Make Your Own Paradise

BY Mariusz Szczygieł


In the end, every nation has the need for pathos, and every nation has the need for a hero.
For the Czechs, both these needs are satisfied by ice hockey.
Nothing in life fascinates them quite as much as the richest guys in the world racing about on a frozen surface, whacking a block of rubber with wooden sticks.
There used to be a theory that the Czechs’ greatest obsession was mushrooms (and that was because they can get mushrooms for free, claimed the writer Jan Burian), but it was blown apart in 1998, when they became the Olympic ice hockey champions at Nagano, plunging Russia into agony and shame (once again, after twenty-nine years!) by beating them in the final 1-0.
After winning the gold at Nagano, the Czechs won the champion’s title three times in a row, and ice hockey set in as an official religion.
The new Czech God was Dominik Hašek (born 1965), the goaltender who blocked the Russian shots in the final at Nagano. His nickname is The Dominator, and he has even had an asteroid named after him. “Hašek for the Castle!”, chanted the Czechs, which meant they wanted him for president. He has a degree in history and philology and has donated a million dollars for poor children to be able to play ice hockey. He holds second place on the all-time list for the number of shutouts in a season (in ice hockey language, which is incomprehensible to me, that means excellence).
Jaromír Jágr (born 1972) is God No 2. A right winger, he plays with the number 68 on his shirt to commemorate the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion and the death of his grandfather, who died in prison that year. He has been judged the best ice hockey player in the world; the puck clings to his stick like a magnet, a phenomenon that surpasses all understanding; the media devote as much attention to the highlights in his hair as to his goals.
Following success in the National Hockey League he moved to Avangard Omsk, a Russian club, where he joined the Orthodox church and was christened. When the rink is empty and the lights are off, Jágr has been seen going out onto the ice to meditate.
Both players are admired and loved, and Czech men have gladly appointed them their heroes.
Yet it’s not just the nation that has the need for pathos and the need for a hero. The opera has both those needs too. And so the idea was born of putting on an opera about ice hockey at the National Theatre in Prague.
Libretto writer Jaroslav Dušek and composer Martin Smolka really have made a new discovery in the art of opera: in modern times the only thing that can carry off the affectation, grandiloquence, dramatic tension and elation of opera is ice hockey.
The music was written in a post-minimalist style, the libretto in onomatopoeic style. The stage sets were built in the style of an ice rink. The conductor was dressed in a referee’s strip. And the opera was called Nagano.
To the Czechs, Hašek is God, and so a man with a divine voice was cast in his role - in other words a countertenor able to produce a high female voice. And Jaromír Jágr sang a love duet with a sheet of ice. But it wasn’t the gods who were the leading characters.
The real hero of the Czech national opera was the third goaltender, substitute Milan Hnilička (born 1973) – a player who has to be ready to go out onto the ice, but only in a situation where two goaltenders in succession have done badly, though it’s hard to imagine the god Hašek not doing well. But let’s say even a god can have a groin injury. So Hnilička rarely goes out, and probably doesn’t have all that pleasant a role on the team. What’s more, at Nagano he suffered an awful blow.
When the head of the International Olympic Committee hung the gold medals around the necks of the Czech players, he saw Milan Hnilička at the end of the line with no hockey gear, just in a tracksuit, holding a flag. He thought he was a fan who happened to be on the ice by chance and didn’t give him a medal.
And it is this event that is extolled in the opera, Nagano. Once again, Czech culture seems to be making an effort to meet a healthy social need, but responds to it with the concept of a half-baked hero. This is grand de-grandiloquising, heroic de-heroising. And once again, instead of taking the opportunity to depict its great gladiators sincerely, it applies that most elegant way of avoiding sincerity: irony.

My Land is Paradise

There’s just one single matter where the citizens of the Czech Republic are in total agreement, and there are never any arguments about it.
It’s the fact that they regard their country as beautiful, a view that has been officially endorsed by the state.
In their national anthem the British ask God to save their queen, and they have no other expectations. The Hungarians ask Him to absolve their sins. The Dutch ask Him not to leave them. As they no longer want to be über alles, the Germans aspire to unity, liberty and justice. The Russians extol the mighty will of their holy nation. The Americans have the stars and stripes waving triumphantly over their free country. The French issue the summons: “Allons enfants de la patrie!” The Ukrainians stand in bloody battle from the San to the Don. The Portuguese march against the enemy cannons. The Italians join in a cohort, ready to die. The Irish man the entrenchment tonight in Erin’s cause. The Lithuanians want to be guided by light and truth. The Canadians have an arm that is ready to wield the sword. The Austrians bravely stride towards new ages. The Argentineans still hear the noise of broken chains. The Romanians cry: “Wake up, Romanian, from your deadly sleep”. The Brazilians shout about a heroic people. The Slovaks are awoken by lightning and thunder over the Tatras.
Even the Faroese, from a dependent territory such as the Faro Islands, declare that they raise their banner high and face up to danger.
Yet in their national anthem the Czechs sing about nothing but the fact that their country is paradise.

Water roars across the meadows,

Pinewoods rustle among crags,

The garden is glorious with spring blossom,

Paradise on earth it is to see.

And what are the Czechs like in the Czech Republic’s most important song? They are “tender souls in agile frames”, “of clear mind”, “with a strength that frustrates all defiance” – “That is the glorious race of Czechs”. A sedate sense of one’s own value – a rarity among the tribes of the world. In the Czech anthem, by contrast with many others, the world outside the Czech lands isn’t hostile either.
Someone will say the Australians also sing that their land is beautiful. Yes, but starting with the title they send it on its way: “Advance Australia Fair”. The Danes also reveal what the beauty of Denmark is about (“spreading, shady beech trees”), but it’s important that “strong men and noble women uphold their country’s honour”. The beauty of Bulgaria is boundless in its anthem, but beauty isn’t everything, and so we are burdened with the mother’s task: to give us strength to follow in the footsteps of those who died for the nation.
The Spanish anthem doesn’t actually have any words, but it is a march. The world’s anthems are full of advancing, striding, marching, capturing and carrying flags. In the Czech one, you’d be more likely to lie down. For what else is there to do in paradise?

The excerpt was originally published on the Book Institute's website.

Mariusz Szczygieł (born 1966) is a reporter and newspaper journalist who also used to work in television and radio. His book Gottland has been translated into six languages and won the European Book Prize 2009.

Mariusz Szczygieł’s new book crosses some borders. Once again he takes us to the Czech Republic, but this time he also crosses the boundaries of reportage. READ MORE...