The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History

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9780691057606: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History


In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare gave the landlocked country of Bohemia a coastline--a famous and, to Czechs, typical example of foreigners' ignorance of the Czech homeland. Although the lands that were once the Kingdom of Bohemia lie at the heart of Europe, Czechs are usually encountered only in the margins of other people's stories. In The Coasts of Bohemia, Derek Sayer reverses this perspective. He presents a comprehensive and long-needed history of the Czech people that is also a remarkably original history of modern Europe, told from its uneasy center.


Sayer shows that Bohemia has long been a theater of European conflict. It has been a cradle of Protestantism and a bulwark of the Counter-Reformation; an Austrian imperial province and a proudly Slavic national state; the most easterly democracy in Europe; and a westerly outlier of the Soviet bloc. The complexities of its location have given rise to profound (and often profoundly comic) reflections on the modern condition. Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hasek, Karel Capek and Milan Kundera are all products of its spirit of place. Sayer describes how Bohemia's ambiguities and contradictions are those of Europe itself, and he considers the ironies of viewing Europe, the West, and modernity from the vantage point of a country that has been too often ignored.



The Coasts of Bohemia draws on an enormous array of literary, musical, visual, and documentary sources ranging from banknotes to statues, museum displays to school textbooks, funeral orations to operatic stage-sets, murals in subway stations to censors' indexes of banned books. It brings us into intimate contact with the ever changing details of daily life--the street names and facades of buildings, the heroes figured on postage stamps--that have created and recreated a sense of what it is to be Czech. Sayer's sustained concern with questions of identity, memory, and power place the book at the heart of contemporary intellectual debate. It is an extraordinary story, beautifully told.


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Review:

In The Winter's Tale, a play of 1610, William Shakespeare gave a coastline to Bohemia, a landlocked country. Three hundred and twenty-eight years later, his compatriot Neville Chamberlain would call a brewing war in Czechoslovakia, as the country was called, "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." As Canadian scholar Sayer writes, knowingly, Bohemia eventually got its coastline, one "guarded by minefields, barbed-wire fences, and tall watchtowers with machine guns," while the West took little notice. The general ignorance of all things Czech would cost Europe dearly, for conflagrations from the Thirty Years War to World War II (and even sparks that might have ignited World War III) have begun in the tiny country known by many names---Czechoslovakia, Bohemia, Moravia. Canadian scholar Sayer writes of the Czechs' struggle over centuries to define themselves as a people and nation, and he does so in a vivid, detailed narrative that will enlighten readers who are unfamiliar with the critically important center of Eastern Europe. --Gregory McNamee

From the Back Cover:


"This is a beautifully written cultural history of the Czech people. There is no comparable work available in English, and certainly not one of such sensitivity and breadth."--Andrew Lass, Mount Holyoke College


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