Prague in my Bones by JindraTichy
Luck was on Jindra Tichy’s side when on Monday, 17th November 1969, she and her 6-year-old son Peter managed to catch the midnight train from Czechoslovakia to West Germany. They escaped just in time. The border was sealed the following day. From there she travelled to England and was reunited with Pavel, her husband. who had been completing his English PhD in Exeter.
They were free at last from living under a repressive political regime. In Prague, where they had both been lecturers in Philosophy at the prestigious Charles University, they had been forced to teach courses in Marxist-Leninism, a futile exercise. As she writes:
“There is no philosophy of science in the works of Marx and Engels. Dialectical materialism is just gibberish, using a kind of pseudo-scientific vocabulary.”
Jindra Tichy was born in 1937. She grew up during the 5 years when Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany. A communist government was formed after the coup of 1948, but they also ruled harshly. She recounts how in 1949 the Catholic School, where she had been a boarder, was closed by the State and the nuns sent off to Labour Camps for 40 years. This was also the time of the mock trials. Between 1948-1989, 250,000 people were tried and condemned and 100,000 others were persecuted in Czechoslovakia.
There was a brief respite during the 1968 Prague Spring when it looked as if a freer society was possible. But this was not tolerated by Russia, and they invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
After a year in England Pavel was offered a job in Dunedin. He did not ask her opinion and felt that ‘she should just humbly accept and go joyfully to New Zealand. To her it felt like the very end of the world. But it turned out to be a good move.
Two things surprised her utterly when she arrived in New Zealand. The first was the discovery of a democratic and just society. The second was the goodwill of the people.
Although they were warmly welcomed in Dunedin, she still missed her homeland terribly.
‘The first years of exile were the toughest years of my life. To lose the country of your birth, the people you love, your mother tongue, your culture, is hard.’
Ambitious and determined to resume her academic career, she was fortunate to eventually be offered a job at Otago university.
But Pavel’s argumentative and difficult nature created roadblocks to his aspirations and eventually this spiraled into a deep depression.
Since the Velvet Revolution, 1989, which led to the collapse of Communism and the return to a democratic society, Czechoslovakia has prospered. Jindra is no longer an exile and has been able to make regular visits to her beloved Prague to catch up with family and old friends.
Hers is an immigrant story with a purpose: to make us aware of what it was really like to live in Czechoslovakia under a Communist government which reduced a prosperous economy to ruins and under which citizens had no rights and could be subjected to brutality with no recourse to law.
In the second part of the book, she paints a vivid picture of the kind of challenges immigrants face adapting to a different culture. In Czechoslovakia women were expected to hold down a full-time job as well as do all the housework. It was also quite acceptable for them to have affairs. In New Zealand fidelity within marriage was the norm and at that time women were full time housewives. Pavel loved the idea of Jindra staying at home and cooking him elaborate meals, but it was not the kind of life she wanted, and she had to find a way to forge her own path.
Jindra Tichy has gained fame as an author with 19 novels and short stories written in Czech and one in English. In 2012 she was voted number 11 on a list of the most influential expat Czechs, but she is not yet well known here. I found it a rewarding experience to discover her and to read her memoir.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter
Quentin Wilson Publishing