Madeleine LaRue at The Quarterly Conversation:
In a series of dispatches from this tantalizing world of “more or less,” Gottland chronicles the history of the Czech Republic in the twentieth century. Each of its seventeen chapters focuses on one or more individual figures—Tomáš Bata, a self-made billionaire; Lina Baatová, an actress who became the lover of Josef Goebbels; Karel Gott, the wildly popular crooner who lends his name to the book’s title—all of whom were caught up and tangled in the unfortunate net of their country’s history. During the last century, the Czech Republic was occupied first by the Germans, then by the Russians, and now by the specters of those years. In his nuanced portrait of a nation, Szczygieł poses questions as critical to literature as they are to history: how should one act when oppressed? To what extent is compromise necessary, justified, or cowardly?
The Czechs compromised; like many small nations, they had very little choice. The alternative was annihilation. “This we know,” Szczygieł writes, “in order to survive in unfavorable circumstances, a small nation has to adapt. It has carried this down from the days of the Habsburgs and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.” The Czechs, Gottlandtestifies, have proved to be remarkably resilient—Hitler is said to have shouted in a rage, “The Czechs are like cyclists—they hunch their upper bodies, but pedal below!”—yet adaptation has had its price, and its scars are no less painful for being invisible.