Guidebook to the past

Recently, at an old house down the country, I happened upon an interesting guidebook, or “bedeker”, as Czechs call such publications, in reference to the famous Baedeker guides that originated in the 19th century.

The 1960s guide to Prague is nicely produced. It has cool, typical Czechoslovak illustrations and photos by such masters as Ladislav Sitenský and Vilém Heckel. The English translation, by a Roberta Finlayson-Samsour, cannot be faulted.

But it was first published in 1964 and reissued in 1968, so it naturally reflects the politics of the time.

After all the usual stuff about the legend of Prague’s foundation by Princess Libuše, and a run-through of the main events and periods of the intervening millennium, author Alois Svoboda arrives at 1948 and the beginning of the communist era.

This has been referred to as the “Prague putsch” by “reactionaries” who have emigrated to the West, Svoboda writes. But the term is sour grapes; after all, hundreds of thousands demonstrated to demand that President Beneš accept the resignations of 12 “bourgeois” ministers.

The cabinet members’ anti-Communist manoeuvre had failed, Svoboda continues, and “Czechoslovakia set out firmly on the road to socialism”. There may be a good deal of truth in this, but there is of course no reference to the immense cost in human lives and misery on that “road”.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned about the Prague of that era in the guidebook. It turns out, for instance, that Lidový Dům, now home to the Social Democratic Party, was in those days the V.I. Lenin Museum. The Bolshevik leader had chaired a congress there in 1912.

The fold-up map, like all such documents of the time, contains many familiar Communist-era street names, such as Leninová for what is now Evropská (known to many as the road to the airport).

It was, however, somewhat surprising to learn that Prague 6’s Rooseveltova, an earlier tribute to the US president, was allowed to keep that moniker.

The practical information in the book is disappointingly scant. It lists a small number of hotels, seven Tuzex foreign currency shops and five taxi ranks. Prices, the book says, are “firm and uniform”, as distribution and transport are nationalised.

Just as interesting as the politics is an “unreconstructed” passage riffing on Prague’s mythical establishment by Libuše. The city’s feminine beauty, Svoboda writes, has a subtlety and ever-changing variety that means admirers “must always conquer her anew”.

It gets worse/more hilarious: “Like a woman, Prague has a thousand different faces, like a woman a thousand moods”.

The extreme unlikelihood of such nonsense appearing in a “bedeker” today is surely another reason to be glad times have changed.