How I Came to Know Fish recalls some of the happiest times in the sad life of Ota Pavel – and his family. Born Otto Popper in Prague in 1930, Pavel grew up in Buštěhrad, remaining with his mother during the war after his Jewish father Leo and older brothers were transported to Terezin concentration camp, which they survived. On returning, his travelling salesman father Leo changed the family name to Pavel; Otto (who adopted the Czech forename Ota) became a sports journalist.
Covering the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Pavel had a bipolar episode, triggered by an argument with a member of Czechoslovakia’s ice hockey team who told Pavel, after he had said that third place was a respectable finish, “Jew, go and get gassed!” After Pavel absconded, torched a barn and then rescued the animals, the Austrian authorities detained him in a psychiatric ward. He was hospitalised sixteen times with mental health problems: How I Came to Know Fish, Pavel’s final book, was written in an asylum and published shortly before his death in 1974.
How I Came to Know Fish is a short collection of autobiographical stories, arranged chronologically, largely concerning Leo Popper’s attempts to provide for his family before, during and after the Nazi occupation. ’Papa’ only gradually emerges as the central character: the first story, ‘Concerts’, describes with childlike wonder ‘Uncle’ Karel Prosek, who taught Pavel and his brothers to fish, as he had their father. Here, Pavel fleetingly refers to Czechoslovakia’s imperial past: as Prosek caught eels for a Dual Monarchy Count, he could fish anywhere – until the Empire’s collapse (recounted without bias, as the aristocrat simply ‘disappeared behind four foreign rivers’) meant that, like the other fishermen, Prosek may only fish with a rod.
‘My First Fish’ follows Ota’s attempts to win his uncle’s respect by making a catch. Prosek’s response, which checks rather than fuels Ota’s self-belief, provides a typically bittersweet conclusion: every moment of happiness or success is directly related to corresponding sadness or failure. These ups and downs always involve those closely related to the author, whose uncomplicated, ironic prose leads the reader almost unnoticed into winding emotional journeys.
One of the few pieces to end optimistically, ‘The Most Expensive Fish in Central Europe’ weaves a tale of revenge with the utmost subtlety. Characteristically, Papa looks to turn a hobby into a business opportunity, planning to buy a pond to breed carp for sale. The skill with which Pavel details his father’s dream, and how it affects his parents’ relationship before and after Papa realises that he has been conned, allows him to convince the reader that, in his father’s counter-fraud, two wrongs sometimes make a beautiful right.
Many of Pavel’s recollections are brief fragments, describing memorable instants that took a little more of his youthful innocence. At twenty-four pages, ‘In the Service of Sweden’ is one of the longest pieces, but is still written with absolute economy. With sceptical humour, Pavel charts Papa’s rise from unruly schoolboy to the most successful vacuum cleaner salesman in Europe, a career then complicated by Papa’s crush on the company manager’s wife. Papa’s struggle with director František Koralek appears weighted against the salesman, until he befriends a respected artist, Nechleba. Pavel’s nose-thumbing at social structures, and those powerful within them, always sits within a personal context: even as a child, Ota realises that the only reason why philistine Koralek wants to commission the artist is so that he can tell friends and subordinates that ‘Nechleba is painting my wife!’
Nechleba’s eccentricities bring the tale to a head, before Pavel closes with three short, cold sentences, further changing the story’s meaning by detailing the later Nazi attack on Nechleba’s work. The following stories cover the annexation: ‘Carp for the Wehrmacht’ explains its effect on the family’s fishing, as the Germans confiscate Papa’s pond and then send Ota’s brothers to Terezin. Bearing the Star of David, Papa takes his remaining child to help him steal his own fish, an act of heroism starkly contrasting with the faux bravery throughout Josef Škvorecký’s Cowards.
‘They Can Even Kill You’ offers a youthful perspective on the difficulties in knowing who to trust during the occupation. Pavel becomes terrified that František Zaruba, ‘the first Fish Warden I had ever known’, will denounce him if he continues fishing, especially when Zaruba calls him a ‘shitty Jew’. Again, the conclusion is unexpected, sudden and forceful.
The final story, ‘Rabbits with Wise Eyes’, is the saddest, developing the often intimate relationship between Pavel’s family and nature in the absence of genuinely trustworthy human beings, even in peacetime (the post-war Communist authorities never feature). Papa, having retired early and struggling financially, starts breeding rabbits, investing hope and love in them, whilst the author sees only detachment in their eyes. Papa prepares them for show, only for the judges to dismiss him: Papa’s furious response and abandoning of the rabbits who try desperately to stay with him, his favourite following him the furthest, is heartbreaking; Papa’s subsequent reconciliation with his long-suffering wife provides a moment of optimism, then brutally crushed.
Papa’s anger here at perceived anti-Semitism becomes even more resonant when reading the Epilogue, where Pavel describes his experiences with the Austrian police. With typical humanity, Pavel discloses that, emotionally, his experiences proved harder for his loved ones than for him, before explaining that his treatment – being removed from society and assailed by doctors with pills – only exacerbated his madness.
Refusing to say that he ‘suffered like an animal’, he felt moved to document his beautiful experiences with creatures and their surroundings, yearning for the freedom from human existence they appeared to enjoy. The resultant book is thoroughly tragic, but always light and funny, and for all Pavel’s suffering, never self-pitying or forgetting its belief in the human spirit.