Monday, November 20, 2006

A quiet man

Honza is not one of those flighty types who emotes in public. Even when he speaks his facial muscles barely twitch. His voice is similarly controlled - he commits no feats of vocal daring. He never varies from a measured rhythm and tone, even when speaking in his native Czech.

When he switches to English, his mother tongue strongly affects the inflections of his speech. Most of his generation never believed they would use English as more than an academic exercise. The closest many came to hearing native speakers were ancient recordings of received pronounciation or illicit voices on fuzzy radios. Speaking Czech has trained him to place equal weight on each syllable and he pronounces them all with deliberation. When coupled with the uncertainty that comes from twisting his tongue around unfamiliar sounds, the result is a slow, driving monotone.

Everything about Honza is round: glasses, hands, face, cheeks, eyes, tummy and bald patch covered with dark fluff. This past weekend he went to his cottage in the mountains with his family for the public holiday.

Seventeen years ago, on the 17th November, Honza and 14,999 or so of his fellow students went on a government-sanctioned march through Prague. They said it was to commemorate the day that the Nazis closed all Czech universities and colleges, stormed Charles University, deported 1200 students to concentration camps and executed 9 student leaders after mass anti-Nazi protests at the funeral of Jan Opletal. Jan was a medical student had been killed in an anti-Nazi demonstration some days earlier.

Fifty years later, Honza and his fellow students marched with anti-Communist slogans. He went, he says, "because no one really knew, but we thought something might be changing." They continued past its official end and walked to Narodni Trida. There, riot police blocked in and attacked the demonstrators. Rumours started that another student had been killed. That evening, students and actors in Prague agreed to go on strike.

By the following Monday, a mass demonstration in Prague attracted 100,000 people. The protests escalated and spread through the country until the 28th when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia ceded its monopoly on power.

Honza has no photos of his velvet revolutionary days to show his children. If he ever had long hair or wore tie-dyed jeans, he won't admit to it. At the time, he says, "no one wanted to stand out... or have their pictures taken, just in case..well, just in case. You didn't know, really, who was looking or what they were thinking."

No comments: