Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Brno, Czech Republic (Part II); July 24-25

July 24-25, 2009, Brno, Czech Republic

After our meeting with Dr. Nadezda Sieglova (described by Kevin below) we went on another hunt for nonsense within what we were told was a fairly crazy and humorous Czech folksong tradition. Two independent sources from Brno (which, by the way, is pronounced “Burr-no”), sent us to the folk museum in the center of town, where we struggled to communicate with a woman who was trying very hard to help us—in German and Czech. My handy iPhone translator (who dares scoff at its necessity??) gave us a few key words, and she contacted a researcher/worker somewhere in the building, who was very busy but came down to talk to us. Apparently, they didn’t have folk music there (curses to our sources!)—but she gave us an address for the Ethnology Institute a little outside of town. Another cab ride brought us to the doorstep, and we once again were faced with someone trying to help us, but with no English. She was able to find someone in the building to help us, and a few minutes later, a man in his 50s, looking like he just came in from gardening, came barreling down the stairs to meet us, large dirty beaker containing some mysterious clear liquid, in hand. He promptly informed us that we were in the branch of the Institute that dealt with chemistry, and the chances of finding folk music there were slim. However, beaker sloshing, he gleefully led us outside, down a path or two, to another building. Kevin’s curiosity got the better of him, and he had to ask what was in the beaker. Water, of course. He was thirsty. We soon approached a locked door with a panel of buttons. He pressed one, spoke briefly with the woman who answered, and got us buzzed into the building. We all walked up to an office where our friendly beaker man introduced us to Dr. Jana Pospisilova. We struggled with language, but she seemed quite interested in our project, and it quickly became apparent why: we seemed to have found, after two false leads, two inappropriate institutions, and one chemist, a real-live Czech scholar of children’s folk culture. She began to pull books down from her shelves full of folk songs and rhymes, many which we couldn’t read of course, but also some English translations from Finnish that were excellent. We all sat down and talked, as well as we could, about our work, about folk culture, and our great luck at having come together.

Kevin and I left delighted, with quite a few references to pursue in Czech and other languages. On our walk back to the city, we passed by this establishment, which I present here for your perusal.

We celebrated back in the town center, with a couple of pivos and a lovely view of the square.

I shall leave you with two more nonsensical nuggets of the day: a little graffiti as we wandered in Roma neighborhoods looking for a Laundromat.

And lastly, a menu, the last item of which we were not quite brave enough to order.

Brno, Czech Republic (Part I)

Brno, Czech Republic (Part I)
July 24-25, 2009

In making our plans for research in the Czech Republic I was somewhat surprised to learn that the experts on children’s literature are not working from the nation’s capital, Prague, but from Masaryk University in the city of Brno, in Moravia, where the scholarly journal Ladeni, on Czech children’s literature, is published quarterly. The head of the department of Czech Literature there is Dr. Naděžda Sieglová. I knew her name from some articles on Czech children’s literature that were published by the Oxford University Press.

When we met with Dr. Sieglova in her office we were greeted very warmly, and, as if we had come to her home, she offered us an overwhelming plate of homemade Czech desserts, pastries and candies. In order to encourage our appetites Dr. Sieglova pronounced that the desserts “would not last in this weather” so we had to eat them all now. The gesture was very kind, and the desserts were delicious. I had one big chocolate thingy shaped like a steeple from an Orthodox church—with cognac inside. The only problem with the desserts was that I did end up getting chocolate all over my notes and on the handouts she gave us.

Concerning nonsense Dr. Sieglova gave us a thorough history lesson on Czech nonsense, starting with folk material. One thing that struck me as we started to go through the material, was that violins seemed to be a popular recurring motif in Czech nonsense. There were simply a lot of violins, and even a joke about Strativarias. Considering this fact I was then struck by something I'd not seen in any other country; nonsense in Czech often (or nearly always?) comes with sheet music in the back of the book. Nonsense rhymes are supposed to be sung in Czech--simple as that. And even when new nonsense is produced and published the cover will give credit for the author of the text, the illustrator, and the person who wrote the music in the back. Amazing! This surprise led me to think about English nursery and nonsense rhymes. When English Mother Goose poems were first published in book form in c. 1765 the title of the book was not "Mother Goose," but "Mother Goose's Melodies," and the fact was that English nursery and nonsense rhymes nearly always had music that was supposed to accompany them. A few publishers around 1800 tried to publish Mother Goose poems with the sheet music included, but these music books did not catch on, and mostly we of English tradition have forgotten the original melodies that went with our nonsense. Not so in Czech, where it is apparently taken for granted that sheet music must usually accompany nonsense.

When Dr. Sieglova moved on to the 1960s I was of rapt attention. Shea explained that “There was a lot of nonsense in the 1960s.” There was, in fact, a flowering of the genre at that time, as exemplified by the popular nonsense books of Pavel Šrut, Emanuel Frynta and Jiri Žacek. However, when the communists clamped down in 1968 and 1969, books of nonsense were forbidden. Nonsense then remained forbidden until the Revolution of 1989. For me personally this was a riveting piece of history. My dissertation was written directly on this topic. Working from a theory proposed by the Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, I basically proposed the idea that nonsense flourishes during times of social unrest—and that authoritarian movements are led by people who are easily threatened by nonsense. It was satisfying to learn of a concrete historical example that backs up what I’ve been preaching about nonsense for a while now.

Just during and after the Revolution of 1989, nonsense flourished again in Czech. And today, while there are not too many contemporary writers of nonsense in Czech we were introduced to one truly remarkable author, Petr Nikl, whose books are surreal, absurd, nonsensical and extremely well crafted and beautiful. His book, Jelenoviti, is dedicated to Christian Morgenstern, the German nonsense author. Below are a few photos from another of his texts, Za Hadky. The pages in this book actually come sliced, so that the reader can create a myriad of different creatures by flipping the top, middle and bottom panels. Note that in the two photos below the top and bottom panels on each page have not changed, only the middle has: (Click on the photos to enlarge them).

Before we left Dr. Sieglova she was kind enough to allow us to record her reciting a favorite nonsensical rhymes she knew as a child. At first we’d asked her to find one in one of the books she’d copied for us, but in the end she preferred to recite from memory. Her assistant, Tasa, was called in and the two of them worked together to be sure they had the lyrics correct. Dr. Sieglova made one recording, then, enthused, Tasa jumped in as well, recording two rhymes she recalled from her youth in Brno. Click here to hear these Czech nonsense rhymes.

Having finally gobbled up many of the desserts Dr. Sieglova offered us Michael and I were somewhat alarmed toward the end of the conversation when were suddenly handed five sandwiches and told to eat them too. I couldn’t really, so I gave mine to Michael and he ate all five.