Prague’s Infinite Shades of Gray

Adolf Hoffmeister on terrace of Les deux magots café, Paris, 1969. Photo by Václav Chochola, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I have recently published a short essay on the eventful life of the “Czech writer, publicist, dramatist, painter, illustrator, scenographer, caricaturist, translator, diplomat, lawyer, professor, and traveler” (as he is described in the Czech Wikipedia; French Wikipedia adds “and radio commentator”) Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973), known to his friends as Ada.

A central character in my book Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, Hoffmeister wrote the libretto for Hans Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár, which was staged 55 times in the notorious Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto during 1943-4 before the composer, the set designer František Zelenka, and most of the children in the cast were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

I end the essay:

Hoffmeister died of a heart attack on July 24, 1973. His life was extraordinary, and yet it was thoroughly representative of Czechoslovakia’s twentieth century. Like countless other men and women—writers and politicians, architects and athletes, journalists and filmmakers, artists, musicians, and comedians—his story shows why Czech dissidents sardonically baptized their country Absurdistan. Biographies like Ada’s are why Prague provides a more revealing vantage point on the modern condition than the western capitals from which we are accustomed to look out, naively equating history with progress. Things look different when viewed from Central Europe. Prague’s modernity undermines easy distinctions between east and west, good and evil, right and wrong. Here, all choices come with costs, and the lines dividing collaboration and resistance, consent and dissent, dissolve into a blur of moral uncertainties. This is a landscape painted in infinite shades of gray. When authoritarianism is in the ascendant and democracy under global assault, we cannot afford to dismiss twentieth-century Czechoslovakia as a faraway country. Prague’s modern history should sound a warning to us all.

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