City #26, January 2015. For a Czech, the glass is always half empty: they complain a lot. And they’re aware of this, and can laugh about it, because they also have a healthy doses of self-mockery. In addition, the average Czech doesn’t like to give himself airs. Their work is professional, and they’re good at whatever they do, but one small holdover from the Soviet era is a reluctance to take the initiative. So much for my analysis of the situation on the ground.

Type of Youropeans: not particularly enthusiastic, at least if the turnout at the last European election is anything to go by. They consider themselves to be at the heart of Europe, but Brussels is a long way off, as is Paris. I was there when demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo attacks were being held in many European countries, but there were no protests in Prague. This could be explained, the locals said, by a lack of familiarity with the issues: the Czech Republic has almost no Muslim inhabitants.

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City Column

Writing is big in Prague

podium column‘Kdo to čte je blázen’, Igor says.
‘Smrdíš a jsi ošklivá,’ Jaroslav says.
The audience, around three hundred of them, three quarters of whom are woman, find this hilarious.
‘A nyní hloupý belgický’, Igor and Jaroslav introduce a shy Belgian, and even he gets a laugh, although this may actually be in deference to the Czech duo.

The occasion is Love in the Low Countries, a two-day presentation of Dutch Literature being held in a Prague theatre. A whole swarm of writers has been flown in for the event: Esther Gerritsen, Annelies Verbeke, Auke Hulst, Peter Buwalda, to a name but a few of the better known among them. They have been selected by the Literary Fund of the Netherlands because they have been – or may one day be – translated into Czech. And no, your favourite writer was not invited, and was only there because the charming wife of the ambassador had drawn my attention to it. (In Amsterdam I live just across the street from the office of the Literary Fund, the sugar daddy of so many writers, but the only thing they have ever given me is trouble in the form of yet another noisy, expensive renovation. At the taxpayer’s expense, of course.)

The Flemish writer reads, his words are translated onto a big screen, and the audience listens in silence. They applaud, even louder when Verbeke reads her work, and laugh when Igor tells an anecdote about a trip to Amsterdam and a cousin in Heerlen. Buwalda reads from Bonita Avenue. The Czech version appears to be much thinner than the original, which may mean that the language is more concise, or that the translator has omitted a few superfluous passages. It’s hard to say. Their cheeks rosy, the female visitors climb down from their seats and wander out into the city for one last glass of wine. Or beer: this is the Czech Republic after all.

Have you ever been to a literary evening? Would you attend a Czech-Dutch cultural festival? I didn’t think so. But this is Prague, and Love in the Low Countries is the theme of this edition of a literary talk show, EKG, which always draws a huge crowd. Prague, the city where Milan Kundera worked, and the Czech Republic, the country which chose Václav Havel, a writer, as its first president, are places where we writers – those hardworking guardians of democracy – get the respect we deserve.

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