John Keane | Read an Excerpt
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The learned ability of the newborn to flourish in the world’s fields of power is always fragile and risky. There are times when the cries of innocents are extinguished by stupidity, squalor, hunger, violence. Even when they survive the perils of birth, the newborn find their lives complicated by the power dynamics of families, communities, business firms, whole economies, parties, governments, and states. Such organizations are menacing. They tower over them like colossi. Organizations make the innocent look and feel small. The newborn are turned into the playthings of power relations — of which they know little, let alone can understand, or tame or control.

Young Venoušek’s early years were exactly like this. It has often been said — by card-carrying Communists, sceptical conservatives, guilted liberals — that he enjoyed a comfortable `bourgeois’ upbringing. The sad truth is that his life as `a well-fed piglet’ began badly within a family whose ideals were smashed up by folly, military occupation, surveillance, air raids, war, and totalitarianism. Venoušek took his first steps in the early autumn of 1937 — at precisely the moment that Czechoslovakia was pushed to its knees by the power-posturing of neighbouring states and alliances. Not everybody saw what was happening. Or they foolishly turned a blind eye, as did the most popular contemporary guide for foreign travellers to Prague . First published in the month of Venoušek’s birth, the guide conjured his home town into an exotic haven. The guide marvelled over Prague ‘s green spaces and wooded surroundings; the breathtaking views of the city from the heights of Petrín, Hradcany, and Letná; and the wealth of architectural beauty — Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, rococo, and especially baroque buildings resonating its varied history from the time of the seventh century. Praise was heaped upon the Prague diet of freshwater trout and carp; goose, duck and venison; pilsner, dark beer from Smíchov, fiery plum brandy and agreeable Moravian wine; only a small frown was reserved for the `unexpected’ local sandwiches, consisting of topless slices of buttered bread covered in salami, egg, pickled cucumber, fish or ham. The guide noted that central heating of residences was common; that road traffic moved on the left; and that a system of red letter-boxes for the quick delivery of letters franked with 90-heller stamps functioned well. Although sugar was rationed, commodities like soap and matches were plentiful, while the commercial hub in St Wenceslas Square was often thronged with shoppers, said the guide.

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