March 11th, .
Stop Dubček! The story of the man who annoyed the powerful 1).
(Jozef Banáš. Zastavte Dubčeka! Príbeh človeka, ktorý prekážal mocným)
Bratislava: Ikar, 2009, ISBN: 978-80-551-2107-9. Reviewed by Josette Baer, University of Zurich, Switzerland.
Alexander Dubček (1921–1992) is probably the best-known Slovak, although most people still think of him as being of Czech origin. As the symbol of the reforms of the Prague Spring of 1968, Dubček’s fate after the invasion of the Warsaw pact troops mirrored, to some extent, that of his fellow citizens: the conservative party members whom Moscow put into power after August 1968 ousted him as soon as they had gained full control of the country and its people. The normalisation period of the early 1970s saw a return to the old Stalinist-Brezhnevist course and purges of party members thought potentially unreliable, as well as blacklisting of forbidden authors and artists, and expansion of the powers of the StB that thoroughly silenced any critical voice – at least until Charter 77 was founded in January 1977. The atmosphere in Prague in the first half of the 1970s was depressing and monotonous. Social and cultural life was being brought into line to such an extent that Václav Havel, then a forbidden author and soon to be a dissident, recalled it as follows:
“… the era of the grey, totalitarian everyday consumerism began … to me, the first half of the 1970s is blurred like an amorphous fog, there is no distinct event that would enable me to tell the year 1972 from 1973.”2
Banáš epitomizes these painful years in Dubček’s life, providing a rare glimpse into Slovak political life under the normalizácia:
“In August 1974, the 30th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising was commemorated in Banská Bystrica. The highest echelons of party and state gathered on the tribune. Most of them had nothing to do with the uprising. Those who had actually fought in the uprising stood in front of the tribune – or did not come to Banská Bystrica at all. Among the absentees was Alexander Dubček. He and his wife were at the chaťa in Senec.” (287)
Many scholarly volumes have been written about Dubček, the events of 1968, the normalisation and the beginnings of Charter 773, assessing the politics, relations with
Moscow, and the domestic and international response to the invasion. Dubček’s autobiography was published in 19934.
‘Not another book about 1968, about hopes that were so gruesomely crushed and about the painful memories of the cruel normalizace,’ I thought when starting to read Banáš’s Stop Dubček! But I soon had to admit that this novel is both very well written and based on meticulous research. One might think that nothing new can be written about Dubček, but already in the first few pages the reader is surprised to learn that Dubček was born in the same house in Uhrovec where Ľudovít Štúr, the ‘father of the Slovak language’, had lived as a young child in the first half of the 19th century (21).
Jozef Banáš became known to the Slovak public primarily because of his political roles. In the 1980s, he was a Czechoslovak diplomat in East Berlin. In November 1989, as a member of the Slovak Communist Party, he expressed his support for the Velvet Revolution and VPN (Verejnosť proti nasili, Public Against Violence), the Slovak pendant to the Czech OF (Občanské Forum, Civic Forum), in a speech in Bratislava. There are critical and also, pseudo-critical voices, that insist on despising Banáš as an old nomenclatura communist or a cynical turn-coat. Be that as it may – and I am the last person to condemn anybody for joining the party for reasons of economic survival in those difficult years after 1968 – one cannot ignore his literary success: he came to the general attention of Slovak readers in 2007 with his political satire Idioty v politike (Idiots in Politics). In 2008, he published the novel Zona nadšenia (The Zone of Jubilation), which was translated into German (Jubelzone) and Czech (zona nadšení). Thanks to its success, he was awarded the Slovak Book of the Year prize in 2008. His latest book, Code 9 (Kód 9), was published in 2010.
Stop Dubček! is neither a work of fiction nor a scholarly analysis, nor is it a political biography, but something in between, a compelling account of the life of a Communist leader, who, unlike others, was actually loved by the citizens. Banáš’s literary talent enables him to present the story of Dubček’s life in gripping fashion. The pace of the narrative, the meticulous presentation of the facts, and the clear distinction between facts and the realm of interpretation make this novel a welcome new contribution to Czechoslovak history. And it reads very well; it is, especially for young people, an
‘unputdownable’ account of Czechoslovakia under Communist rule. Everyday life, domestic economic problems and in-party power struggles come to life as if one were watching a movie, with Alexander Dubček in the leading role. (If Hollywood were interested in making a movie about Dubček’s life and his impact and role during the Cold War, I would suggest the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård as Dubček.)
The author clearly knows his subject: he has thoroughly researched the origins of Dubček’s family: young Sasha’s early years in Kyrgyzstan, his membership of the Communist Party, his participation in the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, and his rise to power that, with the support of Leonid Brezhnev, effectively ended the era of economic stagnation under Antonín Novotný. Banáš approaches Dubček like a figure in a novel. He does not fictionalize facts and events: he sticks to authenticity, creating a dramatic and gripping narrative. His Dubček is, above all, a living human being with positive features, but also failings, fears, doubts and normal human joys.
“From him radiated what one calls the magic of charisma. He conquered people by taking a genuine interest in them and with a pure and direct smile. From his eyes sprang kindness and benevolence. He was not ashamed to admit that he did not know a thing. He was not a convincing speaker, rather the opposite, but it was wonderful that people believed him. For the first time, a Communist leader stood before the people who, they felt, had a human heart.” (145)
Banáš sketches Dubček’s wavering, his naivety and mistakes, but, above all, he presents him in the context of the social and political conditions of the Czechoslovakia of his day.
He takes the reader on a long journey, as gripping as a detective story. The author’s style is dynamic, masterfully presenting events and their backgrounds in a vivid picture which reveals all their hidden connections and connotations. His interpretations and knowledge of the historical facts render his empathy with his subject believable: he shows Dubček not only as a politician, but brings him to life as a human being.
This novel is a must-read for anybody interested in Czechoslovak history. And for anybody interested in the vividly told story of what shaped and drove one of the great heroes of the 20th century.
1) All translations from Czech, German and Slovak into English are mine. Owing to the lack of an English edition, I took the liberty of translating the title for the purpose of this review.
2) Václav Havel, Fernverhör. Ein Gespräch mit Karel Hvížďala (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1986) 145. The Czech edition is Dálkový výslech. Rozhovor s Karlem Hvížďalou (Purley: Rozmluvy, 1986).
3) A selection in alphabetical order: Vladimír V. Kusin, From Dubček to Charter 77: a study of normalization in Czechoslovakia, 1968–1978 (Edinburgh: Q Press, 1978); Jan Pauer, Prag 1968. Der Einmarsch des Warschauer Paktes (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 1995); Rok Šedesáty Osmý. V usneseních a dokumentech ÚV KSČ (Praha: Svoboda, 1969); Gordon H. Skilling, Czechoslovakia’s interrupted Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and its aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968– 1970 (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
4) Alexander Dubček, Leben für die Freiheit (München: Bertelsmann, 1993)