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|A LITTLE KNOWN EPISODE - PRATAJEV IN ZIZKOV
written by Phil Shoenfelt, for the Leipzig band The Russian Doctors
A short history of the great Russian poet Pratajev, who has inspired the band with his immortal lines
(taken from the recently published “A History Of The Republic of Zizkov“ by the renowned Czech philosopher and historian Luboš Blbecek)
A little known episode in the life of Pratajev is the extended visit he paid to Prague, shortly after the Red Army’s liberation of our beautiful city in May 1945. Throughout that joyful spring, and indeed for many months afterwards, this great but still unrecognised Russian poet lived in a small garret flat on Lipanská, just a little up the hill from the Zizkov town hall. In an area whose streets are named after our great Czech poets, the troubled bard from Kurtschinsk-Robersk found some meaning in his chaotic life, and could often be found drinking in the same shabby hostelries that had once given comfort to such literary eminences as Seifert and Hašek. Until now, only the sketchiest details of Pratajev’s sojourn in Prague have been known, such as his fondness for dark beer and the buxom Czech barmaids who served it to him. However, as a result of my own painstaking research, the events leading up to his arrival in our fair city, and those which followed after, can finally be revealed.
We know from his Russian biographers that in 1944 Pratajev was living in Molybdanov, a small town about 100 kms west of the provincial capital Rovtlovensk. Then, at the beginning of 1945 he mysteriously disappears, and nothing more is heard from him until his arrival in Prague the following spring. What happened to him during these months? Where did he go? Who was the muse that inspired his erotic yet spiritual masterpiece “Mein Liebling die Hure”, and how on earth did he end up living in Zizkov? It was only after months of careful investigation, culminating in the chance meeting in a pub with a man who claimed to be the son of Pratajev’s lifelong friend Anatoli Prumski, that I felt qualified to answer these questions.
According to what Igor Prumski told me, it appears that Pratajev left Molybdanov in January 1945 to visit a female friend in the small Ukranian town of Korostyshiv. As the town lay just a few kilometres behind the Russian front lines at Zhitomir, and had only recently been retaken from the retreating German army, this seems to have been a particularly unwise journey to undertake at such a time. However, Pratajev was a true romantic, and matters of the heart were always more urgent for him than issues of personal safety. He hadn’t seen his lady friend for more than three years, and besides he was then forty two years of age, much too old for active military service.
Sadly, but typically for him, Pratajev’s great romantic dream came to nothing. The woman in question had recently got married to a handsome Russian tank commander, and refused to have anything more to do with him. It was while drowning his sorrows in a local pub that our sensitive poet became abusive, deriding womankind in general while boasting of his own talents as a lover, poet and doctor. Unfortunately for him, several off-duty Russian soldiers were also drinking in the pub, and on waking from his stupor the next morning Pratajev discovered that he had been kidnapped, recruited into the Red Army medical corps in the service of the hard-pressed motherland.
The rest, as they say, is history. Throwing himself into his work, Pratajev treated the wounded and dying as the mighty Red Army pushed westwards into Europe, finally reaching Prague on the eleventh of May 1945, two days after the liberation.
It might have been expected that the heroic doctor-poet would have wanted to return to his beloved Mother Russia as soon as possible. Instead, he found that there was much to be done to assist his brother Slavs right here in Prague, and during the following months he performed all kinds of difficult medical operations, from child-deliveries to amputations to the setting of broken bones. Sometimes, the only surgical instruments available to him were garden tools such as wood saws and shears, and copious amounts of alcohol had to be used in lieu of morphine and anaesthetic. Nevertheless, the great humanist soldiered onwards, sometimes on the verge of nervous collapse, returning each night to his garret on Lipanská Street where he would meditate on the folly of man and the futility of war. Is it any wonder that under such circumstances Pratajev sought oblivion in drink, and could often be found passed out at a table in one of the many pubs around Seifertova and Borivojova? Or that he found comfort in the muscular arms of the cheerful young serving wenches who worked in these disreputable establishments? But I come to praise Pratajev, not to bury him, and it is my personal belief that the sufferings he encountered during these difficult months allowed him to grow, not only as a man but as a poet. Zizkov can be proud that Pratajev’s experiences there resulted in the great creative outpouring of 1947, a body of work that confirms his reputation as one of the unsung heroes of twentieth century Russian lierature.
But this is not all there is to say about Pratajev’s time in Prague. In the course of my difficult and thorough research, I came across a man in a Zizkov pub who claimed to be the grandson of the great poet. The man’s name was Mr. Švec, (“Mr. Shoemaker”, in English), and at first I was highly doubtful if he could substantiate such an outrageous claim to fame. After all, there are no records pertaining to Pratajev´s fathering of any offspring, and although Mr. Švec is himself a respected artist, a legendary figure on the Czech underground music scene, this hardly gives him the right to proclaim himself part of such a prestigious family lineage. However, by the end of a most enjoyable night, even the sceptical Blbecek was thoroughly convinced, and I can now reveal publically for the first time that Pratajev did indeed father a child, a boy by the name of Jaromir.
From what Mr. Švec told me, it seems that the momentous event happened almost by accident, one cold December night in 1945 while Pratajev was in the company of a young lady called Ludmila Kvasnicková. Mrs. Kvasnicková (“Mrs. Yeast”, in English), had lost her husband to the war, but did not allow this tragedy to dampen her good spirits and natural zest for life. From her place behind the bar at the Jedová Chysé pub in Krasova Street, she had often watched Pratajev slumped at a corner table, worn out and dejected from his medical toils, downing glass after glass of his favourite dark beer as he tried to forget the horror of life. Sometimes she would slip him a free glass of slivovice, and though he was often abusive, and spoke only the most basic Czech, she had heard that he was a great writer and was convinced that beneath the rough exterior beat the heart of a true poet.
On the night in question, Pratajev was particularly the worse for wear, and continued to sit with his forehead on the table long after last orders had been called and the lights turned out in the bar. Finally, only he and Ludmila remained, and seizing her chance she locked the pub door, hefted him across her sturdy shoulders and carried him upstairs to her bed. From the condition he was in, it might seem surprising that Pratajev was capable of performing even the most basic of amatory functions. However, Ludmila Kvasnicková was experienced in the arts of love and refused to accept defeat, and finally, after many false starts, the fateful deed was accomplished.
Such are the quirks of Destiny. Nine months later, and unbeknown to Pratajev, who had long since departed Prague for distant lands to the east, young Jaromir was born. He was a pale, introspective lad who bore no resemblance whatsoever to his illustrious father, and as he grew older his natural introspection turned into something darker and more sullen. He was always asking Ludmila who his real father was, but she, wanting to protect the great man’s reputation, always refused to tell him. Finally, out of desperation, and in an attempt to stem the tide of endless questions, she informed the persistent Jaromir that his true father was a travelling shoemaker, who had left Prague shortly after he was born without leaving a forwarding address. Unfortunately, this story only made matters worse.
Jaromir withdrew further into himself, often refusing to speak to Ludmila for days at a time, and as soon as he was eighteen he changed his name by deed poll from Kvasnicka to Švec, both to assert his independence and to embarrass his heartbroken mother. To compound the matter further, he apprenticed himself to a real shoemaker called Kadlec, and took out his anger by banging nails into the heavy leather boots of the proletariat.
The story might have ended here, but for one final twist of fate, without which it is highly unlikely we would ever have learned that the seed of Pratajev lives on today. Having reached adulthood, and with a pregnant young wife of his own, Jaromir had at last attained a measure of peace in his half Russian soul. It is true that he still refused to speak to his mother, and just like his father he tended to drink too much, but in all other respects he was a model socialist citizen. He went happily to work each day, steered clear of any political discussions that might have got him into trouble with the authorities, and in spite of his drinking and womanising had a reputation as being the best shoemaker in Zizkov. Knowing all this as we do now, thanks to Mr. Švec the younger, what happened to Jaromir is so ironic, so filled with nemesis, as to be worthy of an ancient Greek tragedy.
It was the twenty first of August, 1968, that most infamous day in the annals of recent Czech history. The Prague spring had come and gone, Dubcek had been summoned to Moscow, and in the name of protecting the Socialist Brotherhood the Russians had decided to send in the tanks. None of these events were noticed by Jaromir (who, truth be told, was a little simple in the head). That fateful morning he walked to work as usual, and it was only when he turned the corner of Cajkovského Street, and saw a Russian tank come bouncing over the cobblestones towards him, that he realised something was amiss. Indeed it was. The young tank driver had taken a wrong turn by the National Museum at the top of Vaclavské nám?stí, and after heading up Vinohradská he was now hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine streets of Zizkov. At the exact moment Jaromir turned the corner, the tank hit a pothole in the road, and purely by accident the machine gun went off, one of the bullets ricocheting off a building before burying itself in the side of Jaromir’s head. This time, there was no Russian doctor on hand to lend assistance. Dead on the streets of Zizkov, only days before his twenty second birthday, Jaromir’s one legacy to the world was his infant son, born exactly a fortnight after this tragic and mournful event.
Yet should we be shocked, or even saddened, by such manifestations of the tragic? Tragedy flows through the soul of a poet like the mighty River Vltava flows through Prague, and it’s hardly surprising that Pratajev’s only son should have met his end in such a rhetorical way. As I sat in the garden of the “Shot Out Eye” pub (U Vystreleného Oka, in Czech), I watched Mr. Švec finish his beer, then shake his head fatalistically as he came to the end of his incredible tale. Only on his sixteenth birthday had he learned of his connection to the great Russian poet, when his grandmother Ludmila, fearing a repetition of history, had taken him aside and told him of his illustrious family tree. Shaking his head once again, in much the same way as it is said that Pratajev himself used to do, Švec smiled sadly and bade me goodbye, then wandered back inside the pub to get himself another drink.
All that remains to be mentioned here are my own humble thoughts on the legacy of Pratajev, a poet of the people whose immortal work can no longer be confined within the borders of his strife-ridden homeland. I imagine him now, as if in a vision, drinking in some obscure village pub with his friend and confidant Prumski, never suspecting the glorious achievements that one day would be his. And as the sun goes down behind the trees, the ghosts of Puškin, Chekov and Tolstoy appear, smiling serenely as they stand at a distance, their glasses raised in a toast to the young man’s brilliant future. Oh, how mysterious the smile of Lady Fortune, how incomparably subtle the workings of a poet’s soul! Russia may have his books, Weimar may have some of his bones, but thanks to Ludmila the Free Republic Of Zizkov has the great man‘s genes.
1. Professor Luboš Blbecek is head of the Philosophic Faculty at Charles University, and is also the author of “I drink, therefore I am”, a seminal study of René Descartes and the Cartesian philososophers. (Blbecek means “small idiot” in Czech.)
2. Jarda Švec is a famous saxophone player, and is a legendary figure on the Czech underground music scene. His first group Ženy have one classic CD released on Black Point Records (www.blackpointmusic.cz), and at present he is active with his new project, Švecovský Pop.