A loud argument between a woman and young man took place on Tuesday afternoon, April 22, 2012, on náměstí Míru in the very center of Zlín. The behavior of the two people concerned could not be overlooked by the police officer who happened to be conducting a public order check in that very place at that very moment. As the patrol officers discovered, the participants in this argument were a 42-year old woman and her 21-year old son, both from Fryšták, who both have a long-standing problem not only with each other, but with alcohol as well. We have already informed our readers about the family trip to the drunk tank with which we were able to provide them at the end of last year.
Defending himself from further verbal attacks, the Zlín city patrol officer gave both participants a short lesson in the rules of civic etiquette. However, he was unable to overlook the fact that the young man had bloody wounds on his right hand. The young man rejected the policeman’s offer of first-aid treatment in quite an original way, and absconded towards Rašínova street. After a number of meters, however, he began to feel unwell and welcomed the further assistance of police officers. This time, not only did he not turn up his nose at the bandages and disinfection proffered him, he even eagerly cooperated with emergency medical services.
(honest-to-God accurate translation of a recent post on the Zlín city police website)
Jaromír Nohavica is performing in Strážnice just a couple of weeks after I leave for the US. I was pretty disappointed when I saw the poster and realized that I was going to miss him again, because I love Nohavica, who writes the kind of folk-ballads the Czech language was made for, and which are easy to memorize and sing around a campfire with your friends. Once I got drunk and sang one of his songs to a German kid in a Romanian hostel, and he woke me up in the morning before he left to bike off to China and told me that was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever heard (and it wasn’t because of my singing voice, that’s absolutely for sure). There are a lot of reasons to love Nohavica: that he was once the Czech national Scrabble champion, for instance, or that he’s had the same moustache since the eighties. I love him because his music is populist, both the style and the lyrics, without being kitschy, because it’s full of unadorned ordinary feeling.
I’m not sure we needed this though.
I won’t translate the whole song, since I’m not sure I would do a good job of it, but we can begin with the title: it’s called “Dežo”. So already we’re dealing in these terms: a German, a Russian, and a Czech are in a hot air balloon; a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar; the perverse and clever rabbit and the aggressive, stupid bear; and Dežo, every gypsy in every stupid gypsy joke. This Dežo is nastier than the familiar one from the jokes, menacing from dark corners in alleyways to trap innocent Czech fellows coming home from the pub, but still stupid, since he takes all the bald men for skinheads. And the chorus:
My white skin
Shining in the night
Like a turd upon an altar
Like a gold coin in the middle of a casino
Why wasn’t I born black instead
Well. I suppose it is a good description of the paranoia of certain Czechs regarding Roma, and I suppose the turds and the gold coins are an original take on the sort of thing you hear in bars and on the street and in the bus and at school and in everyone’s houses, relentlessly, ceaselessly, all the goddamn time. Everyone is afraid of Dežo; Dežo is everywhere; everyone knows about him. We don’t need a Nohavica to tell this story on his guitar — we have Petr from Břeclav, performing it on his body. So what if it wasn’t really true?
Imagine this: it’s an April evening and four high-school age kids are standing on a balcony on the side of an apartment building in a little city in southern Moravia. One of the boys, a grinning fifteen-year-old with curly hair and widely-set round eyes, climbs up to sit on the railing. “Watch this,” he says, pulling his socked feet up and raising himself into a squat. Still holding, he starts to straighten his knees, pulling up his backside. The two girls instinctively lean forward and try to grab him. “You’re crazy!” one of them says, which makes him giggle. He slowly takes one hand from the railing and extends it out to his side, raising his head to see his friends. The apprehension in their eyes satisfies him. “See?” he says and begins to release his last hand. He’s almost standing, triumphantly balancing eight floors above the ground. “Okay, now your right hand,” says the other boy, shaking his head and pretending to look unimpressed.
Petr (because that’s his name) laughs again and now his second arm is almost level with his first, reaching for the opposite wall. The girls are standing completely still and silent, they’re scared that any movement in the air might knock him off the railing and back into the panorama of reddish evening clouds, silhouetted apartment buildings and the faraway earth stretching flatly towards the horizon. He’s been focusing intently on the unmoving left corner of the doorjamb, imagining himself as a block of concrete, but he can’t help himself: he wants to see the girls’ faces again. Slowly he tries to shift his gaze, but before he can meet their eyes, something weak and unsure appears in his left side and he begins to fall. Not backwards, not forwards, but just downwards, his arms and legs hitting the railing at different moments, until he disappears. The three friends rush to the side of the balcony, imagining their friend’s body crumpled on top of one of the cars parked below, but they see nothing, and they lean further. He’s fallen onto the balcony below. “I’m OK,” he says weakly. “I think I might have broken something.”
But he doesn’t say anything about this to his mother, or at the hospital. He can’t. One of his kidneys is removed, he damaged his liver and spleen. He’s going to tell his mother that he lost a organ trying to impress some girls? Petr decides that he can’t have that. And so he invents a new story, and a good one.
Imagine this: it’s an April evening, the sun is nearly set, and he’s is coming home from his friend’s house in his nice new coat. His friend lives across town, but the city isn’t so big and the weather is nice, so he decides not to take the bus, although this means that he’ll have to walk past the shopping center near the train station, which is a favorite place of vagrants, beggars, pickpockets, drunkards, and generally dubious figures. As he’s walking down Jan Palach street, three men approach him. Three Gypsies. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” one of them says. Petr replies that he doesn’t have any. The men get angry and start shouting. One of them punches him in the stomach and he falls to the sidewalk. He looks up at them, sees their savage, swarthy faces full of incomprehensible malice, and curls into a ball, covering his head, as they kick him again and again.
Well. Lying in a fetal position on the sidewalk isn’t exactly as heroic as standing in the sky, but regardless it seems to be the sort of thing that inspires people. His mother, for instance: “We’ve got to do something about this!” she tells the newspaper. “When he gets better, who knows if he isn’t going to meet three more dark-skinned boys who ask him for a cigarette and he loses the other kidney?” The newspaper dutifully reports that she’s “met with aggression from the local Roma before, but until now she’s kept it to herself”. The next weekend there’s a march of 2000 people to the town hall to shout at the mayor, who stands on the steps with a microphone saying things about how he’s gotten money from the government to put in new cameras and how the policemen are very well-trained. Men from a neo-fascist party passed around petitions and waved signs saying “STOP GYPSY TERROR”. Roma families kept their children home from school. A pop singer from the 1980s holds a benefit concert and gave Petr 100,000 Czech crowns. Newspapers write about “lost generations” of disaffected, nihilistic Roma youth. A middle aged lady tell reporters that they believe only the neo-fascists can keep them from being dragged into a viaduct and raped by dark-skinned men, “and that scares me!”
Everyone believed the story, of course, and even after the truth (or something like the truth, or the current version of the truth) has come out, the story is still too good. One former Czech politician (most well-known previously for hitting another in the face during a press conference) simply doesn’t believe it and won’t be satisfied until he sees the apartment building and the balcony for himself, after all, the police could just be making this story up so they don’t have to deal with the angry crowds. And really (as this comment points out), we already know the Gypsies lie, steal, and attack defenseless children in dark corners — how dare they not do these things when we’ve already made up our minds about them?
Petr is out of the hospital now. He’ll be starting technical school next year. He’s apologized on television and given the pop singer his money back. Is this accurate? All of it? No, definitely not. Some of the inaccuracies might even be my fault.
This is related to the previous post, although fortunately it has nothing at all to do with the Swedish cake. I was thinking of some of my favorite things — books, music, art — that make me uncomfortable, or that are somehow difficult, and I thought of Iva Bittová. I love her despite the fact that every time I played her songs on my college radio show I had to watch the levels the whole time and turn various knobs when she got too quiet and then quickly readjust them when she started screaming, and that every time I fall asleep listening to her albums I’m jolted awake a few minutes later.
A few years ago she released a recording of Leoš Janáček’s arrangements of Moravian folk songs with a group called Škampa Quartet, & this is where the song above comes from. I bought it a few months ago and didn’t listen to the whole thing through until a couple nights ago, because it’s particularly difficult — even though I actually know a lot of these songs. Her voice sounds almost hysterical. It’s weird that her folk music is harder than her more avant-garde-ish albums (like the two albums that were just with her voice, her violin, and a drummer), but that’s probably healthy too, making something well-known and comfortable foreign and strange again.
Love, love, you aren’t forever
Like a stream between two banks
Water flows on, love passes away
Like the bloom on a clover
Songs like this shouldn’t be too comfortable.
I think that just like it’s healthy to run until sweat runs down the back of your knees and you feel like collapsing, and just like the healthiest vegetables (alfalfa sprouts, bok choy, kale, and so forth) are the most difficult to eat and have the strangest flavors, it’s good to look at art that makes you feel uncomfortable. Music, too — when I was in college radio and I had to write little blurby reviews of new albums we’d received, I had to stop myself from labeling half of them as “Very polished and pretty, if that’s your kind of thing” or “It’s pretty if it’s anything at all”. Too much sugar is bad for your health. You’re unlikely to find anything very profound that doesn’t make you at least a bit uncomfortable, and by profound I mean something that makes you do things differently or shifts the architecture around in your brain.
There are, of course, different kinds of discomfort, productive and unproductive, interesting and uninteresting. Some art (bad art) makes you (at least me) want to run out of the room or at least close my eyes so I don’t have to look at other people looking at it, and looking at me looking at it, and well, that is not the good kind of uncomfortable feeling. Some art (good art, even if it’s hard to be in the presence of) makes me want to run out of my soul or replace it with a fresh one whose sins the artist hasn’t already painted on the wall.
All of this is to say that I’ve rarely felt as uncomfortable as I felt while watching the Painful Cake. And it was on YouTube, and I was in my kitchen by myself. It’s interesting that a cake designed by an obscure artist for an event at an art museum in Stockholm can cause a worldwide Internet furor; but if you’ve watched the video, why it happened isn’t mysterious at all. Seven hundred thousand people were confronted with the image of a black female body made of cake, with a real human head, done up in blackface with an absurdly large, toothy mouth, sobbing every time its belly or crotch was cut. By the Swedish minister of culture. What? Whaaaaat?
Pro-cake argument #1 (audience): The real art piece isn’t the cake so much as it is the pictures of the culture minister cutting it, the video of the bystanders mincing around nervously and then eventually deciding that it’s a big joke and they’ve understood it and are going to laugh now, convincing themselves that it’s funny, and taking pictures. And all this in the context of Swedish debates about freedom of speech and criticism of the culture minister for her comments about “provocative” art.
Anti-cake argument #1 (symbolism): The cake isn’t a “representative of a stereotypical African tribeswoman” (as the NYT has it), it’s a Venus of Willendorf body attached to a Golliwog head with the sort of neck rings worn by Southeast Asian women in National Geographic photographs. That is to say, it’s a bizarre mix of racial and sexual symbols just designed to provoke for no real specific purpose.
Pro-cake argument #2 (symbolism): Maybe these issues are too complicated to address in any sort of cleanly symbolic way. The symbols of racism and imperialism, not to mention the symbols of art, are too full of history and too multifaceted to approach any way other than all at once. Makode Linde is brilliantly exposing the condescension of art elites towards the real pain of African women, and the hypocrisy of politicians who claim to support art but only when it’s defanged, and how the concept of female genital mutilation is becoming the kind of symbol of African barbarity and backwardness the way blackface was, perhaps how the resources of Africa are being eaten by the West, etc., just by baking a cake.
Anti-cake argument #2 (audience): The artist put his viewers in the position of violators and destroyers, so that’s interesting, maybe it will give them food for thought. But he also essentially gave them permission to symbolically cut up and eat a female body. But he surprised them by giving the body life and shouting at them while they were doing it. But what sort of effect does this have on the audience? We’re playing with symbols, but why do we have to recreate so much symbolic violence against black women? Why aren’t we encouraged by the artist to identify with her? Why isn’t there any empathy? Wouldn’t that be more effective, in some sort of anti-racist sense?
Stalin Street in Napajedla: this picture was taken recently, one afternoon when I was on a walk. Napajedla is a smallish town with a pretty little baroque castle, and this house is on one of its main streets. Of course, you won’t be able to find “Stalinova ulice” on any recently printed maps, but I counted three or four houses that still have this name on their little tin placards.
I looked it up on Google, and found only one bit of useful information: a letter from a citizen printed in the March 2007 issue of a local newsletter. A man asked rhetorically whether anyone would have tolerated signs reading “Hitlerplatz” in 1962 — that is, 17 years after the end of Nazism, just as 2007 had been 17 years after the fall of the communist regime. The editors of the newspaper responded that it wouldn’t have been tolerated, but that, in fact, the existence of the “Stalinova” signs were evidence of freedom, since the owners of the houses were responsible for these signs. If they requested, the town would provide them with new signs, or they could buy their own signs “which many companies offer in various tasteful or less tasteful styles”.