cover image Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia

Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia

Mariusz Szczygiel, trans. from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Melville (Random, dist.), $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61219-313-7

An already lauded collection of episodic reportage from the pen of a prolific Polish journalist (European Book Prize 2009), this grimly themed but spryly sequenced investigation into the secret-plagued reality of 20th-century Czechoslovakia falls gently short of expectations in an intriguing yet overall monotonous translation. The chronologically progressive, "mostly true" stories depict with varying scales of focus the lives and times of an eclectic cast of Czech individuals, some of them well known, like Tomas Bata, the tenacious turn-of-the-century shoe merchant who transformed his father's languishing cobbler trade into a diversified socio-industrial empire, others with scant name recognition even in their native land, like Otakar Sveck, a depressive Prague sculptor-manque whose commission to design the largest-ever Stalin monument on the banks of the Vltava River proved his own psychic toppling. The leitmotif of these tales is dispossession: the Czech people struggling to remain individuals in a state where individualism is literally a crime. Faced with the hand-tailored sadism and iron whimsy of occupying forces, these men and women must make a choice: resist or submit. With notable and deeply affecting exceptions it tends to be a lugubrious combination of the two. (May)