Subtle revenge

Another Strange But True story from my mentor Paul, again bearing on the surreal Czech imagination:

In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. The band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.

Empirical language acquisition

Frances Wood, a distinguished former student of the late great Paul Kratochvil, reminds me of another of his stories.

Paul liked to tell us this as we grappled with the use of classifiers (measure words) for Chinese nouns. The nearest equivalent in English is for collective nouns. In Chinese a basic all-purpose one is ge (“a person” is not yiren but yige ren), but one needs to use all kinds of classifiers before different types of nouns, like ben for a book (not yishu but yiben shu), or (if you wanna get pleasantly obscure, as I do) zuan for a sheng mouth-organ (yizuan sheng).

Anyway, Paul was just a kid when American GIs liberated his home village in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. They were kind of heroes, and he began hanging out at their barracks, gradually picking up English—entirely through daily aural experience.

After some time a grammatical rule subliminally formulated in his young mind: English nouns must invariably be preceded by the classifier fuckin’. No-one ever said “Gimme a beer!”, it was always “Gimme a fuckin’ beer!”; never “Open the window!”, always ““Open the fuckin’ window!”

Anyway, Paul’s spoken English came along rapidly, and his father, realizing his son had a real gift for language learning, somehow managed to arrange for him to go up to Prague to take an English oral proficiency test.

Paul knocks on the door. Commanding English military type shouts out, “Come in!”, and finding a scruffy kid in short trousers standing before him, barks, “Yes boy, what do you want?”

Paul, hesitantly: “Hey bud, I’ve come to take ze fuckin’ exam in fuckin’ English.”

Another Czech mate

Further to my Czech mentor Paul Kratochvil:

Along with Flann O’Brien, high on the guest list for my fantasy dinner-party would be Jaroslav Hašek— “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”.

Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk has long been popular in China. Cecil Parrott, its English translator, also wrote a biography of Hašek’s “bottle-strewn life”, The bad Bohemian. Former British Ambassador in Prague, Parrott effortlessly avoids betraying any sympathy with Hašek’s reprobate behaviour. In the introduction to his translation (Penguin 1974, p.x) Parrott explains:

His next escapade was to found a new political party called The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Limits of the Law […] publicly debunking the monarchy, its institutions and its social and political system. Of course it was only another hoax, designed partly to satisfy Hašek’s innate thirst for exhibitionism and partly to bolster the finances of the pub where the election meetings were held.

Among his many japes, his short-lived editorship of the journal The Animal World was curtailed after he published articles about imaginary animals.

Dangerous herds of wild Scottish collies have recently become the terror of the population in Patagonia

Thoroughbred werewolves for sale

Newly discovered fossil of an antediluvian flea

And his hobbies combined:

Everyone who votes for us will receive as a gift a small pocket aquarium.

Gratifyingly, The Good Soldier Švejk clearly appeals to Chinese sensibilities; it was translated,

and the 1956–1957 Czech films were dubbed into Chinese:

The Chinese version of Švejk’s name (Shuaike 帅克) is perfect. It drives me to a little fantasy.

Though popular in many languages, I suspect there’s something about Švejk that appeals in particular to Chinese people—an antidote to compulsory patriotism? The Chinese translator dutifully portrays it as a tirade against imperialism, but it surely spoke to The Common Man (Flann O’Brien’sThe Plain People of Ireland”) oppressed by the destructive irrationalities of a newer system…

***

À propos, Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel The joke is a brilliant treatment of the indignities to which traditional music and culture were subjected under Communism, with clear echoes of China and its “Golden Age” myth (my book pp.343, 371–2). See

  • Michael Beckerman, “Kundera’s musical joke and ‘folk’ music in Czechoslovakia, 1948–?”, in Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe, pp.37–53.

… This is why Tereza, when she met the chairman of the collective farm at the spa, conjured up an image of the countryside (a countryside she had never lived in or known) that she found enchanting. It was her way of looking back, back to Paradise.
[…]
The state supported folk music and festivals in an attempt to show, quite simply, that in this “people’s paradise” the folk, at least, were alive and well.

Even in cases where local cultures have not been remoulded by the state, scholars may unwittingly impose their own agendas…

In memory of Paul Kratochvil

At Cambridge during the Cultural Revolution, immersed as I was in the Tang dynasty, my only clues to the funkiness of contemporary Chinese culture came from my teacher the fine linguist Paul Kratochvil (a name that suitably means “fun”), who had fled Czechoslavakia in 1968 and somehow became an expert on the phonetics of modern Chinese. Recommending to me a book called Current Trends in Linguistics, he looked bemused when I asked him what I should look it up in the library under – like an editor’s name or something: “Well, Steve, try ‘C’—if that doesn’t work, I guess you could try ‘K’…”

Over copious beer in the pub where he used to take me for what were euphemistically described as “supervisions”, Paul recalled this story:

While still in Czechoslovakia he had served as interpreter for the Czech army, and at one high-level conference in Prague receiving a Chinese military delegation, he found himself interpreting for a Czech general at one end of the table and a Chinese general at the other.

The talks had gone well, and the Czech general was winding up with the customary sonorous platitudes. “I hope that the two sides will be able to exchange experiences!” he declared majestically. My friend Paul was already a fine linguist, and he knew there were some binomes in Chinese which you could say in the order either A-B or B-A, but alas he thought jingyan, “experience”, was one of these. So he blithely translated, “Wo xiwang shuangfang nenggou jiaohuan yanjing”, which unfortunately comes out only as “I hope the two sides will be able to exchange spectacles.”

This puts the Chinese general in a spot; the TV cameras are trained on him, and he mustn’t make a faux pas. Can this be some weird Czech custom denoting fraternal solidarity? As luck would have it, both generals are wearing spectacles. The Chinese general hesitantly takes off his glasses and holds them out over the table towards his Czech counterpart.

This, of course, presents no less of a challenge for the Czech general; having said nothing about spectacles, he is mystified to see this Chinese geezer holding out his spectacles across the table, and he too has to think quickly. Can this be some ancient Confucian ritual denoting fraternal solidarity? He too hesitantly takes off his glasses and offers them across the table.

My chastened mentor later switched on the Prague TV news to see a report, the newsreader announcing solemnly, “And at the end of the conference the two sides exchanged spectacles in the ancient Chinese gesture of comradeship”—as the two generals grope their way to the door.