Petr Berka, Aleš Palán, Petr Šťastný: Xenophobe's Guide to the Czechs

Mar 31, 2016

While being on a red-white wave of all things Danish, I stumbled upon Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes. I’ve read several books about this curious little Nordic country but all of them were serious. Xenophobe’s Guides are said to be funny and might employ hyperbole so in order to find my baseline I decided to first read Xenophobe’s Guide to the Czechs. Admittedly, the authors differ, but my assumption was that the overarching brand would give it at least some kind tone consistency.

This guide is a very fast read of some 90 pages. It covers all the corner stones of being Czech: blaming history and different occupants, ability to put up with any circumstance, our envy, love of cottages, tramping, cycling, dance lessons, self-deprecating humor, atheism, love of dogs, long help record in beer consumption per capita (even when counting babies) and Czech language.

Czech society is egalitarian, but maintaining average levels is achieved not by the weaker individuals trying harder but, on the contrary, by the stronger ones getting desirably weaker. The average, then, is quite close to zero, but this is not what matters: the main thing is that nobody stands out. The fact that in spite of this tendency the Czech economy stays productive and the local culture flourishes could be best explained as proof of God’s existence. Any natural explanation is missing.

Petr Berka, Aleš Palán, Petr Šťastný: The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Czechs

There are many passages which are violently funny. Personally, I can go with any quote by Jára Cimrman and there are many. Another character who gets mentioned a lot is Švejk (who I cannot comment upon, because I’ve never read the book nor seen the film) who is presented as an embodiment of the Czech nature. Numerous national traits are explained in terms of the history of the second part of the twentieth century while some go further into the past, especially to “golden ages”.

Despite all this, the Czechs consider they have among them the biggest personality of all mankind, Jára Cimrman, the most colossally intelligent multi-inventor and mega-creator. This fictional character of non-existent genius was born a few years ago in one of Prague’s theatres. His persona, however, recently stepped down from stage and entered the real, almost political, world, when in a national TV poll Jára Cimrman was voted with a landslide majority as the greatest ever Czech. The organizers were reluctant to announce a non-existent figure as the overall winner of a poll in which in Britain, for example, Winston Churchill took the lead. For this reason they had the poor Cimrman disqualified and the declared winner was the medieval monarch, King Charles IV. The Czechs simply ‘švejked’ the poll; they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Petr Berka, Aleš Palán, Petr Šťastný: The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Czechs

At the same time, the authors comment on many negative aspects of being Czech. Cheapness at home and while moving half the country to Croatia for the summer, corruption, sexism, homophobism or xenophobic attitudes towards minorities — be it those long/well established like Ukrainians, Romanies, or Vietnamese or newcomers — highly homogeneous Czechs have problems with inclusivity.

The Czechs have it much simpler: their language offers hundreds of one or two-word insults. In an American movie about adolescents one particular term that was frequently used was ‘Shit!’ In the Czech dubbing of the film, this term was translated into 27 different equivalents.

Petr Berka, Aleš Palán, Petr Šťastný: The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Czechs

In some cases, I’m not sure about the accuracy of the observations. My view is probably tinted by living in Prague which (as many capitals) is almost its own country — higher wages, higher costs, better standard of living, higher average education, more foreigners and their influence etc. The rest of the country probably averages all the progressive attitudes or improvements on the Czech essence achieved in Prague. Although, the recent political and societal development at large shows that the depicted Czech who’s suffered under many different rulers and wears his -isms with pride is all well and good. Unfortunately.

As for the book, I’d recommend it to foreigners trying to get a grip on Czech nature with several words of caution.