Rustic Baroque by Jiří Hájíček

[While reading:]

“Wait until you work your way through to the old handwritten script they call Kurrent.” This had me laughing out loud.

This is very fun to read. I feel like I am there. I'm glad I am reading this after having been there. It's validating to watch another genealogist struggle. Especially with the know-it-alls who don't know anything but give advice anyway. The translation is not as good as some of the other Czech books I've read. It reads a little bit like Google translate. But it's still good and the meaning and humor isn't lost.

I don't even notice this anymore because I'm engrossed in the story. I really appreciate the footnotes.
I’m pretty sure both Roman and Lukáš have tried to explain to me about house names being named after people, and surnames not being “static.” But I think the simple explanation in this book made me realize exactly what they were trying to say. Now I want to find out if my Vašíčeks are actually Šodeks.

Stupid Americans and their stupid American know it all pride. I just want to kick the guy from Minnesota who thinks he knows how to search the archives because he won a woodcarving contest in elementary school. It's… funny in a really disappointing way, that I understand perfectly, being surrounded by similar types.

I didn't expect to feel so interested in the life of this genealogist, but he's a very likable protagonist and I really love meta anything; I care about the characters.

[After finishing this book:]


I still really like the protagonist, even though there are subtle references to a struggle with alcohol, and I wouldn’t have taken things in that direction with Daniela, personally. I felt a lot of compassion for him.

This book is a lot like Czech sentences: the best, most exciting, most interesting thing is at the end. The ending! Augh! I can’t bring myself to spoil it. But it was really surprising.

One part that made me laugh out loud:
“Think it over, you only found what they wanted and the rest is none of your business. You did your job and you deserve the money. AFter all, you only found the truth.” He was looking at me, chewing that gum of his.
“Truth…!” I said scornfully. “I’m allergic to the word truth, after all those years of my grubbing through the archives.”

Later, same theme, less darkly comical:
“I couldn’t have cared less what Šrámek wanted to use the documents for. It was a chance for me at last to find out everything about these things, to find out the truth…”
“And did it help? Do you know the truth now?”

I think this book would make an excellent movie, although I wonder if Pavel would be as likable without being able to see inside his mind. I think that is what makes reading these books so useful to me: it allows me to get inside the thoughts of history (and the present) in a way like nothing else.

Background Knowledge:
This book is completely chock-full of the exact kind of background knowledge that I am missing. My copy is dog-eared on almost every page, and every reference/interesting tidbit could be its own complete blogpost. I’m not sure if I can make a list of all of the things that I learned through reading this book. But I’ll just start with the dog-eared pages:
  • Boundary stones marked with K.V. that stand for Katastral Vermessung
  • Patent by Franz I in 1817 establishing a new property registration system
  • “He doesn’t trust me and he’s going to come here to find it himself in the archives. SO I answered by asking whether he understands German, Latin and Czech...He’s sure that such important information must be in English. In any case, for German he will take a dictionary, and Latin will be ok because he had two semesters of Spanish at the university.” Americans can be such ethnocentric idiots. I’ve heard this logic before with my own ears.
  • mandatory farm delivery quotas during communism
  • “No, I won’t just leave it at that! You’re even worse than they are, because you can’t even be straight with me. No one tells anything to anybody right to their faces, right? After all, that’s not how it’s done here in Bohemia…”
  • Surnames with “old” and “young.” It’s not really directly translatable. “Young Markyta” vs. “Old Markyta” to differentiate between the two.
  • mazanice - plaster ca. 17th century
  • John Deere tractors are a thing there, too. There is a huge John Deere factory in the town where I live, and it employs about ⅓ of my friends’s husbands.
  • “But neither Markyta nor the barkeeper bringing the bill could see what I was gaping at. In the musty corridor of the Tomšice tavern, the grandßdescendatns of the former class enemies from this village were passionately kissing each other.”
  • Folk custom: “There was a custom in our village that the young lads would make trails in the night using lime and a brush, a path from the house of a suitor to the house where lived the object of his affections. These were called ‘courtship trails.’ When the sun rose in the morning, it was revealed where a young fellow was stealing away for his secret rendezvous. Then the lad needed water and a good broom to wipe away the path that betrayed him.”
  • Denouncements
  • “Then one day the children suddenly were let out of school earlier. Back then, I was already working with my mother at our village, in Hůrka. We shouted at the kids to ask how come they were going home from school so early. They were returning before noon across the field from Tomašice. They called back that Masaryk had died, that their teacher had said so. Poor mother. She got all frightened. Then she began crying, from her very heart. She cried and cried, and when I saw her I started to cry too. And so we were standing there, just the two of us in the field, and crying like lunatics...That was in ‘37…”
  • “But since its transformation, the collective farm is just about insolvent, heavily indebted, and it’s actually falling apart.”
  • panélak apartment houses
  • “cultural center” - In socialist times (and very often still today), every village and city used to have such a building intended for cultural events, political meetings, and the like. This one would be nothing fancy at all.
  • “The only thing I know about her is her mobile phone number, I know that she works somewhere in Prague, but that’s all! I never asked her about anything. I know her ancestors from her mother’s side back to 1620, to the Battle of White Mountain, but as regards Daniela, I don't’ know her surname, address, nothing.” This part made me laugh.
  • dissolved parishes
  • “Palác Flora” - and other similar large modern shopping complexes that I observed
  • “Do you know who you took revenge on?” - I can’t write more.
  • forgiveness
  • “No, it’s your version that is completely disconnected from reality!...You think that at the beginning of the ‘50s she still longed to become Mrs. Kubachová? To get a 60 acre farm? That would have been a punishment! These people were threatened with displacement and confiscation by that time. They didn’t know when their day and hour was coming, but what they knew for sure was that there were huge forced deliveries and prisons. My mom told me that eventually farmers were just getting rid of their land. Can you imagine what it must have been like when a freeholding farmer gave up his fields voluntarily?It was impossible to stand up against it any longer.” “Daniela, I do know all this! Yes, it appears very clear to you now, but you didn’t live in that time. Many people in the village quite believed that the situation in the state would turn around, that everything would return to like it had been before. I’ve read letters in the district archives that Šoucha wrote to the District People’s Committee. He had complained that most of the farmers were more interested in the Vatican and Voice of America than in the conclusions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.”

Rethinking the very end of the book, I realize that it is actually darkly comical. When I first read it, I didn’t laugh. But thinking back on it, it makes me chuckle and smile. Maybe this is what they mean by the "Czech sense of humor."

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