I was born in Bratislava at the end of 1976. I come from a family of teachers. Several of my relatives taught German, music, biology and other subjects and fields of study. My grandmother and mother taught deaf and hard-of-hearing children and my aunts educated disadvantaged children. Thanks to this, at one period I was growing up among children who were hard of hearing, there being about ten of them in the class and they often came to our house as well. For some the teacher filled the role of a mother. And a father as well.
My brother works in the field of cognitive sciences in Prague. Uncle Kamil Roško, a trumpeter used to play in the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and taught three generations of trumpet players. When I was still a small boy he would take me into Reduta through the rear entrance, so I became familiar with concert halls and musical instruments from an early age. His sons, my cousins, played the violin and flute. Many other relatives were involved with music too, some even professionally.
I imagine myself in childhood as a hard disk on which various people, closely or distantly related, recorded their knowledge and skills, thus enriching me. I started university much later than my peers. This approach angered my parents, but it enabled me to gain some very varied experience in the meantime. Even now I can’t understand why it is the custom in Slovakia to go to university at eighteen and begin working at twenty-three.
I did a lot of different jobs. I washed dishes in a restaurant. Sold in a shop. Stuck up posters for a rock club. Worked as a copywriter. Organised events with alternative and electronic music, as well as company congresses. I was in charge of boat tours on the Danube.
I studied aesthetics in Nitra. After the depressing teaching of literature at secondary school, it seemed a miracle to me that I was free to interpret. In the lessons I listened both to Moby and Richard Wagner, I read comics and Balzac, I watched B-horror films as well as Visconti’s classics. And I studied in detail the history of visual art, films, theatre and literature.
My grandfather, Jozef Hvorecký, born in 1919, came from Bytča. During the period of the Slovak state he was active in the Resistance and towards the end of the war he was in hiding underground. He studied economics in Vienna and his degree certificate bears the Nazi eagle. After the bombing of the city the department was moved to Zagreb.
Grandad was a left-winger, a communist. He became a member of the Board of Commissioners and later deputy head of the planning committee in Bratislava and Prague. He devoted his whole life to solving economic problems, finally becoming a professor and teaching to an advanced age. He was awarded the Order of Labour. He wrote many books and textbooks with titles such as:
Current issues in the theory and practice of macroeconomic planning
Czechoslovak-Soviet economic cooperation
What do you know about the USSR?
Socialist competition – the main instrument for the participation of Soviet workers in the development of the economy
Your grandfather was Red! You’ve got communist cadres in your family! – that is what many people reproached me with as a teenager. But could I help it?
I was greatly relieved when I didn’t find his name among the secret police agents. I guessed he would not be there. Grandad was a hard worker and an honourable man. He sincerely believed in the communist utopia, in a more just world. He couldn’t stand corruption or the pulling of strings and he didn’t take bribes. People even used to laugh at him for that, because others around him were growing rich, profiting from nepotism, building large houses and chalets, and he had hardly anything and didn‘t even miss it. He had a passion for books and hunting. He had a collection of hunting trophies on show in his study, which reminded me more of a forestry museum than the workplace of a top-level left-wing economist.
When I was little these royal stags, wild boar, stuffed pheasants and black grouse used to scare me, especially at night when they cast strange shadows, the bed squeaked, the parquet floors creaked and the old furniture made cracking noises from the heat.
He would write by hand or type and behind his back he had a wonderful library full of German, Russian, Czech and Slovak books, from which I derived my first knowledge of literature. I remember he liked Kafka and Camus and recommended them to me.
From 1973 he worked in Moscow as an economic adviser to the embassy. When I went there as an eighteen-year-old I was surprised to find how many people still remembered him and praised him. Apparently he had helped the institution to find its feet economically and arranged for the reconstruction of the building the embassy occupies to this day.
He found it hard to accept the Gentle Revolution. But there were those who even committed suicide, some from his neighbourhood. Grandad didn’t believe in planned privatisation. In his estimation it would end in catastrophe. However, he died in 1990. He was a non-smoker all his life, but he was struck down by a terrible form of lung cancer. I felt devastated after his death. I didn’t even have the strength to attend his funeral. He was very close to me. We looked like each other. In childhood photos I look like his twin.
I would love to talk to him today and ask him many things. To what extent did he contribute to the fact that at the time of the Expo in Brussels in 1958 Czechoslovakia was among the leaders in innovation and was developing rapidly? What was the impulse behind the economy in the sixties, when elsewhere in the world they were talking about our third way? How did he perceive the country’s decline after the period of “normalisation” and the increasing stagnation in the eighties? Was there much in his books that he had had to invent, withhold or lie about? Or had very likely wanted to?
He will no longer tell me. At least I can read what he wrote.