by Mark Stroup
MS: Melinda Reidinger first came to Czechoslovakia in her third year of college for a study-abroad program. She returned after earning her B.A. degree, then left for other adventures. She taught English in Taiwan, then went to the University of Virginia to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. While in Hungary, she reconnected with her Czech ex-boyfriend and they decided to get married. She has lived in the Czech Republic for a total of about twenty-four years and has written books, taught at a private university, worked as a translator and raised a family. Unlike many other expats or immigrants, she lives in a small Czech village, not in Prague.
Her lifelong interest in how people understand nature led her to write The White Deer, an interdisciplinary study of myths and legends about this mystical creature. The White Deer has just been released by RITONA Press in Luxembourg. Last year she finished a novel titled Swarm Box, which describes a gardener’s relationships and struggles in a dystopian future version of Philadelphia.
This interview was edited for order, clarity and length. It was recorded at the Globe Bookstore in Prague, where Melinda and I participate in the Globe Creative Writing Group every Monday.
MS: I’d love to start with what we’ve talked about as the resilience of people of Central Europe.
MR: This land has always been a crossroads for different cultures and civilizations. That sounds peaceful, but it often hasn’t been, and the people here have had to develop a great deal of flexibility and resilience. Sometimes, that means bowing down to the imposition of foreign power. At other times, it means fighting back with resistance movements. Sometimes, you get something like the Protectorate, where there were a few people who collaborated with the Reich, a few who resisted, and many more who just tried to keep themselves and their families safe. There have also been situations where people create alternative societies that stand outside of the power structures. In some instances, the science, the culture, or the socializing are going on literally underground, underneath the streets. Or they are carried outside of the city, and sometimes it was both, as you could see in some recent examples, but also with the old alchemists’ networks in the Renaissance period.
MS: Alchemists’ networks?
MR: You should visit the Museum of Alchemy–the one on Haštalská street: Speculum Alchymiae. It’s a real alchemy workshop from the time of Rudolf II, where they were producing elixirs of love, youth, wealth, health, etc. The alchemists worked and even made their own equipment in underground chambers and they had entrances at the ends of tunnels that opened on the Old Town Square, elsewhere in the city, and also outside the city walls. They went to the Astronomical Clock to check on the phases of the moon and stars, and they could go outside the city to meet with clients who didn’t want to be seen involved in transactions with them. Monarchs and aristocrats wanted the products, many of which were actually decent herbal recipes, but they didn’t want the Church knowing too much. So they supplied the street where the workshop was located with a few frightful legends so people would stay away, especially at night when any smoke or light coming from underground would have been more noticeable.
MS: Can you tell me more about living outside of power structures in particular eras?
MR: When there were plagues, for instance, people would generally want to escape the cities and the restrictions, the greater threat of infection, all the dead bodies, and so on. There was an old principle of “City air makes you free,” and that was true for those escaping serfdom before the Holy Roman Empire abolished it in favor of the feudal lords. But what I want to say here is the principle only applied in normal times, in good times. I believe that the association between being within the city and being subject to whatever God or nature or political and economic forces imposed upon one is very ancient indeed.
Some people may face these disasters fatalistically, but there are many who wanted to take fate into their own hands. We certainly saw the latter during the Nazi era when the resistance forces were often operating outside of the city. And we could see it again during the Communist era when people would repair to their cottages and country homes where they built not only atomized households outside of the city physically, but also mentally, and ideologically. Safe spaces where no one was likely to denounce them. Sometimes they created alternate communities, like the interwar tramp colonies. We also witnessed similar things happening even during the covid period. People went to their country homes and cottages, seeking freedom from the restrictions imposed on city-dwellers.
I did my dissertation research on the topic of cottages, country homes, and tramp colonies called osady. My direct ethnographic research included at least 100 field interviews with people who lived in and used these recreational spaces. I examined where and how the dwellings were situated and what sort of ideology guided the construction of the places, what people were thinking about as they used the spaces, and how this separated them from whatever they felt was the dominating power, whether that power was early industrialization, which transformed Bohemia earlier than any other place, or communism, or consumer capitalism. During some of the globalization summits when riots were expected, the government actually told people: “Get out, go to your cottages, don’t stay around for this.” And they understood the message–you’re safer outside the city; you’re not going to be killed, or restricted, or oppressed.
MS: Tell me more about the osady, the tramp colonies.
MR: Some of the first people who started with this were World War I deserters, hiding out in the woods and trying to keep a low profile. But after the war ended, they had all this valuable know-how about living on the land. Young people who were simply adventurous wanted to join them. Some of them had been veterans of the First World War. Some of them were perhaps too young to have served in the war, but they heard the adventure stories and also wanted to have some fun. Many of them were inspired by American Wild West tales: cowboys and Indians, gold prospectors, trappers, and that sort of thing. And they styled their colonies in this way. They used a lot of English in their slang and gave themselves Wild West-sounding names, and they held what they called “pow wows” or “potlatches” with their fellow tramps.
Of course, the outdoor movements were drawing on an older history. They began simply as hiking and camping associations, very informal for the most part. There were formal hiking clubs, too, but those were dad clubs: too bourgeois and too middle-aged for the youth. One of the other things that set the twentieth-century clubs apart was that they were sexually liberated, which was very edgy at the time. It’s not that people didn’t have sex before this, but they were open about advocating for it, mostly in monogamous relationships. Spreading these ideas was scandalous, and the gendarmes could pick up couples cohabiting in a tent and apply penalties. I mean, it wasn’t like the Islamic morality police in Iran, but the Church and the state and the young people’s parents were against it.
Eventually, the hiking clubs began to establish permanent locations at their favorite campsites. Some of it was to do with competition for the best places: where there’s a favorable place, let’s say, by a riverbank or a lake, groups would tend to reappear there and eventually stake informal claims. Another favorable factor was easy rail access to the site. After they got tired of sleeping on the ground under the sky the tramps began to build communal shelters where people could stay dry (and even relatively warm if there was a fireplace) through the night. But of course, you didn’t have any privacy that way, and they still wanted to get it on. So when couples became more established, they would commit to building their own little cabins.
Now, none of this was legal. You had forest rangers and others who were responsible for maintaining the lands, because this is not a wilderness here, right? Despite the Wild West cosplay and the notion that land was there to be taken by any white man who showed up wanting it, all the real estate already had owners and stewards. However, one of the things that’s usually swept under the rug in the written histories of tramping is that the tramps were coming from the middle and upper middle classes–and sometimes even the industrialist class. So if these Golden Youths decided that they were going to settle in some neck of the woods–and have their little illegal parties and their little illegal sleepovers–they tended to get away with it more often than not. When they were thwarted, they were so mad about it that they published complaints in their own illustrated magazines. (Which were also not a typical hobby for proletarian youth.) But the main thing is that once they built a structure they often managed to get it, or even a whole colony officially approved, because their daddies were able to pull strings or help them buy the rights or ownership to the property. Naturally, this wouldn’t have happened if they’d truly belonged to the working classes. Lower class nature enthusiasts usually had to be mobile rather than settled in a spot.
So gradually these settlements grew, and the little one-room huts that the first people constructed, more or less on their own or with the help of their friends, expanded. They would grow into two-room huts and three room huts, and then there’d be a porch and an upper story added on, and later maybe a little fence around the yard because they were growing flowers and vegetables and they didn’t want someone else’s kids messing up their garden beds or their lawn. And gradually, they also built up communal facilities that might include tennis courts or a little swimming area or, certainly, a fire area–that was always important, because that’s where they socialized and sang the old tramp songs.
So there was a balance between the private and the communal aspects in these places. And all of this was going on outside of mainstream society, and without its approval. A lot of it had a distinctive Czecho-American flavor to it. So, say during the Communist era, that in itself was very rebellious, because the Party wanted to suppress everything western.
MS: Did they organize around any particular ideology? You mentioned the Wild West.
MR: Yes, the Wild West was definitely a very subversive motif, and at times the communists worked harder to suppress that, and at times they let it be and focused on other goals. The works of the German author Karl May are a case in point, and you can neatly track how much they were suppressing the American Wild West motifs with how much May’s works were either allowed to proliferate or suppressed in the Czech language environment. So there were times when you could just go down to a bookstore and buy a Czech translation of one of his books, and there are times when it was treated as contraband.
MS: So what should be preserved about Bohemia and what shouldn’t be preserved?
MR: What should be preserved? Certainly I think there’s a sense of humanity. There’s also a sense of humility that no matter what grand ideals have been presented, they always eventually, you know, fizzle out, fade away, or become discredited. That’s also because you see what sorts of people are actually serving those ideas–often, not the best people. And then it becomes hard to have confidence in the present arrangements or faith in the promised future. So if you look at the postmodern movement that we witnessed a few decades ago in the West, where the grand narratives were questioned; well, I think Central Europe has been there for far longer. Maybe not every individual was a skeptic. I mean, certainly there was a great deal of enthusiasm over the Communist project at first, but it didn’t last.
Another factor is that a large percent of Bohemians have also been a godless lot for a really long time, long before many people started questioning religious doctrines in the West. But the freethinking tradition is much older than the Industrial Revolution. When you hear the word Bohemian, are you thinking of somebody who’s sort of wild and free-wheeling? One of the multiple reasons this association exists goes back to the Hussites who gave popes nightmares: “Oh, those bohemians! Those freethinkers!” And freethinking wasn’t considered a positive attribute until fairly recently! Bohemians not only challenged church doctrines and church leadership, but they even took up arms to support their liberation movement. Ultimately, their revolt wasn’t successful–the Catholic Church reasserted its domination, and the Czechs had to put up with the Counter-Reformation, which is an example of the kind of resilience I mentioned earlier. They had all kinds of ways to deal with this, including through folktales, but I think that it chafed a lot of them so hard that once the possibility of no longer being religious arose, they were feeling very done with it.
MS: The Austro-Hungarian Empire held the power. And what did Bohemia counter it with?
MR: Education frees minds. The Austro-Hungarian Empire realized that there were already good schools here. They further developed the education system, especially the technical schools. And these technical schools led to, of course, excellent technology innovations, industrialization, and that became its own driving motor for free thinking, skepticism, and anti-clericalism. It became unstoppable as a cultural movement, but of course the Czechs were still under the thumb of the Habsburgs.
MS: One more question: your fiction and nonfiction share some of the same themes. Can you talk about that?
MR: I suppose that almost all of my work comes down to a theme of relationship with the land. The land, of course, provides sustenance, but there’s much more: people are a lot freer mentally and spiritually when they have an active, mutually-supportive relationship with the land, and they’re better able to resist civilizational overreach, no matter what the period or the ideals.
This was something I explored in my thesis work, where I looked at how people became more mentally and also materially free when they could rely upon networks of friends who might be at their osada, or share vegetables or eggs or forest products that they might get at their country homes. But also the physical space, in itself, was a liberating element. During the communist era, for example, it was a place where secret police informers had less opportunity to spy and report on you. But I put it into a framework that analyzed the early industrial period, the interwar period, the communist period and today’s consumer capitalist civilization.
In my non-fiction work, The White Deer, I look at the feedback loops between nature and culture, with myths and legends as modulating elements that help facilitate this connection.
In my novel Swarm Box there’s a story arc with the main character, but the work also showcases a lot of opportunities where all the characters explore sites of freedom and sites of unfreedom, and their well-being is mostly determined by the land and their chosen communities. Sometimes people in the novel can have very close and beneficial connections with their kin, but not always–you can’t count on that. But you can involve yourself in networks of people who are mutually supportive, and that makes all the difference. The society in the story is very wicked, as are most of its representatives. Humanity is found in the small favors and acts of kindness, and in the vulnerability and trust shared by people who don’t believe in its ideals and who break the laws–as they have to in order to survive.
If you read any works on survivalism, you know that the prepper mentality of saving your family in a cellar with a thousand cans of beans and a pile of ammo is bullshit. The first principle is that you’ve got to band together, or you’ve got no hope. No matter what the disaster is, whether it’s a war or invasion, some natural disaster, you’ve got to come together. And the messaging around covid produced exactly the opposite effect! Not only the social distancing; it was also all the fear and loathing that arose between friends, family, and neighbors. And don’t get me started on the fact that the Czechs had a denunciation hotline where several thousand people called in every day at one point to make reports on neighbors who took their trash out without wearing a mask, or who were picnicking in a park or whatever. So in a sense, the novel served as fantasy and wish-fulfillment for me in the period when I was writing it.
I showed an early draft to a friend. He was like, OK, this is interesting, this is cool, but there are no villains. And I realized: “Oh no–he’s right!” So I made things a little harder: characters had to deal with figures who were petty tyrants, or who persecuted them to help the regime, or who were simply stupid and brainwashed. But there really remains a guiding impulse to illustrate many flavors of love, kindness, and support among the characters, most of whom are decent people.
MS: Do you feel that the hierarchy in your novel is destructive of freedom and destructive of land-based living and community-based living?
MR: In my story, I think it always is, because to the extent that people are free and self supporting, and when they’re psychologically healthy, they’re really not on board with either the ideology, or the attempts to extract the labor, attention, time, even emotional investment from people that every ideology wants from people. But more to the point about nature is that when people are able to get the things they need outside the system’s systems for providing them, they miss opportunities for coercion and exploitation. I would say, to a certain extent, each ideology and each regime is extractive, and that’s why the theme of returning to nature for support is eternal.
MS: You tend to shy away from talking about the art scene, but what do you think is vibrant in arts and letters in Central Europe?
MR: Truly, it’s this sense of resilience. I don’t mean that everything functions perfectly all the time, but I admire people who can operate artistically under very adverse conditions. And who want to make art because it’s part of living a good life. Just this evening before I came here to meet you, I was visiting some friends here in the city. My one friend was playing the cello. I don’t think she’s been playing it very long, but she was playing classic Christmas carols and had a bunch of kids singing. They did it purely for the sense of joy and connection, and it was beautiful.
And she also plays amateur theater, and some of her companions from this activity were there as well. I asked if they perform for the public, and she said: “Yeah, definitely, we have no shame. We’re not professionals, but we just do it because it’s therapy for us. It makes us feel good.”
And I think this builds a virtuous cycle, where others see the love and the joy of sharing culture and they carry it forward.