It was 50 feet high and 70 feet long, more than 37 million pounds of granite and concrete. It dominated Letná Park in Prague for the seven years it stood. But in 1962, the biggest monument to Josef Stalin in the world was destroyed, after the dictator fell out of ideological favor in Czechoslovakia.
"Not a single line about the monument's destruction appears in the [Czechoslovak] press," writes Mariusz Szczygieł. "Prague's monument to Stalin never existed." It's absurd, of course, but that's the point — in a country at constant war with its past, dominated for decades by a repressive communist regime, erasing history was a matter of course. It's only when Szczygieł tracks down people who were involved with the monument's building and destruction, and finds them still afraid, still unwilling to talk about it, that he comes to a horrifying new conclusion: "Prague's monument to Stalin does exist."
The story of the short-lived monument (and its long-lived effect on Prague's metropolitan psyche) is just one of the bizarre, meticulously reported stories in Gottland, Polish reporter Szczygieł's short account of Czechoslovakia and its people. The winner of the 2009 European Book Prize, Gottland has just been released in the United States, translated wonderfully by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It's not just a book about a country that once was — Szczygieł concentrates almost exclusively on the period before the nation's dissolution in 1993 — but also about what happens when a government asks its people to pretend that some of their past never happened.
The book begins, fittingly, with "Not a Step Without Bata," the story of one of Czechoslovakia's most famous businesses, Bata Shoes (still in existence, though now based in Switzerland). The company's founder, Tomáš Baťa, controlled his workers closely, even dictating what kind of books they could read ("Russian novels kill your joie de vivre"); after his death in an airplane crash, his heirs fell out of favor with both the occupying Germans and the Communist Czechoslovaks, and fled the country.
In "Just a Woman," Szczygieł profiles another famous Czechoslovak who was effectively forced out of her homeland: the actress Lída Baarová, whose promising career was cut short almost before it began. Baarová entered into an affair with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, which Adolf Hitler eventually forced them to end. Confronted by the hatred of her fellow citizens, she ended up in Austria, "knowing (as she later said in an interview) that whatever ill people spoke of her, it was bound to be too little."
The stories in Gottland are beyond compelling, and they're brought to life — sometimes humorously, sometimes very tragically — by Szczygieł's understated, minimalist style. (One section, "Better PR," clocks in at under 100 words, and it's written so wonderfully and efficiently, it's hard to argue that it needs any more.) His perspective is that of both a fascinated outsider and a sympathetic neighbor — Szczygieł, one of Poland's most famous journalists, never feels quite at home in Gottland, but never that far apart, either. His approach is self-effacing, rarely using the first-person, preferring to keep the focus on his subjects. The reader learns little about Szczygieł the person, but Szczygieł the storyteller is so enchanting, you never really notice.
Gottland is so new and inventive, it feels like a milestone of both journalism and creative nonfiction — and much credit has to go to the translator Lloyd-Jones and the publisher Melville House, who brought the book to the United States to begin with. (It's been critically acclaimed in Europe for years.) It's not only because of Szczygieł's sharp, enchanting prose — he can be both droll and earnest in one sentence — but also because of his thoughtfulness, his eagerness to embrace and keep alive a past that's been threatened time and time again with extinction.
"People usually look toward the future to escape from their troubles," Szczygieł writes. And they usually look toward the past to understand their troubles, of course, if they can bear to. Gottland is a fascinating portrait of a people whose silence seems to speak louder than any words could, and a country that partially lives in the shadow of a long-gone monument that still seems to rise far into the sky.