One of the best known Czech writers of the 20th century was Josef Škvorecký(1924-2012), whose books such as The Cowards, The Miracle, and The Engineer of Human Souls, for years one could find on the shelves of public libraries even here in Australia. In the above titles, which form a loose trilogy, there is one character that appears in all of them, named Benno Mánes. In 1974, about ten or so years after my army stint, Škvorecký, who by then was a professor of English literature at Toronto University in Canada, and who was about to finish writing the last of the above mentioned novels (for which he was to get an award by his adoipted country, Canada), received a letter from a pianist, who was with the Ensemble at the time. His name is Emil Viklický and he has since become well-known internationally, together with his jazz group. In his novel The Engineer of Human Souls, the author quotes practically unchanged text of the Viklický's letter, in which he describes Benno Manes' death:
"The last thing I remember, and I'll never forget it, was how he was lying there in that empty hall on an empty stage, with his huge belly completely purple, and dark grey trousers, and you couldn't see his head for the stomach, and all around there was yellow bunting, that awful yellow bunting. Yellow and purple, maybe the bust of some statesman behind it but all I could see when I looked into the hall for the last time was that ghastly purple stomach and the yellow bunting. Then we left for Prague. I thought you might be interested in how your friend died."
The swing jazz orchestra had a permanent leader, who was one of the civilian employees. During performances he was wearing the same concert uniform as we did, the officers' uniform without any stripes or stars. His name was Pavel Bayerle (left), and he was the model to author's character of Benno Mánes. The two had known each other from their school days. Even though the author did not own up to this, for many years I was convinced that this was indeed so, because in the books there were many hints that pointed to this fact. Only after the change of the regime in the 1990's had Škvorecký finally admitted to having changed many names in his novels, in order to conceal the true identities of his characters, just in case the communists would in some way misuse such knowledge. Which they were perfectly capable of doing. These changes he had revealed in an essay that came out in the nineties.
When I was in the Army, Pavel Bayerle was still very much alive, though working diligently on laying the foundation to his eventual early demise. He was one of the few people who could best be characterised as "foodoholic". Such insatiable appetite often combines with some other vice, like fondness for some kind of drink, usually alcoholic, a good cigar, etc. Not so in Pavel's case. I dined with him often enough while on tour, to realise that food, preferably good food, was everything to him. He would wash it down with water, mostly, though one could talk him into having a proper drink, like beer or a glass of wine. But only one, not more. He was not a tall man, rather on the smallish side, and he wasn't particularly strongly built either. The result of such life-style was that he grew this "huge belly", as it was described in the above quote. He had a relatively thin shoulders, somewhat meaty face, but not overly so; everything that went through that face went down into the belly. I had met Pavel a couple of times after I left the Army, and on each occasion I had noticed that his girth was more extensive. By the time he suffered a fatal heart attack, which had happened in the army barracks in Olomouc, rather than in Bratislava, where Škvorecký, for reasons of his own, puts it in his novel, it must indeed have been enormous!
It was a while before I could leave some impression on Pavel's mind. One day though he dropped in the rehearsal room while we were working on some spirituals ─ one or two would nearly always be on the programme, as they were very much in favour with the powers to be, for their nature of often defying the American establishment. He listened for a while, and before leaving he commended my good intonation, saying that mine is one of the best and cleanest he knows amongst singers. If he had only meant it in terms of the present company, I would not have been greatly impressed, because the core of the group was formed by the otherwise "unemployable" civil employees, but the way he had put it he obviously meant it more generally, and that was flattering. But the real breakthrough came for me due to the unselfishness (something almost unheard of amongst soloists) of one of my colleagues, Zbyšek Pantůček. He was a second year soldier, and a kind of showman on whom success of the main programme would always depen on. He also richly deserves being on my list of remarkable people that I have met in my life.
Zbyšek was already 25 when I had met him, and amongst the oldest around. Before that I had already heard him sing on the radio, and seen him a couple of times on TV. A big, bulky fellow, he was an epitome of a genuinely candid and hearty Moravian. He had the in-built ability to entertain the public, wherever he went. Like Pavel Bayerle, Zbyšek too had listened to my singing the spirituals in the group with the six minions, while Leo Faltus, a composer and musical pedagogue, an intelligent man in the black rimmed glasses, tried to strike some fire from the generally unresponsive, stony faced men. Syncopations simply did not suit these fellows brought out on the Russian dumkas and such. Leo had been going through our parts individually, and when he came to me, Zbyšek, who had been conversing with someone in the back of the rehearsal room, stopped and listened. Later, he invited me to the pub to have some beer. While on a third or fourth pint, he was trying to pump up some cocksureness into me. It surprised me quite a bit ─ why, I was his potential rival! But such things didn’t mater to Zbyšek; they were valid only in the world that I had known up till then, but not so in his sphere, where the ruler was his true, wide, philanthropic, Moravian heart. With one hand around my neck, and the other holding precariously the pint of beer, always threatening to spill some on my trousers, he exulted:
"You kicked their arses, mate, you did, and I liked that! All they do is get money (he used the Brno vernacular for money "lo-ve"), and for doing nothing of use. You could do better! Listen, would you be able tomorrow to sing the Sad flower?"
I nodded enthusiastically. Zbyšek said that he was singing it the previous year, and it was also to be on the new programme, and consequently was to be rehearsed the next day with the new looking orchestra. He told me that he was a bit tired of it, even though it was a good song. I could have it, he said, but it has to be done diplomatically. He'll talk to the band leader in the morning and tell him that he thinks he should rest his voice, which was known to be vulnerable to any chill that went around, for the recording that the Ensemble was to do in a few days.
I was a bit nervous, when the next morning I stood in front of the microphone, after Zbyšek's successful appeal to the band leader. The song was Bayerle’s own composition (he had several in the Czech pop music charts), not the best, but solid, thematically fitting the programme. The lyrics were about a drunk driver, who has had an accident and wakes up in the hospital. So as to made an appeal to the Army truck drivers to be sober and careful ─ today we would say that it was politically correct. Never mind, it had some oomph and plenty of swing! The brass had thundered, Pavel Staněk at the drums had rolled his arms over the kettles. The first note I had held back just a tiny little bit, to get more swing into it. It went something like this:
Please, leave this lovely red flower by my bed
So that its nice fragrant smell can kill the dread
Of having to smell the gauze on those nearly dead
With luck it stays this way the days that lie ahead.
Honza Václavík had replaced me at the microphone after the second verse, with a wonderful solo on tenor saxophone. Through the corner of my eye I could see that Pavel Bayerle looked to be quite happy with what we were doing there. At least it didn't look like he might want to stop us. At the back of the rehearsal room I could see the group of six civilians, as always huddled in a tight little group ─ the habit that probably stayed with them after singing those Russian dumkas. Their faces were long. I came in the second time to the mike. I tried for more expression but didn't want to overdo it. The trumpets and the trombones finally came down with a strong glissando, for a second or two there was silence. Somebody in the orchestra then began to clap, others joined him. I looked at Bayerle, he was grimacing. He looked at me, nodded towards the seats, then turned to the band:
"The next number, please."
To hear words like this at the rehearsal like this, is more valuable than having words of praise rained upon your head; every singer knows that. I also knew that from now on I, who was rather underutilised, could get more work. Later I asked Zbyšek, why did he do it for me, handing over that song to me.
"You're a nice fellow and I like you."
After the rehearsal, Bayerle called me into his office.
“Do you want to sing the Flower in the Gala?”
“Call me Pavel. Well, not in front of the Colonel, naturally. The song’s yours.”
“Thank you, Pavel.”
“You’re chummy with Pantůček, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so.”
“He’s a showman, and a good one. The problem is that he drinks like a sponge and smokes like a chimney. That’s no good for a singer, that’s how you lose the voice. Don’t think that he’d fooled me even for a second this morning, but the time will come when he’ll be genuinely indisposed. That’s when you’ll have to come in. I want you to hang around and learn all his numbers, also those of Štajnc’s, so that you’ll be ready to step in on a short notice. Can you do that?”
“Yes, Pavel, no problem.”
In the gala show I hobbled onto the stage with a big plaster cast on one leg, and with another supporting my arm; during the saxophone solo I went away, to come back to the microphone with both objects tucked under my arms. It looked weird, but it worked, the audience liked it. And Bayerle was right, Zbyšek indeed had problems with his vocal cords often enough. I ended up substituting for him, and that meant when it happened virtually pulling the show on one's shoulders. There were some nice songs, for instance the parody on the then very popular blockbuster Souvenir, in which a soldier, about to leave the Army, sells many of the treasures and conveniences to those gathered around him. The soldiers in the audience absolutely loved it. After that song nearly always the roof was about to come down, and I usually had to repeat it, sometimes even twice!
I was about to leave when Bayerle stopped me.
“One more thing. I’ve got a new song, a duo. I was going to give it to Štajnc to sing with Blanka, but I think that it might fit you better. He fancies himself as a Casanova, but on the stage he acts like a piece of wood. I want singers who would look like real lovers, not like a pair of dead fish. We’re going to try it tomorrow. There might be one problem, though. Štajnc’ might hate you for it.”
─ Blanka was several years older than I and quite good looking, especially when viewed from the tenth row of the hall while standing heavily tarted behind the microphone, providing the lighting engineer got the angles of the reflectors right. Even during the rehearsals she rubbed her thigh against mine, while I was trying my best not to appear wooden. If Štajnc hated me for losing the number to me, he did not let it show through too obviously.
“I thought that she was going to rape you out on the stage”, he afterwards observed.
Jarda Štajnc at first was a bit of an enigma to me. A tall and handsome man, with an aquiline nose and a fair hair with short curls, red cheeks, looking almost like an albino, he had a certain presence on the stage, despite his youth and relative inexperience. While I had to agree in principle with Pavel Bayerle's rather unkind but fair assessment of Roman’s acting, when he declared him being wooden, I had felt that this was not going to be a major stumbling block to his future career. This man with his voice, together with the good looks and an imposing figure, was always going to win over the audiences, no matter what he would do. And that acting will get better, over a time. When I first heard him, about a year earlier, at a national talent quest, where I had also appeared and which he was to win, singing the magnificent evergreen about the Spanish Granada, I was most impressed, even envious. If I had known more about singing and the music generally at the time, I would have been more confident of my own abilities and perhaps a little less jealous of Štajnc's bass-baritone voice. I would have known for instance, that I was born a basso-profondo, that our respective voices belonged to entirely different categories, and that they should never be compared to one another or compete with each other. Meanwhile, without this knowledge, I was rather flattered when I realised that Jarda was obviously taking me quite seriously and accepting me as a colleague.
“Let’s go out, shall we?” he said to me early on one evening in Prague, when we did not yet have any performing duties. If uttered by most of my colleagues, such words would have meant going to one of the pubs in the area, and later probably moving to a different place for another session. But I suspected that with Štajnc it must have a slightly different meaning. The autumn was already well advanced, but the weather was still quite mild. We were walking over the rounded cobblestones of the narrow streets leading down the hill towards Malá Strana, where the numerous restaurants and nightspots were to be found.
“Do you have a particular place on mind?”
“We’re going to see the ugliest female singer this town has on offer.”
“Don’t you know any pretty female singers?”
“I do, but this one can sing. Besides, I’d promised that I’d come to see her and show myself in this uniform. You don’t need to look, just listen.”
“Is she really so hideous?”
“Next to Hanna, Blanka would look like a beauty queen.”
“Can’t wait to hear her singing.”
Hanna did not turn out to be anywhere near as unattractive as Jarda had previously painted her. In fact, she was even passable. Rather tall, on my personal scale of sexual desirability, which at this point in my life would be based more on theory than on practical experience, she would have scored about five out of ten, meaning that I would be quite willing to go to bed with her, provided that the seduction process would run smoothly and without any major hitches, with no demands for extra energy or unreasonable time investment. The one thing that kept the score down by at least two points was her large, protracted nose, which dominated her facial features in a rather aggressive way. The rest of her, while by no means remarkable, was at least to the required standard, perhaps even slightly above. From where we were sitting (Jarda had used contacts he obviously had with some of the staff of the restaurant, where he used to sing before, so that we were given a place at the table near the podium, without having to pay any cover-charge), I could see her long, slender legs in thin stockings move to the rhythm of the song she was singing. Facileness of the song was in keeping with the place, as was the playing of the combo that accompanied her, the dancers on the floor in their evening suits, the uniformed waiters who silently and efficiently glided amongst the tables, the bluish cigarette smoke that filled the space without smelling of cheap tobacco. The singer on the podium however belonged to another sphere; I could sense that, probably into the same occupied by Štajnc, and a few other people I recently got to know.
Hanna finished her song, bowed to the plaudits of the meagre audience, and disappeared behind the stage. In a minute or two she came out through the side door, and walked straight to our table.
“Defenders of our fatherland, I’m pleased that you could honour us with your presence! Whom have you brought with you here, Jarda?”
“Enchanting one, meet my colleague,” He introduced us to each other.
Based on the little bits of conversation I had subsequently managed to have with her, Hanna would have been interesting to talk to, but she had her duties, and she therefore had to leave our table intermittently, to go back on the podium.
“A nice girl,” I observed when Hanna went away one more time. “And she can sing, too. How did you get to know her?”
“At the Conservatory”.
“When did you start going there?”
“How come you didn’t have your service postponed?”
“Because I’m only an external student. So is Hanna.”
“Why didn’t you go full time?”
“In my case, because this way I don’t have to put up with some of those boring subjects the full-timers have to sit through, like the compulsory Russian language. I can concentrate on what I really want to do.”
"And what is that?"
“Yes, but now you’re stuck with the boring Army, which is being run after the manner of the Russians.”
“You’re so right, but at the time I didn’t know yet that this was going to happen. On the other hand, one can’t escape the military service in this country no matter what you do, unless, of course, one can prove beyond any reasonable doubt that one has at least one limb missing. Short of an amputation, maybe it’s the best thing to get it over and done with now, or don’t you think so?”
“Well, I know that I’d hate it even more if I had to put on these rags by the time I’d be twenty five or even older, like some of the guys. Are you going to the Conservatory even now?”
“For the moment, yes, but not for long. As soon as we get properly on the road, I won’t be able to get there on the regular basis anymore, so I might as well give it up and get myself a private teacher, just for those times when we’re here in Prague. After the Army, I might try and see if they’d accept me in the Academy. You should do the same thing, you know?”
“You’ve got the voice.”
“Voice for what?”
"I always thought that, without a microphone, I couldn’t even call on the ferryman."
“That’s where you’re wrong. That’s where many people are wrong, thinking that their voices are only suited for microphone. Most voices that sound good through the mike can also be trained to sound even better without it. Though I have to agree that there are some people who were born only for singing through the microphone, for instance our colleague Pantůček.”
“You think that his voice couldn’t be trained for operatic singing, but mine could?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. I don’t mean that Zbyšek wouldn’t gain some benefit from taking singing lessons, I believe though that he had studied playing the violin, for a time, before he came to singing. He has a pleasant voice and good intonation, but the substance just isn’t there, simply put, his is what is referred to as ‘small voice’. Your voice, on the other hand, has the body, and it’s perfectly trainable. If I’m not wrong, with the appropriate training, it would develop into a real bass, most likely the basso-profondo. And it seems to me that, unlike me, you can act, so you might also aim at developing it into a basso-buffo. That’s what I would do if I were you, because this would give you a much wider choice of roles.”
“I know next to nothing about opera, I have to admit. I’ve seen a few, I’ve heard quite a lot on the radio, but I’ve never contemplated becoming an opera singer. What is it, how did you call it, basso…?”
“Basso-profondo? That’s the deep, serious bass, like for instance in the role of Sarastro in the Magic Flute.”
“And the other one?”
“Basso-buffo. The comic bass. In the same opera that would be Papageno.”
"The Magic Flute. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen or heard it. It’s by Mozart, isn’t it?”
“Yes. At least there is something you know about opera.
“I would like to know more, believe me.”
“Well, that’s not so difficult to arrange. We can take you out to the Opera tomorrow, can’t we, Jarda? You don’t have any performance, do you? I have my day off, and I planned to go anyway.”
It was Hanna who said that, having sneaked back into her seat by the table, and listening to the latter part of our conversation. Jarda shook his head.
“Sorry, I’ve got my lesson tomorrow. But that shouldn’t stop you two from going. What’s on, anyway?”
“Something quite special. Don Giovanni, in the Stavovské Theatre.”
“Well, that really is special. Do you know why, Vojen?”
“Wasn’t he the fellow famous for seducing women?”
“If that’s on his mind, I’m not going anywhere!”
“Calm down, Hanna, he’s harmless. Your assistance is urgently required to fill at least some of the more obvious gaps in his musical education.”
“I promise to behave like a gentleman. Now tell me, why is it special?”
“Because it’s at the Stavovské. That’s where it had world premiere, in 1787.
“Actually, this is a new production, to mark the hundred and seventy fifth anniversary of that first performance,” Hanna added.
“Can’t wait to see it. Where and when do we meet?”
I don't know what happened to Hanna, most likely she got married like girls in those times often did. Or maybe, she had some sort of a singing career, which I would have certainly wished for her.
I didn't know much about Jaroslav Štajnc's career either, but when I found out many years later, I was most impressed. And not only because he had done the same thing as I did; leaving the country and living abroad. Because of this, the Czech media had mostly ignored him. If someone had asked me at the time, whom I would have tipped to be most successful in their profession out of those people I had met in the Army, I would not have hesitated in naming Štajnc. And, as it turned out, I would not have been wrong. The one thing that surprised me though, was that when Jarda died in 2013, aged 70, the eulogy that I wrote and that had appeared in the Czech press, was the only significant one. Otherwise, his death had passed in his home country virtually unnoticed. The only other eulogies, and plenty of them, were to be found in the German press. After all, Štajnc was a singer of international standing.
Just before I left the country in 1969, I had found out about Jaroslav's great success in winning the singing competition in Vienna. I had often wondered what followed, but living in the Anglo-Saxon world and later even in Australia, with the communication facilities nowhere near those we have in the present, he just slipped of my radar. I could only fill in whatever was hidden from me through the use of Internet when that came into being, and since my German isn't the best I had to dig deep. After his success at the said competition, he had studied for a time at the Vienna Musical Academy, after which followed about six years of engagement by the Volksoper in Vienna. But even in 1972, he had appeared on the stage of the Vienna State Opera in the role of Beneš in Smetana's Dalibor. He was then also engaged by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf and for five years he was singing in Klagenfurt.
At the age of forty Štajnc reached the pinnacle of his singing career, when he became a permanent member of the Vienna State Opera, as a soloist bass-baritone. Even though he had not sang many major roles in this opera house, considered to be one of the Big Four (together with the Metropolitan in New York, The Covent Garden in London, and La Scala in Milan), but he would have rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous singers of the 20th century, such as Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Gedda, Mirella Freni, Renée Fleming, etc. Altogether he sang during the thirteen years of his engagement in the Vienna Opera House in 40 roles and in 406 performances, according to the statistics provided by the State Opera. Of course, he got to sing some of the bigger roles, such as Kecal in The Bartered Bride by Smetana, the Water sprite in Dvořák’s Rusalka, Don Basilio in Rossini’s the Barber of Seville, Dulcamara in Donizetti’s Elixir in Love, and several of the profound Wagnerian characters, as guest in other European opera houses. Thus I can only repeat that when I had been admiring his booming voice in the rehearsal rooms at Pohořelec barracks, and had been quietly predicting a big future for Štajnc, I was correct. The singing career he had couldn't have been a much better one, I would have to say...
I felt immediate sympathy to this dark haired, bow legged, cheerful and vivacious man of less than medium height. One day he walked to our living quarters at the monastery unexpectedly on a late afternoon, with a grin on his face that always seemed to be there.
“Anyone wants to come with me to the advanced screening of the Black Dynasty? I’ve got some extra tickets.”
A couple of violin players who happened to be present showed interest and so did I. Mrkvička took us to one of the noblest of Prague cinemas. As we entered the hall, I had immediately recognised several faces of prominent people from the film industry, whom I had previously only seen on the screen. Many of them had greeted or at least acknowledged Mrkvička.
“How did you come to get those tickets”, I asked my colleague when we found our seats.
“Oh, I had a part in this”, said the actor casually.
I did not want to push with further questions, but when the opening titles had run on the screen I looked for Mrkvička’s name, not finding it anywhere. Probably one of the smaller parts, I said to myself; it might come up with the ‘also appearing were’ batch of credits at the end of the movie. But I had a surprise coming! In one of the early scenes I immediately spotted my colleague, who also came on in the next scene and the one after that. The film told the story of a family of steam locomotive drivers; the script was a typical example of the so-called socialist realism, still fashionable within the mainstream of the Czech film industry of the early 1960’s, though the new wave of film makers, the likes of Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer or Jiří Mencl, was about to invade the studios, the cinema screens home and abroad, and even win the Oscars. Mrkvička played the youngest of the three generations of hard-working men. Somewhat lead astray through his youthful boisterousness, towards the end of the movie he would find his place within the newly formed socialist society. The script, as quickly became obvious to me, was a standard piece of shit, churned out by the film industry of the time on a regular basis, but as was usually the case it was professionally produced and well-acted. As film parts went, Mrkvička’s was a big one, something that a young actor would only dream about. Why, then, was not his name displayed at the beginning, together with the other main actors? Could I have missed it?
“Tell me Láďa, why didn’t they give you the credits for such big part?” I asked Mrkvička on the way back to the Monastery. The two musicians had left us to do some shopping, and we were walking alone.
“A long story. Do you really want to hear it?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I was picked up during the student demonstrations last May.”
That was a pretty big thing. The students had elected the “King of the Mayales”, or the May celebrations in 1961, the most influential figure, well known personality of the notorious Beatnik movement and the subsequent counter-culture, the American poet Allan Ginsburg, who had rather unexpectedly flown into Prague. That, of course, provoked the authorities, who had eventually expelled the poet out of the country.
“Gee! Did they lock you up?”
“Yes, for several days, but they’d let us go again. But, as you can imagine, we’re all on the black list now.”
“Surely. But tell me, how come than that they let you shoot the movie?”
“The Comrades wanted to stop that, but it was too late, the shooting was already well in progress, and the Director convinced them that it would’ve been too costly to have me replaced. So they decided to let it go, but under the condition that my name was to be left out.”
“So now your screen name is a no name.”
“That describes it very nicely. I was amazed that they let me join this establishment, after all this. But I have a theory about it.”
“They can have me under the surveillance, while I’m here. Had they sent me to some Arse End of the World, they would have lost that advantage.”
“But what if you misbehaved again? Imagine if the whole Ensemble could be wrecked.”
“The Colonel had me on carpet twice already. And I’m sure that somebody has to report on me.”
“Sure. For instance, I could be spying on you.”
“I doubt it very much. You’re not the right type. Or if you are, you’d have to be one of the greatest actors the world’s ever seen.”
Mrkvička was one of the few people I had met in my life, with the God given real talent for acting. He was also prone to getting into trouble whenever he moved his feet or opened his mouth; this had already threatened to ruin his entire career and eventually it slowed it down substantially, and for quite a few years, as I was to find out much later. However, after the demise of the Communist regime his career flourished, and eventually he found himself where I always thought he belonged in the first place ─ on the stage of the Prague National Theatre.
The Cuban crisis…
… came soon after the above conversation took place. It was an event of a great magnitude in the world politics, and it had sent shivers through the Armies of the entire Warsaw Pact!
The Cuban Missile Crisis was no joke, and we could all sense that some of our superiors were running genuinely scared. Even now, historians mostly agree that this was the closest that human kind came to a nuclear conflict. All army units throughout the country were instantly put on the red alert, and our unit was also affected. We were called and ordered to assemble in the courtyard of the main building, where strict orders were given out to stay within the immediate area of the main building, and move only between this place and their living quarters in the monastery, until further notice. We were only allowed to go to a couple of nearest restaurants for our meals, and not any farther. The situation looked so serious that even the most hardened of the second year members of the Ensemble had abandoned their habitual nightly trips to their wives or girlfriends in their Prague flats, and were sleeping in their bunks at the Monastery, often for the first time in many months.
Kodet was just as accident prone as Mrkvička, and just as good an actor, though even then it was beginning to show that while the latter tended more towards the comic roles, the former was going to develop into a character actor. That is, when he got the chance to show it, as his entire career was full of ups and downs. Both these men were always burdensome to the communist authorities, but somehow they had always managed to keep getting at least some acting jobs. When the regime finally came to an end in 1989, they were both deservedly offered permanent engagement in the “Golden Chapel”, as the Czechs call their National theatre. So far as I am aware, Mrkvička is still there, but at the time of my writing this, Kodet has been dead for several years. But let's get back to the events of late in 1962, when Nikita Sergeyewitch Khrushchev had taken off his shoe, to beat with at the conference table, during the speech that had lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Mrkvička with Kodet had disobeyed the strict orders we were given to not leave the area of the company quarters carelessly the very next evening, by going for a razzle-dazzle into the heart of the City. When the ubiquitous flying patrol caught them in front of a nightclub at two o’clock in the morning, they found themselves in deep trouble. Having abandoned their posts at the time of crisis, technically they could even have been sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad. As it were they had managed somehow to avoid the court martial (the Colonel obviously must have pulled a lot of strings), but after spending a week or two in the military prison they were sent to Beroun, to look after the unit’s stores. However, it soon became obvious that the programme without the two stars was going to suffer badly. A few days later I came to the dormitory, to find Kodet back on his bed, next to mine.
“How was Beroun?”
“Not bad at all. I wouldn’t even have minded staying a bit longer. But what could we do? The Comrades need us here.”
The National Theatre in Prague
Jiří Zahajský always had the seal of acting quality pressed on his forehead. We mostly only had the chance of seeing him while touring (that's when I took the photo on right, where we buried him in sand when we went out swimming); but as soon as we got back to Prague and he had a slightest chance of disappearing, he was gone. At the time he was very much in love with the TV news presenter Kamila Moučková, who was more than ten years older than he, and who already had three children! Naturally, we made fun of him because of this, but Jirka was a steady character, as time would show. Moučková several years later became one of the symbols of the national resistance against the troops of the Warsaw Agreement when, lead by the Russians, they invaded the country in 1968. She was one of the moderators who were broadcasting from a portable studio, which was being moved from one place to another, so that the Russians wouldn’t be able to locate it. This went on for several days. Naturally, once the occupants had taken hold fully on the country, she and others who had engaged themselves in this way, had lost their TV jobs. But Zahajský had not abandoned her, as many would have done. The two had lived together for longer than thirty years, as I found out later. He too had to endure some hard times.
Jiří Zahajský (1939-2007) and Kamila Moučková (1928 ─ )
Nothing lasts forever. The Soviet troops moved away, and after a time the tabloid papers, which have replaced the rigid party controlled press, had something spicy to write about. Jiří Zahajský had left Kamila Moučková for another woman! The one that had replaced his first love was none other than Jana Brejchová. The name will probably mean nothing to an English reader, but Brejchová (right) was without a doubt the best Czech film actresses of her generation, and a kind of Czech Brigitte Bardot. Her movie career had begun in the 1950s, and lasted about half a century. Brejchová also was the first wife of the movie director Miloš Forman, who was to become famous for winning a number of Oscars with the films One Flew Over the Coockoo’s Nest and Amadeus. So far as I can put together, Brejchová had lured Jirka away from his first love and the two had lived for about a dozen or so years together, until Zahajský’s death in 2007.
Zahajský with Jana Brejchová
Neither of these glamorous ladies, who used to be good friends, but not anymore, apparently would have taken note of the one thing that I had observed. While watching Zahajský putting on the makeup before the performances, I noticed that he had never used any on his lips. Which is normally the first thing most actors, even male actors, do. I couldn‘t help asking Jirka, when I had the opportunity, why he was doing, or rather not doing, this? His answer:
“See, on this ugly mug of mine that’s the only thing that is sort of prominent. Otherwise I have it as flat and boring as a pancake!“
While it was obvious that Zahajský was going to develop into a character actor, Jiří Hrzán was a comic, on the stage, on the TV and film screens, in the Army, as a civilian… We used to play together a lot of what was called “noheyball”, a kind of volleyball that is played only with the feet or head, like in football, or the soccer, as the Americans and the Australians call it. He was using his acrobatic abilities on the net, while I was holding the fort on the base line. This third “Jirka” in the trinity I mention, was the most visible one to us. None of us had settled in quite yet, and he had already seduced Věra Šmídová, the pretty brunette singer, who had sung with our orchestra in her pleasant alto voice. It happened in a blink of time, and before anyone could make any move (and a few would have not been unwilling to do so…) she was his wife. Věra kept singing, until her growing bump had prevented her from doing so. Hrzán however had not turned out to be a good husband or family man. He became nationally known and famous for his amorous adventures ─ those of us who have had the opportunity to meet him regularly in the showers understood well enough what was at the root of this popularity he had with women. His philandering, combined with another passion he had, however had eventually lead him to a fatal end, the news of which had reached me even in Australia. He loved climbing. Once in Brno on tour, we had held a little party in the hotel room. Jirka, together with another fellow, came in after knocking onto the window from the outside. They walked there along the ledge, some twenty metres high. The actor was 41, when in Prague he went to see his current girlfriend in a similar manner. He was under the influence and probably had not properly planned the route. The result was that he fell from the fifth floor and died from his injuries in hospital several days later. Even now, some forty years after his death, he remains a legend in his country!
After several months of touring we had ran out of places with large stages, where the whole Ensemble of nearly a hundred people could perform. The Ensemble was then divided into two, and later into three parts, that played in the smaller places. I was touring with the group that had mostly actors in it. There was a scene, a parody on the famous Romeo and Juliet play, acted only by men. It was supposed to be a rehearsal, and Hrzán played the director. Before the scene I was singing another parody, this time a sweet operetta, and in order that they could begin rehearsing, the impatient actors dragged me away from the microphone, which I had not wanted to give away. The Director then had passed on me his sentence ─ I was to play in the scene with them and have the most stupid part that he could think of. So it was, and he would always think out something new and, indeed, stupid. One night he might want me to be the a female servant running around Juliet (played by Dryšl, an actor with glasses), the next time I was to be a stuttering messenger, then an uncouth armiger who has troubles with his bladder, on another night Hamlet, who had dropped in from another play, and so on. It was impossible to know what was required of me, I had to improvise, because Jirka never told me ahead what he had planned for the evening. He had me in the palm of his hand, and he loved it! But Hrzán’s heart was made of gold. Once we had been travelling a long way to the far end of Slovakia and I found myself with nothing to read. He came to me and offered me a western he had.
“That’s Zane Grey, mate, that's a classic!”
He said it as if he was trying to educate me, but like many a Czech, he mispronounced the author's name rather badly.
On the road
The Cuban Crisis had resolved itself somehow, and after the premiere of our gala programme, which was held in November 1962 in a large theatre that was a part of a big complex of buildings where the Communist Party had its main school ─ I suppose we could call it the Party University. It was full of burly characters, the true sons of the workers' class. One thing they knew well though ─ where they should either laugh, or generally express their approval. Maybe that was the reason why this venue was selected.
After that successful first performance, we had made a few one night sorties to play at venues within easy reach from Prague, and eventually we embarked on our first tour, during which, if I remember correctly, we were based in Plzeň, the second largest city in Bohemia, famous for its Pilsener beer. I don't remember exactly where and how we were accommodated, but it was probably in one of the tourist hostels, with many of us sleeping in one room. That was the case mostly when the whole Ensemble was on tour, later, when we had broken into smaller groups, it was often hotels, sometimes even each of us having an individual room. But this had not greatly concerned us, being soldiers and first year ones too; we had expected some hardship, after all. Naturally, we adhered to the custom of always finding something to complain about ─ in our case it was addressed more generally, to the necessity of being in the army, of being cut away from civilian life, of becoming in essence a mere numbers in the system. In reality, except for this perception of lost freedom (as if the civilians in the communist country had enjoyed any great freedom...), we had little to complain about.
When compared to the regular army, our life was that of the privileged ones. Consider what a normal recruit had to live through. It was, indeed, much like the hardships that the veterans had been warning us about, when we were talking about it in the pub. On one occasion, it happened fairly early on, we had ended up for one of the nights sleeping in the regular barracks, as apparently there was no other choice. Or maybe there was, but this might have been deliberate, to show us what we are being spared. I wouldn’t put that quite beyond the powers that be…
We came in late, almost at midnight, after going through the performance followed by bus trip to the barracks, and the authorities there had obviously issued some orders to those in charge not to disturb us. This, however, only applied to leaving the actual dormitories we were staying in undisturbed. Otherwise, all the noise, all the commotion, everything that went on around us, made it impossible to sleep beyond 6 am. Afterwards, we all agreed that it was a good lesson for us, as we had realised what we were spared, and valued more the living in comfort that we had. Exactly at six in the morning, there came loud whistles on all corridors in the buildings around, accompanies by even louder screams:
The wake-up call. No bugle, just the whistling and yelling, ear piercing, horrible. A bugle would have been preferable to this! I kept repeating to myself: relax, this doesn't concern you, but there was no escaping it. Immediately after the whistling and roaring, there came a lot of noise, as the poor unfortunates, who had only begun their service in October, scrambled out of their bunks. They were still within the period of boot camp that opened with each new yearly intake, and which lasted for up to two months. After that, things would get a little more relaxed. But not now: After about five minutes there came another loud call;
Naaastooop naaa roozcviiitchkooo!!!
This meant that the poor devils were being called to line up, so that they would be taken out for the morning exercise. Sounds of stomping of the feet in heavy boots followed, disappearing somewhere in blue yonder.
However, just as we were about to fall into the slumber once again, they came back, and after that one order followed another, each time accompanied by whistling and yelling that would wake up a dead man! This racket went on for longer than an hour, until they all marched away to the mass to have their breakfast, and whatever horrors awaited them that day. It was a good lesson to us, indeed, about what the life in the army was really about, and what we have been so lucky to have avoided!
Faced with this, we finally realised that we had very little to complain about. We had been issued a pair of the same heavy boots we have heard being put to their sinister use in the corridor, but we had never worn them, except on the first week, and for a couple of hours each time, when we were receiving the basic instructions in the yard. The poor guys we've just heard in the barracks, no doubt had them on when crawling through mud, climbing on ropes, etc., whatever goes on in the boot camp. We had not held a riffle or any other weapon in our hands either. Those poor buggers, not only had to shoot from them (and some even would turn them against their own heads, when they felt they can't bear any more, the fact that was always hushed up by the authorities) ─ they had to take them apart, lovingly clean them up, etc.!
Further, we did not have to eat whatever was slapped into their mess (and some places were particularly infamous for their culinary non-creations), instead we ordered whatever meal we fancied at arestaurant, and had it brought to us on porcelain. The Army was feeding us thus, it provided our clothing, accommodation, transport; we were no worse off than we would be as civilians, maybe in some cases even better off. Especially when we got paid for occasional TV appearances or radio recordings. Sometimes, when we were somewhere out of Prague, with days to go until the next payment was due to us, a following scene developed: A few of us would go to a pub, which we had selected, often on some tips. One or two violin players would come with us with their instruments, which they had prominently displayed, so that everybody would see them. Soon, these would attract some interest, and the violin player would eventually (and reluctantly) let himself be talked into playing. Naturally, it had to be some smash hit, such as the Monti Czárdás. Several guys were able to play this show-piece brilliantly. The word would spread, more guests would drift in, and some of us would add our voices. If there was a piano in place, someone would occupy it and play. After all of that, we had no shortage of drinks. This worked consistently, especially in smaller towns, like a magic!
Before it ended, my two year long stint in the Czechoslovak Army was to take me to a place that is quite famous, if not notorious. It is called Mladá u Milovic. It is one of the examples of what can happen when the Army takes over and makes a place entirely its own. In Mladá this had happened some time before the First World War, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire decided that it needed a large base, not too far from the capital Prague. Originally the Army had only occupied the space of one village, but it had gradually expanded its operations to include the surrounding land. It had added the extra space for the training of tank units, it had also built a military airport, etc. By the 1950s it was a major army camp, accommodating many troops, but the tank brigade was about to become the dominant one.
In this place I was to have another of my meetings with remarkable people; this time with Josef Škvorecký (1924-2012), the author I have already mentioned. I was not destined to meet physically with this man, who like me, was eventually going to leave the country, to live for the rest of his life in Canada, where he taught English literature to Canadian students, in between writing about it, and about his former life, often hilariously. But when my destiny took me to Mladá, where Škvorecký had done his army service about ten years before I did mine, his spirit was still there and sufficiently strong to be picked up by sensitive souls, like mine. At this place I could do worse but reprint a part of the obituary, written by his translator Paul Wilson, that appeared in the Guardian on his death:
From the film The Tank brigade, with the actor playing Danny Smiřický, Škvorecký’s alter-ego, remarkably alike the author.
Josef Škvorecký wrote more than 40 books, including his masterpiece, The Engineer of Human Souls, which won the Canadian governor general's award for fiction in 1984. Set in the Czech émigré community in Toronto, the novel is narrated by Josef's alter ego, the cynical, skirt-chasing, sax-playing Danny Smiřický, now a respected English professor at a Toronto university who is assailed by memories of his life and loves under fascist and communist tyrannies. As Josef's translator, what I found most difficult to convey was his unique ability to capture how different political regimes affect the way his characters speak and write ... The core of his work is a series of seven semi-autobiographical, jazz-soaked books, all but one of them narrated by Smiřický. The series begins with The Cowards, which Josef wrote when he was 24, and ends with Ordinary Lives, written in 2004 and published in English in 2008. The exception is Republic of Whores, a hilarious, third-person account of Smiřický's stint in a Czech tank battalion in the 1950s.
Josef's lifetime spanned several radically different eras. He was born in Náchod, in north-eastern Bohemia, into the liberal democracy of the first Czechoslovak republic. He grew up in Nazi-occupied Bohemia, began writing in the era of Stalinism after 1948, then consolidated his reputation as a courageous, entertaining and often controversial novelist and screenwriter in Prague during the slow thaw of the late 1950s and 60s. After the Soviet invasion crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, he and his wife, Zdena Salivarová (1933 ─ ), whom he had married in 1958, emigrated to Canada, where Škvorecký taught literature and film studies at the University of Toronto. The creative freedom he found in the west gave him a new lease of life.
He and his wife established a Czech-language publishing house, 68 Publishers, named after the year that Josef liked to describe as the "annus mirabilis, annus horribilis" of Czech history. Over the next two decades, with Josef as her chief in-house editor, and often on the edge of bankruptcy, Zdena Salivarová, herself a novelist of some note, had published works by scores of banned Czech and Slovak writers, including Josef himself, Kundera, Havel and the Nobel prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert. They marketed the books to Czech readers around the world, and arranged for them to be smuggled into Czechoslovakia, where the books were circulated from hand to hand.
Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová
Soon after he left the Army Škvorecký wrote a book he named simply "Tankový prapor", or the Tank Brigade, which for some reason I don’t quite understand, but suspect has something to do with the wishes of its English publisher, has been translated into English as The Republic of Whores. To anyone, who had been in the Army, and even to many of those who have not, this is the most hilarious account of life in the military camp. It takes place in Mladá, which must be obvious to those who had been there, and the main character is very much like the writer himself. I’m convinced that everything that happens in the book, no matter how offbeat or downright crazy, has happened somewhere in the army during the early fifties. The author may have exaggerated here and there, but not by much. And, of course, he brought all these happenings into one place, where I had to stay for several months.
When I think of Mladá these days, the mental picture that I get is that of Škvorecky’s Sergeant Mařas. He is a toady character, who brown-noses all the brass, particularly through his seemingly impeccable knowledge of everything to do with tanks, military tactics and equipment. Naturally his knowledge is only theoretical. Thus when a high ranked Soviet adviser drops into the camp, and wants to see the tank brigade in action while attacking dummy targets with live ammunition, naturally Sergeant Mařas is selected by the commanding officer to run the show, as the most capable man in the unit. No need to describe the disaster that follows in detail, suffice to say that the adviser, as well as all the other officers, have to madly scramble for cover.
Mladá is no longer a military camp, the thousands of acres of land that was devastated by the Czech, and especially by the Soviet Army, which took over in 1968, is slowly recovering. Recently, a herd of 30 odd wild horses was brought in from England, to help in the process in some way only an ecologist knows about. The ghosts of the tanks in charge of Sergeant Mařas however, are still gliding silently over the muddy hillocks and thawing snow. I can see them quite clearly.
I don’t even know Major Toman’s first name; to his soldiers he was only “Comrade Major”. At the time I came to Mladá he was about fifty. Small, round figure, meaty face, everything about him betrayed his love of good food and drink. Not of his other and overwhelming passion, though. He fancied himself to be one of the best conductors of classical music in the country. Pity that he had so little opportunity to prove this; conducting the military brass band on the daily bases would not really help to justify his claims. Nevertheless, Major Toman was trying. His way to the Pantheon of Musical Gods lead over the bodies of soldiers he had gathered in his unit, in the most unusual, often I suspect underhand way.
I have said already that it was a privilege getting a place in the Ensemble, and that there were so many musicians and entertainers who never had the good luck to get there. The musical schools in Prague, Brno, Bratislava, Ostrava, Plzeň, Pardubice, and several other regional towns were producing a stream of good young musicians, some of them downright excellent. Toman took notice of this glut of young musicians, decided that he was going to benefit from it, and prove that he figured amongst the elite of Czech conductors. He already had a cadre of professional musicians, most of them products of the Military Musical School, and who were employed by the Army on a permanent basis. Good as they were, nearly all were brass players, and for a symphonic orchestra he needed string players, violinists, cellists, bassists, etc. and also some wind instruments not to be normally found in the military band, such as the oboe or flute.
One day he got a brilliant idea. He would use all his connections, and pull all strings, to identify the top graduates of the Conservatories, particularly the string players, who have been drafted into the Army, and have them sent to his unit. Most musicians are quite versatile, and they could learn to play the simple brass instruments, such as the one called the S-trumpet, in a matter of weeks. Thus he ended up with some of the best violinists, cellists, even one or two composers, who soon managed the not so demanding play in the brass band, but who could in time adorn his symphonic orchestra, which was something no other military brass band leader could claim. He was thus able to win the bragging rights to being the best classical music conductor in the army! And in the process he made the two years of military service to scores of musicians, who otherwise would have ended up at the regular army units, bearable.
After a reorganisation in the Ensemble, with only some months of service left for me, I was deemed non-perspective, and as such superfluous. I was sent to Mladá and to Major Toman’s military brass band unit! I must have been a great disappointment to him; a singer, with no significant musical training other than being able to read singing parts, I was quite useless to the band, let alone his symphonic orchestra! Except for one thing ─ there were other activities that Toman was pursuing, such as having a very capable jazz combo. This he could lend for various parties that the Brass would be conducting, which would bring him some extra popularity in the right places. And, maybe, some extra income, who knows?
With the combo I was of course able to sing and also act as moderator when we played at those various functions. At other times, when the players were rehearsing, or the brass band was out playing at some parade or funeral (there were plenty of those, with young soldiers shooting themselves after finding out on their first trip home about their girlfriends’ unfaithfulness, or similar), I was left behind to answer the telephones. This didn’t keep me very busy, telling the eventual callers, about one or two a day, that no one’s available. That’s when I had begun to write, penning a few stories, and even a beginning of a novel. None of these had survived the onslaught of time. But I made some good friends, a couple of whom I’m still in contact with even now, over the distance of time and space.