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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bliss Was it in Bohemia

Michal Viewegh

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To purchase Bliss Was it in Bohemia

Title: Bliss Was it in Bohemia
Author: Michal Viewegh
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 281 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Bliss Was it in Bohemia - US
Bliss Was it in Bohemia - UK
Bliss Was it in Bohemia - Canada
Blendende Jahre für Hunde - Deutschland
Quei favolosi anni da cane - Italia
  • Czech title: Báječná léta pod psa
  • Translated by David Short
  • Foreword by Veronika Pehe

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely told growing-up-under-Communism tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 6/10/1998 Eva Menasse

  From the Reviews:
  • "Und das ist es, was Vieweghs Stil am meisten ausmacht: die Scham beim Schreiben, weil er, der Belesene, doch am besten weiß, daß alles schon versucht und beschrieben worden ist; die Anstrengung, seine vermutlich unerträglichen Skrupel durch Flapsigkeit, rhetorisches Muskelspiel und denunziatorische Distanz zu immunisieren. Er ist ein Autor, dem sein Beruf vermutlich peinlich ist, der deshalb seine Geschichten so lange ironisch bricht und selbstanklagend zerfasert, bis wie durch Zauberhand ein Roman daraus geworden ist." - Eva Menasse, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The main character in the coming-of-age novel Bliss Was it in Bohemia is named Kvido, but this personal story is very much grounded in autobiography -- "Le roman, c'est moi !" Viewegh-as-Kvido cries out at one point -- and self-referential (as a novel about the writing of this autobiographical novel), with the concluding paragraph announcing:

     On October 10th Kvido submits the manuscript of his novel, Bliss was it in Bohemia, to the Československý spisovatel publishing house.
       Throughout the novel, the narrative is interrupted by brief exchanges, as author-(Viewegh-as-)Kvido argues with his editor about what's written here -- the editor still in a Communist-era frame of mind, when much of this would have been unfit to print given its (light and satirical, but nevertheless ...) criticism of the regime and conditions:
     "They wouldn't pass it for publication today, obviously," the editor said sarcastically. "Not even if you deleted Kohout. It's all surrealism and child pornography, and that group under the palm trees cuts right across how class relations are structured"
       Written and then published as the Soviet Union was in collapse (it first appeared in 1992), Bliss was it in Bohemia is almost entirely a chronicle of the Communist era, from Kvido's 1962 birth (the same year as Viewegh) on. Politics affect much of the characters' lives but the young Kvido remains almost oblivious to much of this, and Bliss was it in Bohemia is a typical family-chronicle, just under unusual conditions. Much of the charm of the story is in how the politics is kept incidental -- even as it affects the characters' lives so much.
       Politics drive the family out of Prague -- even as the Prague Spring and then Soviet invasion in 1968 is not something the very young boy really comprehends (he thinks the tanks are part of a film-spectacular). Focused on the limited reaction in the family households, Viewegh nevertheless conveys the extent of what has happened through the characters' seemingly comparatively minor personal concerns, such as having Kvido's grandmother's well-trained budgies flying the coop (and then Kvido and his grandfather sticking up lost-pet signs in a futile attempt to retrieve them).
       Kvido is a precocious, overfed boy, who learns to read at a young age and is destined to be a writer. An early chapter at the time of the family's move from Prague consists of entries from the then still just six-year-old's diary -- not entirely realistic, but a humorous way to address the move from metropolis to out of the way Sázava -- so out of the way that Kvido reports:
On top of that no one knows where Sázava is. We couldn't find it on a map of Czechoslovakia. Father says he'll get a bigger one tomorrow.
       The parents get jobs at the local glassworks -- but there's no escape from politics even in the remote countryside, and since they aren't demonstrably pro-regime they have trouble getting an apartment, and find themselves relegated to the company conservatory -- glazed on three sides, so there's little privacy, and freezing cold in winter.
       Central to the story is how Kvido's father struggles to make the proper gestures and moves so as to fit in -- which he finds terribly difficult to do. Frustrated that talent and qualifications aren't sufficient to see that he gets an appropriate position -- or is considered for advancement, when he is the most qualified -- Kvido's father's life does get a bit easier when he takes some (unsubtle) hints and advice and does some of the little things: take up studying Marxism-Leninism, joining a local football side (though he's terrible), and bribing the local party leader by purchasing one of his puppies (despite his wife's fear of dogs).
       The family gets to move into a house, and Kvido's father even gets a plum assignment, traveling abroad. But Pavel Kohout is their downfall again, as the writer -- and Charta 77 signer -- goes into domestic exile in the same town, and despite their best efforts to avoid a meeting Kvido's parents can't help themselves and accept an invitation to their old acquaintance's house. It's not a place to be seen: the fact that he went to Kohout's house is enough to ruin Kvido's father's carefully built up new career, and it comes crashing down again; he's offered his choice of relatively menial positions then, and chooses not a clerical one but that of porter. He takes his fall from grace very badly, with even his woodworking hobby then focused on a rather troubling project.
       Kvido's concerned mother arranges for her husband to see a psychiatrist -- the son of a brilliant psychiatrist, and reputedly also very talented, but now employed as boilerman (a typical punchline, as everything in this world seems upside down). The psychiatrist at least understands what ails Kvido's father, and what can help him:
     "Doctor," said Kvido's mother after a pause, "is there anything that might really help him ?"
     "Some kind of successful counter-revolution," the doctor replied without hesitation.
     Kvido's mother smiled sadly.
     "Until such time," the doctor added cheerily, "we have to keep him entertained."
       Covering some three decades -- many of them very quickly -- Bliss Was it in Bohemia is a novel of broad strokes, its large cast of family characters lovingly sketched out -- though often as exaggerated types, such as younger brother Paco, literally an outdoorsman from a young age. The sense of continuity helps: the grandparents remain close to the family, with regular visits back and forth throughout (and one lives with them), while even Kvido's future wife is someone whom he knows from youngest age (as she already showed him her privates in pre-school) and seems always destined to wind up with (egged on, ultimately, also by his mother, who thinks -- as close to a last resort -- a baby in the house might also help get her husband's mind off his woes). Even Pavel Kohout is a near-constant presence, in Prague and in Sázava.
       The humor is very generous, so that despite some of the dark happenings -- ruined careers, wasted lives -- there's always a sense of making the best of things, and even Kvido's father's melancholy doesn't simply get everyone down. And much of the novel is indeed very funny -- Viewegh demonstrating a fine comic style, a natural sort of touch for this kind of thing, that doesn't make it seem like he's trying too hard.
       A quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bliss Was it in Bohemia is definitely a book of a different era, and hardly one of a kind. It holds up well, however, because of its family focus, and because it doesn't obsess about the historical events of the days but allows them to filter through just from the background. Very much a novel of the Czech experience of this time, its oddball yet believable family's universal appeal make the book easily accessible to foreign readers as well.
       Good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 January 2016

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Bliss Was it in Bohemia: Reviews: Michal Viewegh: Other books by Michal Viewegh under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular Czech author Michal Viewegh was born in 1962.

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