The Most Depressing Book in the World

Ota Pavel. Pod powierzchnią Aleksander Kaczorowski Czarne 2018, p. 328

A Chinese proverb says that to be happy for an hour you should get drunk, to be happy for three days you should get married, and to be happy all your life you should become a fisherman. Ota Pavel, although not Chinese, but a Czech of Jewish origin, seemed to have learned these words well. “Death of the Beautiful Deer”, a collection of short stories about an idyllic childhood spent in pre-war Czechoslovakia, is a literary return to the only moments of happiness in life, invariably associated with fishing, for this writer of genius. Called the “the greatest antidepressant book in the world”, it is actually the opposite of that in my opinion. It is heartbreakingly sad, as every page is a record of past happiness, irretrievably lost beauty, permanently broken by the brutality of life, by mature consciousness, but also, or above all, by the war, which irreversibly and once for all swept away the world of beautiful deer, ponds full of fat carp, of daddy and mummy, who had not yet been marked with the imprint of the Others.

I cried my eyes out over it numerous times, for example, when reading the passage about the funeral of an uncle: “I was old enough to know that I was burying not only Uncle Prošek, but all my childhood and everything related to it. Lying in this coffin were also an authentic English ball, cool buttermilk, marinated fish and venison, the dog named Holan, Prague sausages and a gramophone record 1000 Miles;” and I probably never recovered from it.

The life of Ota Pavel, born in 1930 as Otto Popper, was dramatically interwoven with the history of Central Europe and could actually serve as its symbol. This was a biography marked by the Holocaust.

I somehow doubt that’s the way antidepressants are supposed to work. “Ota Pavel: Pod powierzchnią” [Under the Surface], an excellent book by Aleksander Kaczorowski, does not make things any easier, because it is a story about a tragic and broken life—broken by his stamp of origin, the war and finally by mental illness. The life of Ota Pavel, born in 1930 as Otto Popper, was dramatically interwoven with the history of Central Europe and could actually serve as its symbol. This was a biography marked by the Holocaust (during the war the writer observed the tragedy of his family, deported to concentration camps), post-war entanglement in Communist ideology and eventually growing disappointed by it, and finally an identity rift, a grim symbol of which was the name change caused by persecutions of the Jewish minority; an act which is a metaphorical image of the schizophrenia reigning in this part of Europe in those days.

Writing as an obsession

Pavel took up his first job, already as a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, in 1949 as a radio sports journalist. Although he knew and understood sports, he was extremely nervous, could not speak on air and was confined to writing texts for others. This actually served him well, for this is when he began to read in depth. He rapidly made up for his literary deficits, reading nineteenth century classics, especially Russian ones, several times over. Equally rapidly, as a 20-year-old radio employee who was listened to by millions and with a press card which offered many opportunities, he felt special. “I simply went crazy, like the majority of young people who think that if they manage to put the ball between the goalposts or in some other hole, the world belongs to them,” he admitted years later.

The radio also brought changes in his personal life, this being where he met his future wife. Věra Ujčeková was a secretary at the sports editorial office, and a twice-married mother of two sons. She liked the fact that 24-year-old Ota was quite mature for his age. They were married in the mid-1950s, when Pavel quit his radio job and began working at the weekly Stadium. He was unable, however, to write texts off the top of his head, correcting them for hours on end and trying to turn a simple cable into a masterpiece. Writing slowly became his obsession. When his son Jiří was born in 1956, Ota concluded that he could not cope with the fast pace of work in the editorial office. “This constant melee is not for me. To be able to write, I must have peace, and here something is happening all the time, I can’t do it any more,” he announced and found a job in the biweekly Československý voják, which allowed its authors to work on texts at home.

Great plans for the future

This is where his talent was first recognized. Sports articles also took him many weeks of preparation, for he felt that he had to find a certain unique point in a given sportsman’s life from which he could start his story. This could be the reason why his texts soon met with popularity, so popular that the regime heard about them. His pieces were assembled in his first book. He waited with great expectation for the first copies. He confessed to his brother: “How terrible that most people aren’t able to do what they really want to do in their life—most have to earn their bread doing a job they hate.” Fortunately, this was not his case. He was in top form, planning his future and intending to write a book on the well-known footballer Kučera. This was when he went to Austria for the Winter Olympics.

“I went mad at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. I came face to face in that condition with one gentleman—the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fur, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog.” He fell ill at the age of 33, ending up in a locked ward 16 times. He had delusions of being Christ—until pharmaceuticals put him right. “Eyes are shadowed with sadness, you already know that you are not Christ, but a wretched man lacking that common sense which makes humans human,” he recalled.

While in the hospital, he waited for a miracle for weeks on end. While lying in a straitjacket, streaming with sweat, he was told to think about pleasant things to help the drugs do their work. “I wasn’t thinking about love or roaming around the world. I wasn’t thinking about night flights across the ocean or about playing Canadian hockey in Sparta Prague. I went fishing again—over streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. And I realized that this was the most beau- tiful thing that I had experienced in the world,” he confessed to his brother.

A sense of happiness

Doctors began testing an innovative method of lithium therapy. The therapy brought about effects. The writer regained his freedom in 1967. He bought a typewriter and began to write his finest book that fall. A piece, as he said, about ordinary life, about mummy and daddy, fishing, walks along the river, but also a shadow hovering above it all of the approaching World War II. He actually had an idea for two books—one about his father and the other about fishing. These are the most concise descriptions of two of his most famous books – “Death of the Beautiful Deer” and “How I Came to Know Fish”.

He worked tirelessly, although it was not the best thing for him. Writing gave him a sense of happiness, but he himself knew best how much he would eventually have to pay for it. “[…] I almost went crazy from it and the doctors admitted that it was from excessive mental stress and overwork. But madness is one of the worst things in the world, I was marked by it forever, I have been a broken man ever since,” he wrote in a letter.

Despite all this, even the doctors began to hesitate when they saw the resulting text. Aware that something amazing was emerging, they decided to reduce the dose of the drug, although it could potentially end in disaster. When Pavel was close to the end of the book, writing about the death of the ferryman he loved like his own father, he cried for the first time while working. Tears were dripping on his typewriter, flowing onto the floor. “It was something beautiful – and terrible,” he recalled. And he told his brother: “This is the story of my life. I managed to stay in the loony bin for five years, so that I could write it.”

It was immediately apparent that it was a masterpiece.

Psychotic attacks

“Death of the Beautiful Deer”, published for the first time in 1971, is the book which gave Pavel a place in literary history. This tale of cheerful family life set in an idyllic landscape is in fact a tale about the drama of assimilation of Czech Jews, of the Holocaust and Czechoslovak anti-Semitism in its post-war edition. It came out in 1976 in Poland in one volume along with “How I Came to Know Fish”; republished up until today. It enjoys a kind of cult following, with many (including the author of this text) listing it among their favorite and most important books.

Unfortunately, Pavel accurately predicted his future. “[…] I know that whatever I don’t write by the age of forty, I will never write it; I fear that I will be unable to write any longer,” he confided to a friend. In 1970, his condition worsened once again. He was prone to psychotic attacks when leaving the house. One day he stabbed a policeman in the center of Prague. He was again taken to the hospital. He died in 1973 during his sixteenth hospitalization. The truth about what actually happened is still unknown, although there is a suspicion that the writer was killed by too large a dose of a psychotropic drug which reduced the amount of oxygen in the blood.

Aleksander Kaczorowski, an expert and translator of Czech literature, the biographer of Hrabal and Havel and other works, wrote an unusual biography, combining a journalistic report with a literary essay. When describing the dramatic fate of the Czech-Jewish writer, he follows his footsteps, con- ducting a sort of investigation, which basically ends with a question rather than an answer. “Pod powierzchnią” is an account written by a person discreetly fascinated by Pavel, full of respect and restraint, but at the same time approaching the author of “Death of the Beautiful Dear” as close as possible.

While in the hospital, he waited for a miracle for weeks on end. While lying in a straitjacket, streaming with sweat, he was told to think about pleasant things to help the drugs do their work.

A story about the nightmare of mental illness

Kaczorowski quotes letters by Pavel’s friends and family. He has talked to those who knew him and visited places where he lived and worked. He skillfully intertwines great and small history—placing the personal story of the writer against the background of epoch-making events. This results in a story about the nightmare of mental illness, about growing bitterness, disappointment with both Communist ideology and with himself, and also the price you have to pay for great talent. “Pod powierzchnią” is above all an exploration of identity and the ghosts it breeds, that is an attempt on a micro-scale to depict the nightmare which tormented Central and Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

Pavel, as seen by Kaczorowski, is someone who believed that he was a typical child, only to realize during the war that he was different, just as his father and brothers, and that he was in danger of death because of that. He remained different of course despite changing his name. And then he went mad. Writing was supposed to help him unravel these dramatically intertwined knots, but it only became a testimony to his helplessness—in the face of the mechanisms of history and those governing human life.

When Pavel was close to the end of the book, writing about the death of the ferryman he loved like his own father, he cried for the first time while working. Tears were dripping on his typewriter, owing onto the floor.

One could make a sensational story out of it, but one could also, like Kaczorowski, basically stick to what is stated in the title itself: attempt to reconstruct this both simple and extraordinary, heroic life, time and again subtly peering into this gap through which one glimpse the mysterious and the unobvious. The biographer does all of this while maintaining a unique sense of humor and imbuing the book with a Czech climate, which demands truly great skill. This is arguably the best way to approach a biographical book, writing it in such a way that one remains close to the temperament and spirit of the great writer’s work.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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