Prague chapter from Festas Secretas by Celeste Maia

There were parties all night long, secret parties, where everything was violent. I painted a lot. Above all, I painted interiors. The people disappeared from my paintings. They left their clothes thrown on the floor. They left behind half-smoked cigarettes and unfinished glasses of wine. The world was quiet, on the inside side of a door that was always closing.

When we arrived in Prague the climate could not have been more claustrophobic. Before, in my imagination, Prague for me was alchemy, mystery, Jewry, symphonies. It was also the city where the lords of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lived, and therefore it also symbolized architecture, pageantry, beauty. In Austria the nobles could not outshine the emperor, so their homes had to be relatively "modest". In Prague, they could allow themselves fabulous transgressions, so imagine the architecture. But now, that beautiful, baroque city was a sad place, with scaffolding everywhere and everything left half-done, under a sky of red banners full of slogans. Wenceslas Square still smelled of burned. It broke your heart to see so much beauty suffocating under the Russian boot. But there was always music. We knew that nothing had died.

Prague was the only major city in Central Europe that escaped bombing during the war. So it was there, preserved, without being either rebuilt or rehabilitated. We lived in Mala Strana, the most beautiful and ancient neighborhood. Remember "Amadeus" by Milos Forman? It was not Vienna we were watching, it was Mala Strana. And it was still like that, because communism had the perverse power to stop time. The public lighting was still by gas. In winter it was dark at four in the afternoon and I would see women appear dressed in black with a scarf tied around their head, felt boots tucked into clogs that resonated on the streets of stone, carrying a long stick fitted with a wick, who lit the lamps one by one. The youngest sons had the task to go with glass pitchers to fetch beer for the meals. At certain times of day, the streets overflowed with the rush of those children going in and out of the bars. I was looking at a past that had never been mine. Everyone was dressed as we had dressed twenty years earlier. You did not hear voices in the street, not even in the lines. If you laughed loudly or conversed animatedly with a friend in the street, in the eternal queue, they told you to be quiet.

Our residence was in a late seventeenth century palace. Originally it belonged to a Conde Colorado, certainly an Austro-Hungarian of Spanish origins, and then it became a work in progress, with successive additions and transformations. It had four wings, like Versailles, and three huge sloping gardens in the back. In the third garden stood a tower over which floated the American flag, that a Marine hoisted every morning and lowered in the evening, with flourishes of steps and swinging of weapons. The entry to the palace was through carriage doors some five meters high, very thick, and I still remember the thunder every night, when the Marines closed them. Within these doors, our little world was a medieval citadel: a self-contained enclave where there was everything from the carpenter, the upholsterer, the mechanic, the glazier. All were Czechs, and all worked for the secret services.

We lived in a wing of the palace that was like a luxury hotel, with Biedermeier furniture, crystal chandeliers from Venice, a grand piano, a table in the dining room that sat 24 people. We settled in and we started to belong to the sickest of all human comedies. We were soon told that we could not have intimate or important conversations in the house, or even arguments. The walls were full of microphones and listeners. There were two suspended balls of glass in the palace where the bureaucrats could not paste or screw anything, and to where everyone could go, at hours reserved in advance, to get things off their chest. To go talk in the garden, where our wing was turned, was not the solution. There were towers all over that could capture the vibrations of voices, which were easily translated into language. The French put their radio on high when discussing things, thinking there was no way the listeners could hear them. But there were devices that easily separated the sounds and captured what was said without difficulty.

The assistant to the head of administrative services was a high-ranking officer, Mr. HaĊĦek, always floridly bustling with papers under his arm from one side to the other. A week after we arrived I was sandbagged by him, "Madame, Madame, what language do you speak?" It was because Bob and I talk often in Portuguese. Imagine the consternation of the poor functionary, placed in that job because he spoke English, who suddenly felt he had ceased to understand. Well, I became filled with pride and made the work of our listeners a lot more fun. You do not want to know what they heard.

Right in front of the main gate of the palace, there was an office of the secret police with an apparatus that automatically photographed everyone who entered or came out. In this way, the Czechs who entered without being "hired" were controlled, because the Czechs were prohibited from having any contact with Americans. When Bob and I went out and we were traveling, we always had followers. You could not go anywhere without the man behind in the car. Have you thought what it is like to be in the most remote spots, the most memorable places, the most isolated, with a car following you twenty meters behind? We became experts in getting rid of them, we laughed like crazy, we went out through side doors, we separated from each other, we have incredible stories.

Most Czechs who we knew were dissidents or artists, or both. Remember Charter 68? The principle touched me a lot, because it was the kind of move that could have appeared among us at any moment under Salazar. It is an idea that perfectly epitomizes the fiber and the stubbornness of the Czechs, together with their sweetness and intellectuality. The Charter movement was a way to continue the resistance and demonstrate every day that the Soviet occupation was not just, that people had rights, that Czechoslovakia deserved to be the country it wanted to be. They published samizdat, the clandestine books. They maintained contacts with international groups. They helped valuable and vulnerable people to leave the country, as happened with several writers. These were peaceful actions, but they required a great courage and as they were carried out, kept the flame alive. When I arrived in Prague, the movement was already called Charter 77, and it was in decline. The leader was a woman and later we learned that her husband was an informant against her to the police. They were all terribly monitored and the regime did everything -- what we cannot even imagine --to cut their wings.

I remember a Russian artist who worked with plate glass, used for windows, which was the only material to which he had access. He cut them into different formats, then placed them in layers to achieve wonderful liquid transparencies. He had been horribly disfigured when one of the plates he was working with slipped and cut off part of his face, which then was roughly reconstructed by the heavy hand of the health services. But even after the accident, glass remained the only material that this man had to be an artist, so he returned to work without hesitation.

Another artist worked with optical glass, creating beautiful geometric pieces that were placed at the center of a table and people sitting around it could see everything that was in the room refracted through the sculpture. This man began to be known outside Czechoslovakia. To punish him, they cut off his supply and access to optical glass.

My favorite was Petra Orieskova, who made very introspective prints. We had a very strong connection, although my Czech was devoid of conjugated verbs, like that of a three-year old child, and she did not speak any other language. We understood each other as soon as met, with our eyes and touch. We were sisters. We met many times, never speaking, so we communicated everything. The last time I went to see her, before I left, they told me that she had taken to an asylum. No name, no direction, I never could find out where. They shattered everyone's life.

The real problem with communism is that they did not know how to handle success, excellence, achievement. The person who distinguished himself, who could fly, became a nuisance that disturbed the order of things. Lem, the inventor of soft contact lenses, had to leave the country, as did Kundera, Lendl and Martina Navratilova. The rottenness of the system meant that only the mediocre would stay in control. And so, of course, no one was happy.

But we lived all this in the midst of baroque splendor, that beauty that takes your breath away. And people would always find a way to do things that were beyond the pettiness of the regime, small gestures of the human soul against which no bureaucrats of the world could dictate laws and enforce regulations. Jazz orchestras, for example, began to proliferate. They played songs of the 20s, with those big microphones, striped blazers and boater hats. And they always had the house overflowing, the crowds gathering to hear them. How did people get around the censorship, do you still remember? These orchestras symbolized the only time, between the two world wars, in which Czechoslovakia was free.

Subliminal resistance of the spirit through music has many faces. During the winter, we used to go to a public outdoor swimming pool. It was a fairy tale backdrop, deep into a park, freezing air, snow piled all around and a thick fog coming out of the heated water. We swam to the sound of Wagner's operas, surrounded by white mountains, the pine trees laden with snow, the very low grey sky. One's body enveloped in hot water like a maternal womb, but with the head free to feel the cold and the freedom to mingle with the trees around. One saw other swimmers as figures in a Turner painting, emerging from the steam, pale shower caps here and there, floating as if creating movements to the music that came out of two speakers, filling all the spaces. They were dream sensations, as if life were suspended.

There was a house beside the pool. Imagine a large room, all in wood, with black iron stoves in the middle. Along the walls you see clothes hanging -- towels, flannel bathrobes, jackets. Around the stoves, illuminated by them, were men and women talking, warming themselves, dressed in yellowed white cotton underwear, which you had only seen before in faded photos or paintings of the early twentieth century. Corsets, long knickers, leggings, slips, shirts down to the feet, or the knees or waist. It was a magnificent picture, those figures from another time, with the light from the stoves dancing on them, projecting their shadows and everything and everyone in a watery fluidity.

The pool guard was out of a Russian novel. Exceedingly thin, always with the same huge, thick, brown sweater, his hair standing up in a crest, fussing with the wood, with the pool heating controls, with the music. He was the Wagner-lover. A man who never spoke, solitary, rough, reigning over his world at deep in the park, captain of his boat, always hearing the same triumphant chords of the same overwhelming operas. What memories did they bring him? Where did they take him?

It was during trips to the pool that I found the Jewish cemetery. It was already there long before the Second World War, and you had to visit it to discover this facet of Europe. In life, the Jews were confined to the ghetto, and after death, they could only be buried there. Over the centuries, the space for the headstones was so meager that the names were written on more finely sliced slabs, which were then stacked like bizarre rows of books, to symbolically mark another Semitic death. The only functioning synagogue in the city was right in front of the cemetery. And, as an expression of communist humor, a restaurant had been opened next door. The specialty dish was called "the rabbi's pocket." It was grilled pork stuffed with cheese. You know that Jews cannot eat pork and should never mix meat with dairy....

Another unforgettable cemetery waited for me at a ski resort in the mountains, right on the border with Bavaria. Its name was Srni, which means stag. We went walking in that fabulously fresh air, among small wooden houses, under the pines, it was idyllic. At the edge of the village, after passing the cages of German shepherds belonging to the Czech border guards, we found a simple wooden fence. The gate was open and we entered. There were fresh flowers on the graves. The people must have visited often their loved ones left behind.

Suddenly, we were horrified to find that some of these defenseless dead, had had their graves violated recently, in the most dreadful ways. Their oval sepia pictures in small silver frames embedded in the slabs had been ripped and torn apart. The frames were trampled, and the flower vases were broken. In the old Czech cemeteries it was customary to place on the graves, side by side, life-size sculptures of a live dove and a dead dove. These sculptures were scattered on the floor, headless, in pieces, stepped on and broken. Finally we began to understand the true horror of such violence: all the desecrated graves belonged to people with German names. When the Sudeten Germans were forced to leave the country after the Second World War, the nice, placid people of Srni had violently assaulted the cemetery, shattering the last artifacts that belonged to the excommunicated race. The destruction that was before our eyes in 1980 had been left intact, without anyone touching it, for 35 years. And we are astonished with the ethnic cleansings of our time.

Once we plunged into that rich, nervous and corrupt world that was the mythological Berlin of that time. We crossed East Germany, stopping in Dresden, Leipzig, these mythical cities, and passed through the wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Bob wanted to see northern Bohemia, where the first national economic priority was to export coal to the rest of the country. It was poor coal, high in sulfur, the only coal they had. The second priority in that corner of the world was to attract miners of both sexes, usually bad high school students. A large part of their pay was sent to their parents, and their life was practically one of forced labor. The industrial philosophy was coarse was without remorse. For example, they were going to destroy a town to mine the coal underneath. So the town was first sold to a U.S. film company to use it as a set for a war film (anti-Nazi, of course). Then the town was destroyed with bombs, but this time for real. Another town was a well known 19th Century spa, frequented by Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller and others. It was also was a center of art nouveau glass. They destroyed it completely to exploit the coal. Then they built a town of prefabricated apartment blocks.

We visited these sites with the headlights on at midday, because of the smog. And always with a police car behind us. Once Bob became so angered that he started yelling at our followers before a small enthusiastic crowd that quickly gathered to watch the righteous fury of the gringo, and so we achieved the miracle of staying free of followers for a few hours. We were so pleased with the unexpected results of this act that we decided to visit the castle where Casanova spent his last thirteen years, working as a librarian. We tried to find a phone to warn the kids would come home later, but there were no public telephones, at least for us. We were only allowed to use certain phones, the ones that were listened to. After many recommendations from various people whom we asked for help, we ended up at a shabby bar where we were told that there was a phone on the first floor. Upstairs, in addition to the phone, we found only cubicles with iron bars on the doors. It was a brothel for the miner boys and girls, made available by the generosity of the state. Big Brother takes care of everything. You felt surrounded on all sides, slowly suffocating.

The constant pressure became unseen when we went out at night and in those years, we went out a lot. There was a frenzy of parties, especially among foreigners and the Czechs who, for whatever reason, had become indifferent to what the state could do to them. Some because they had nothing to lose, even privileges such as having a home, school for their children, or being treated in hospitals when they had emergencies. Others because they were suicidal. Or informants. You never knew. It was not important. In any case, they were the most interesting because they were always on the edge. They enjoyed themselves as if there were no tomorrow. It was an environment where, when you came in and shut the door, you lost all notion of reality. That sensation of living a novel, with its atmosphere of spies and wiretaps and being always on the defensive, with your instincts constantly honed, made the night involve you, caress you, made you feel that nothing could touch you. So go ahead, bite my neck, plunge with me into the darkness. And it was good to let ourselves go.

The lights were always low, satin everywhere, there was a lot of drinking, we ate interminable meals on tables filled with wilted flowers. Just after we arrived, we went to a sumptuous dinner at the home of a cultivated and very interesting Englishman. During this dinner, his wife went to the upstairs bedroom and killed herself with poison. While we ate delicately sauced crepes. Across from me, the whole dinner, there sat a German so beautiful, elegant, slim, and very tall. He did not open his mouth, but did not stop looking at me, without explanations or disguises. As we were leaving at the end of the night, he came up to me and whispered, with a pronunciation that would disarm anyone, "I sent you silent telegrams all night." Everything happened in a mad rush. At another party, the host went with a woman guest to a room next door, with the respective spouses still sitting at the table. The two vacancies became huge, scary. When the lovers returned, the atmosphere was like fingernails scratching on a blackboard. One lived alongside the flame, always closer.

I remember a party that the Czechs call medan, which means that anything can happen. It would start very normally, but then accelerate. More! Faster! Round and round. There came a time when my ears stopped hearing voices, because the words had become howling, and I did not know if others noticed this or if this laceration was just for me. At some time in the morning, without music, with the lights out and only the diffuse flashes coming through the windows to illuminate us, we were all in line, silent, going round and round the room in an endless conga. I painted two pictures of this fragment stuck in my memory. Now I look at them and think, yes, that's me. I was there.

I worked a lot in Prague. The first show I did there, which then went on to the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon was an official exhibition, meaning it was organized between our embassy and the Czech Ministry of Culture. The setting was a beautiful museum installed in the Strahov Monastery, and the opening included a chorus, tape cutting, speeches, the diplomatic corps, everything very old-fashioned, the way they did things then. My paintings were inspected before they were shown and they even censored one that must not have transmitted the correct message. It was of a man, who was a carpenter at the embassy, wearing very old shoes, sitting on the steps of a park, under a beautiful baroque statue. They must have thought that this meeting between the past and present was too ambiguous. These distractions usually irritate me greatly, but that night the situation was so novel that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I have never been so relaxed at one of my shows. It was a curious theater, and I played my role, as did all the other people there.

The second exhibition was in a wonderful palace occupied by the Italian Cultural Center, which was very active among the Czechs. It was full of young people, with a great deal of noise, more like a vernissage in Soho. Everyone seemed very interested in the painting of a beautiful woman sitting in a chair, sleeping, sweet, Katie, the last person I painted before being devoured by the vacant interiors. Her husband had tried to prohibit me from showing it. Then I discovered there was a rumor that one could see her intimate parts below the skirt and that is what gave rise to all the interest. But at that time, the tension of the moment did not bother me. I felt I was on the crest of the wave, the crest of many emotions. I lived in the cannibalistic intensity of the secret parties, and the show hurt as intensely as they did. I painted all the time, with my imagination in free flight. From this period, I like "Distant Places" with Claudia dreaming, leaning over a table covered with shells. I see the strange perspective of this painting as representing the person I was, with my body there and my spirit flying in other directions.

A painting came out of this dreaminess that perfectly sums up the way Prague passed through me and my painting, "Another night, another party". It shows a chair with clothes thrown down, the remains of a glass of wine, cigarettes half smoked. We do not know if this happens before, after, or even during the party. All these movements were the same, as were the parties, with no break between before and after.

Have you noticed that softness and violence are inseparable? These extremes of life and emotion attract me. I always wanted to belong to its magic and dangerous circle. And slowly sharpen my appetite, so I can go deeper with each dive.