Magazine article The Spectator

'Gottland', by Mariusz Szczygiel - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Gottland', by Mariusz Szczygiel - Review

Article excerpt

Gottland Mariusz Szczygiel

Melville House, pp.270, £18.99, ISBN: 9781612193137

When this extraordinary book was about to come out in French four years ago its author was told by his editor that it was likely to fail miserably. As Mariusz Szczgiel explains, the doubts were reasonable. No one was sure if anybody in the west would be interested in what a Pole had to say about the Czechs: 'A representative of one marginal nation writing about another marginal nation is unlikely to be a success.'

But in 2009 Gottland won the European Book Prize (a serious award; the late Tony Judt's Postwar won it the previous year) and it has been well received throughout the continent. There must have been similar commercial concerns among publishers here, but thankfully it has at last been translated into English -- and extremely well -- by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Gottland is one of the funniest books I have read -- and one of the shrewdest -- about what it was like to live under fascism and communism, the experience of so much of Europe in the last century. It is not about Czechoslovakia or Poland or even limited to Mitteleuropa, but about how one copes with tyranny and corruption and preserves a conscience.

Szczgiel is one of Poland's best-known journalists, a top investigative reporter who breaks great stories; but he is also a witty columnist with a fine sense of irony and of the absurd. He would fit comfortably in the pages of The Spectator .

The book's title is taken from the name given to the home of Karel Gott, the Czech Republic's greatest singing sensation -- 'a cross between a Czech Presley and Pavarotti' -- whose mansion/museum is a deliberate, but somehow more vulgar, imitation of Graceland. Gott won his country's Nightingale Prize as the best male singer 38 years in a row -- for decades under communism and also for many years after the Velvet Revolution. One of the author's scoops was to establish how in the early days voting for the prize -- awarded by popular ballot -- was rigged by communist officials to ensure that no 'subversive' singer could win, rather as they manufactured the results of the so-called 'elections' for parliament. It was considered so important that the matter was discussed by the communist party's ruling Politburo.

The book consists of meticulously researched stories, often hilariously written -- as Jaroslav Hasek might have done in TheGood Soldier Svejk -- about striking and vivid personalities. …

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