Pacific Rim Review of Books

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His Doubtful Excellency

reviewed by Joseph Svorecky

His Doubtful Excellency. Jan Drabek. Ekstasis Editions, 2007.

The fate of Jan Drabek is in many respects typical of many of those from Central Europe. He was four years old when the Nazis occupied his country and his father became a notable member of the Czech resistance. In the end his father was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz as one of the few non-Jewish prisoners for whom the notorious ovens were waiting as well. But Drabek senior survived and after the war his ten-year old son was sent to a boarding school for orphans and children of prominent resistance members. It had been established along the lines of an English boarding schools and there Drabek met a notable group including among others, Vaclav Havel, Milos Forman and Ivan Passer.

Except that dark clouds gathered not only over the institution but over the entire country. As a non-Communist prosecuting attorney, Drabek’s father, managed to bring to the gallows K.H. Frank, the Nazi leader who became notorious for ordering the eradication of the entire village of Lidice. After a Communist takeover he had to escape from the country with his two sons and his wife. That is how, at the age of 13, young Jan arrived in the West, where the fate typical for many American writers awaited him. He studied at universities in the USA, India and Canada, paid for his studies as a labourer, waiter and dishwasher, then served for two years in the U.S. Navy. Finally he dropped anchor in Vancouver, Canada. Initially as a teacher, then after the successful publication of his novels Whatever Happened to Wenceslas? and Report on the Death of Rosenkavalier, he devoted his full time to writing. When, in 1989, European Communism came to an end in Europe, he returned to his native land.

The career of a diplomat and an unusual change in spiritual climate awaited him there: I had grown up in the West, says Drabek early in his account. I really hadn’t understood what half a century of totalitarianism could do to one’s thinking. In Prague he was put up in a place called The House of Hotel Living, which resembled a hotel about as much as Alcatraz, its cell-like rooms being just as ugly, dark and uninviting. The place required a police registration, and to his astonishment in the First District of Prague, Drabek discovered that although he had been married in a historically significant Little Church Around the Corner in New York, he was really still single. Czech law recognized only a marriage performed by civil authorities.

Naturally this was a regulation of the previous, Communist government. So was the concierge of the hotel who had been put there many years before by the Secret Police. She was still there, day and night, watching who came and went, except there now was no one to report to.

Drabek’s first diplomatic assignment was that of ambassador to Kenya. It was his first trip to Africa, but his Canadian wife Joan had taught in East Africa once, so at least to her the land wasn’t that strange. The imposing embassy was surrounded by a park in the middle of the city and included a movie house seating 100 people. There, the new ambassador found another reminder of the past he had not experienced. Directly above the movie house was another extensive area now full of outdated paraphernalia for eavesdropping on the Dark Continent.

Otherwise, the first part of Drabek’s diplomatic career was relatively calm except for skirmishes during his stay in Somalia, which was part of his ambassadorial competence. The noteworthy farewell words he heard from the Kenyan representative at the United Nations Environment Agency were: There is no crime problem in Kenya. This reviewer was reminded of the recent optimistic statement of the Iranian Prime Minister that there are no homosexuals in Iran.

Drabek was much more in his element after his return to Prague, where he was named chief of diplomatic protocol. But even in this new position he was learning that the change in 1989 was mainly political, not much of a microenomic one. Notorious Communist employees of the various ministries were often replaced by young dissidents. While these newcomers were unsoiled by collaboration with the old regime, they had also been denied the usual career rise and were therefore inexperienced. They soon intermingled with the old, quite compromised officials and adopted their ways. They were simply used to the local conditions…they knew that the present society, like the one before it, was to a large extent fuelled by such things as graft, lies and disregard for one’s self-respect. Of course, writes Drabek, I had come across all those qualities before, but I had never operated within a system where they were considered the norm.

Because he himself, while world-travelled, lacked experience of the strange world of diplomacy, his career was frequently accompanied by experiences more fitting for satire. It took him a while, for example, to teach his staff not to refer to the diplomatic corps as a diplomatic corpse, but at times he committed a faux pas himself. Despite intense instruction from the British ambassador, he greeted Queen Elizabeth II as Your Royal Highness, a title rightfully belonging to her husband. While meeting with the Turkish ambassador he praised his country’s famous chocolate which, as he says, I had loved for years. When the ambassador was leaving, I noticed a slightly bewildered look on his face. I attributed it to my informal approach.

Actually, Drabek had the Turk mixed up with the Belgian ambassador.

Despite such mishaps he successfully solved countless problems in dealing with dissatisfied oriental representatives, who failed to understand why the Prague police wouldn’t allow them to pollute the air with cheap used cars bought somewhere in Somalia. Or with the poor Norwegian ambassador, who suffered from vertigo and had been assigned a seat in the first row at the National Theater for a gala presentation of Smetana’s opera Libuse. From there the view in this vertically conceived theatre is comparable to that of the balcony on the Eiffel Tower.

In the chapters dealing with Drabek’s stay in Prague dozens of well-known and lesser-known personalities of world diplomacy are paraded before us, as seen through the ironic eyes of an experienced writer. Aside from the British Queen and the Swedish Royal pair (whose main wish to be photographed with the hero of the Prague dissent, Havel), there is the Canadian Governor General Romeo LeBlanc. Drabek has his hands full with him, trying to explain to the inexperienced employees of the welcoming ministry which protocol should be accorded an official who is neither a king, nor a general or president, yet still warrants the honors due to a head of state. And there are others like “Madlenka”, as Drabek calls Madeleine Albright, who was called by that name by Drabek senior, a one-time close friend of her father, Josef Korbel.

The story of The Doubtful Excellency ends almost tragically at his second diplomatic post in Tirana, Albania over which the dark clouds of the Bosnian conflict are starting to gather. In this most backward country of Europe which was the home of Enver Hoxa who ruled it by more Stalinist methods than Stalin did Russia, Drabek’s wife Joan is suddenly taken ill. The illness is difficult to diagnose but clearly life-threatening and accompanied by terrible pain. The French doctor who runs a small clinic in Tirana advises quick transfer to a hospital.

But there is no reliable hospital in the country and so the ambassador first tries to gain access to a small airplane under control of the American Embassy, which could take Joan to an Italian hospital. Except that the plane is unavailable because on that very day a revolution is starting in Albania. The ambassador calls the Czech Ministry, requesting a special plane which would take the patient to Prague. And here he encounters a bureaucracy which the state had inherited from Communist Czechoslovakia. The strange habits of the totalitarian government are still imbedded there.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs is incapable of solving the problem of payment. When the desperate ambassador offers to pay for it from his own pocket a new problem arises: can their own ambassador can be trusted? Meanwhile the patient is losing consciousness. In the end the second problem is solved too. The plane lands and takes off again from revolutionary Albania, taking the half-dead Joan to Prague’s Central Military Hospital, at that time still the best equipped medical institution in the country.
After the operation the surgeon explains to the ambassador that the life of his wife hung by a thread. She suffered from peritonitis, perforated ulcer and an inflamed appendix. The ambassador breathes more easily, telling the doctor that in desperation he tried to get his wife via a commercial airline to Vienna so she could be operated on there.

She wouldn’t have been alive by then, the doctor replies matter-of-factly.

Drabek’s grippingly told diplomatic, and at the same time human story is a singular work of its kind. It appears to be the first insider’s testimony about the background of a somewhat imperfect miracle which took place after the bloodiest power in European history collapsed.

The esteemed author of The Bass Saxophone and other novels, Josef Skvoreky writes from Toronto.