So, having been excited at the arrival of the jazzy and very alluring set of Penguin Central European Classics, all I had to do now was start reading them. I'd picked the slightest looking one, How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel (and lest we forget,translated by Jindriska Badal and Robert McDowell,) to ease myself into the reading trail.
At 135 pages it didn't seem too terrifying plus it had 'fish' in the title.
For any newcomers here you may be unaware that, though I can't abide fish on my plate, I reside in an angling household and it's about to start coming in the door by the shoal (perhaps...) and though how I personally came to know fish is of no relevance whatsoever this being me I'll tell you anyway.
Fishing may be one of those subjects I have forgotten more about than most people may glean in three lifetimes because in his spare time Bookhound has been helping Fred Buller, one of the UK's elder statesman of the fishing world and now in his eighties, to research and write what I am told are 'very important ' books on all the largest Atlantic salmon ever caught (The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon) and Volume Two is out later this year.
I know useful things like one of the biggest, the British record for a rod-caught salmon in fact, was landed by a woman called Georgina Ballantyne on 7th October 1922 on the Glendelvine beat of the River Tay and at 64lbs it was a whopper...listen...I know I know, but I've had to listen to all this so you can too...Georgina was on a boat with her father and had attached a dace spinning lure to her rod when...
So anyway I would be fine with a book that mentioned fishing, no question.
Of course How I Came to Know Fish is about far more than that and in fact salmon hardly get a look in, but no worries I know as much about roach, barbel, gudgeon, dace, carp and pike too so I was quite at home.
Born in Prague in 1930, Ota Pavel, the son of an Electrolux salesman, grew up with his brothers in a fishing-mad family in Czechoslovakia forging a successful career as a sport's journalist before dying at the painfully young age of forty three following a heart attack.
Just nine years old when war broke out, many members of his family were arrested and imprisoned, though young Ota stayed with his mother, who was not Jewish, in the Bohemian town of Bustehrad. Interestingly I discover that the town has very much adopted him as a famous son and a museum now houses some of his personal belongings. For a really informative piece on Pavel's life this article on the Radio Praha website is well worth reading.
It is through fishing that an older Ota reclaims those all-important memories of a childhood blighted by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia as he looks back on the seminal moments in his young life.
'In front of me the river flowed. A man can see they sky. He can stare into the forest, but nobody really sees into a river. Only with a fishing rod can one look there.'
There is a desperate pull and a yearning for home that is woven into the allure and addiction of fishing as he recounts his childhood adventures, because this is the older Ota writing, and during a period of recovery from the acute mental illness that struck with such ferocity as he commentated on the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck in 1964.
'Sometimes, when I sat at the barred window and fished in my memory, the pain was almost unbearable... When I was slowly dying, I remembered most the river I had loved most in my life....'
The true cause of Ota Pavel's breakdown has been the subject of much speculation because it was a sudden and dramatic unraveling, involving a climb into the hills surrounding Innsbruck where he torched farm buildings and was arrested as he then led the animals to safety.
"... the Czech weekly Reflex, writing about Pavel's life, wrote last year the mental collapse may have been triggered by a racist slur. The weekly wrote that a member of the Czech ice hockey team, who felt he was being provoked by the Ota Pavel's claim the team had won bronze, (later confirmed by a change in rules), had snapped at the writer in the locker-room with the words "Jew, go to the gas chambers..." The slur must have been terribly wounding. But, whether it was the single factor that led to the writer's deterioration can probably never be known"
As I read How I Came to Know Fish I was left in little doubt that the beguiling nature of the older Ota's voice as he recalled his younger self and whilst recounting with understatement some of the serious and doubtless terrifying historical events to which he had been witness... occasionally often lightly, almost capriciously captured on the page... may well have concealed much deeper scars.
Fishing gets this family into all sorts of scrapes but brings them inordinate pleasure and laughter too and when the Nazis take over the country it also provides a life-saving source of food. As the years pass there is a heart-rending perspective on the immutability and inevitability of ageing from a child's point of view. Parents who have always been there to look up to and respect as the keepers of the flame, the caretakers and utterers of wise counsel suddenly start to make seemingly foolish decisions and become unreliable and increasingly dependent.
I wonder if any of you have noticed the beginnings of this odd slippage as we have?
Very gradually, those moments when you find yourself explaining an action to your children and feeling a bit of a numpty... and why do I scurry round tidying when I know they are coming home after a long trip?
Might it be because I don't want them to think the whole show's going to the dogs and we are letting things slide as we get older?
Well it has crossed my mind and I now think it serves me right for trying to keep it so nice all the time they lived here.
For Ota Pavel all this is a comfort and a solace as he reflects on his life through the medium of fishing,
'...so much had disappeared from my life but fish had remained. They were the alternative, the natural world where the jerky streetcar of civilisation did not threaten to jump its tracks.'
and somehow it all gave me an insight into this mad fishing home I live in and as Bookhound prepares for his trips down to the river this season perhaps he too thinks like Ota Pavel,
'Finally I have found the right word: Freedom. Fishing is freedom most of all. To walk on and on after the trout, drinking from natural springs, to be alone, if only for an hour, a few days, weeks, months, to be free of television, newspapers, radio, the community of men and women..'
Am I wrong to simultaneously think...great...I've got the house to myself for a few hours:-)
How I Came to Know Fish an exquisite and very moving book.