post to show something of the feel of those times.

But it was twenty past one and the bus was at half past. I paid up and asked the girl if they sold the books. No, I was informed, they are just for people to borrow while they are having a coffee. That was quite obviously the idea, I thought and ought to have said, but I thought they might have stretched to selling one once in a while, as seldom as people were likely to ask.

As soon as I had left I pretty much wondered if I ought to have simply bagged it gone on my merry way. I wasn’t sure I’d come upon the book again, or how common it was. A book of six of the thirty stories might not have taken off, and I hadn’t come across it before. It irritated me that I didn’t have it, having found something so perfect.

Of course, I’m of a generation used to getting our hands on pretty much anything that takes our fancy. Back when Major Zeman aired and was printed and all the rest of it, people had to make do. For me it is a fascinating piece of cultural history and some good genre writing. My students tell me that Major Zeman was entertaining and that they knew about the propaganda and could enjoy it without taking it in (though some of them note that its impossible to tell how insidious it might be). Still, I know I would have been almost insanely frustrated by what little was on offer back then.

It still feels odd to me that I might never read the book again.

Equally odd, but this time far more tragic, is what I learned later in the Kája Saudek Museum, which is that real life bastards like Zeman simply stole his drawings when they took him in for questioning, and that most of his work may never be published because much of it has gone missing and been stolen.

I have one of his books beside me now and hope to write on his work some time soon. But looking around the museum in his honour, there was so much more that ought to be in the shops now, that ought to have been translated into so many languages. He ought to have influenced so many people.

Major Zeman was an idealised figure. The real life operators in that claustrophobic world destroyed so much and impoverished not only the people of the Czech Republic for that period, it impoverished us all, denying us access to things that might have extended and improved us, or at the very least, entertained us for a while.

There are others like him now of course, in other lands, with other bands of unruly Plastic People and the like trying to pick away at him. For a few minutes today I stepped into his world and it was as unsettling as it ought to be.

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