The Mystery of the Puzzle Box: the life and work of Jaroslav Foglar

27-09-2007

Jaroslav Foglar's children's stories of adventure and mystery are beloved to at least three generations of Czechs. Banned under communism, his fiction nevertheless found its way into the homes and subsequently hearts of countless young Czechs, and created memories which for many linger long into adulthood. But with the increased exposure of children's literature in the Czech Republic to new and often international trends, is his popularity beginning to wane?

Perhaps a measure of Foglar's success is that one of his stories has twice been dramatised by Czech Television. With the English title 'The Mystery of the Puzzle Box', Zahada Hlavolamu is one episode of Foglar's immensely popular and iconic comic series 'Rychle Sipy' ('The Swift Arrows'). Just one of the many adult fans of Foglar is Karel Komarek, professor at Palacky University in Olomouc:

'I can say from my own experience from when I was a lad in the 1970s, and from the experience of my son who in the last few years was between 10 and 15 years old, that we've read Foglar's stories with great relish. They have never bored us; nobody's ever had to push them into our hands, so these stories are very much loved. Foglar has become a sort of cult author for our youth. There are simply many lads who yearn for that kind of adventurous lifestyle, and Foglar's tales, so to speak, speak from the heart. They are reflected in the thoughts of his young readers.'

For any young boy growing up in a city, the typical elements of a Foglar story must offer an exciting alternative to everyday urban life. Yet perhaps the main attraction of Foglar's tales is that they take place not in some fantastical otherworld but in the Czech Republic, in the countryside and the capital itself. They concern different gangs of boys who often engage in contests and solve mysteries, a world that springs directly from the kind of friendship and camaraderie that Foglar himself experienced as a boy. Dorka Labusova is from the National Writers Museum in Prague:

'Jaroslav Foglar was born in 1907 and very early on he lost his father. Maybe it was important for his life because he grew up with his mother and brother and it was very difficult, because they didn't have enough money and he was very poor. In his youth he had a very important meeting with a scout troop, he tried for a few days to go with them out of the town and it was for him very important and interesting because he was a little romantic. For a poor boy this wasn't usually possible and it was an inspiration for him I think for his whole life.'

Foglar's romantic nature, his longing for the wild which is experienced by many young boys on the verge of adolescence, is expressed in a poem he wrote and had published in the Prague section of the magazine 'Ohnivci' in 1920. He was just thirteen at the time.

'When the moonlit nights come
I wander the forests alone.
I'm overcome by an enchanting power
And feel a strange longing.

I wish to go to the high cliffs
Where the moon glows in the crags,
And back into the deep forest
to where the glassy pools lure me.

I wish only to go far from humanity
Where I can be alone.
Where the beasts are my only companions,
And there live a more beautiful life.'

One shouldn't overestimate Foglar's Romantic desire for solitude. For him, the possibilities that nature and the wild offered were best enjoyed in the company of peers. For a man who later said - 'Friendship is the most valuable possession one can find', scouting and tales of group friendship were to become his lifelong work. Dorka Labusova:

'He studied only at secondary school and he hadn't a high education but he tried to establish a troop of scouts boys when he was 19, and also the result of his experiences with this group was his writing for children or young boys. First he wrote the book Hosi od Bobri Reky, Boys from Bobrich, and this book is an itinerary for how to start a group of boys, not especially scout boys, it was for everybody. This book wasn't the first to be published because no single publisher wanted to publish it, but I think it is still one of his most important books, because it was for many people who read it in their youth an inspiration for their whole life. The other books which were published before WW2 were only illustrations to this first book.'

Hosi od Bobri Reky was published in 1933. In it, Vilik and Jirka meet Rikitan, under whose leadership they set up a gang of seven boys, in which they learn through various tasks key qualities such as honesty, generosity, shrewdness and strength. According to Karel Komarek this emphasis on such values could account for the author's fall in popularity among modern Czech youth:

'I think that Harry Potter and literature that resembles it comes from a completely different view of the world and of man, from different moral principles. Foglar after all was already from the old, classical school of good morals, but with Harry Potter I would see a little of a kind of relaxation of moral foundations or a liberal approach to the world. So it's legitimate that today's youth, which has already grown up under the influence of such an atmosphere, will orient themselves more towards that world of Harry Potter. But I'm an optimist and I think that many young people even today agree with those ideals which Foglar espoused.'

Whatever the reasons for Foglar's slight decline in popularity, he still remains widely read among children today. After 'Hosi Od Bobri Reky', Foglar continued to publish. In 1937 he became co-editor with Karel Bures of the youth magazine 'Mlady Hlasatel' ('The Young Reporter'). From December, working with the artist Jan Fischer, he began publishing his series of stories in comic form, 'Rychle Sipy' ('The Swift Arrows'). These comics have attained legendary status among young Czechs. Back at the archives, Darka Labusova showed me some of his personal writings from the period:

'This is his diary from the year 1937. It was an important year for him 1937, because when the Second World War finished he could again publish, it wasn't possible during the war. But it was only possible for three years, in 48 or 50 they stopped everything. He was still a young man in these years and I think a diary like this in which for every day he has one part, is very interesting.'

'Mlady Hlasatel' was suppressed in 1941 by the Nazis. After the war, Foglar enjoyed a brief period of publishing freedom, but with the rise of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, his work was again banned. Yet it continued to be widely read and loved throughout the entirety of the Communist period. People copied his fiction and borrowed it from one another in secret, and many households had copies of 'Hosi od Bobri Rechy' and 'Rychle Sipy' stored somewhere in their bookshelves. But what exactly was there about Foglar's work that posed a threat to the regime? Darka Labusova:

'This is also a very interesting question. First he was a scout and the scouting ideology was illustrated in his books. The communist censors were afraid. In many books it is not written that it is scout group, but everybody can read this ideology in his books. That is one reason. Another is that many left wing critics in Czechoslovakia in the 50s and late 40s also criticised the texts for being stupid.'

Jaroslav FoglarJaroslav Foglar Foglar continued to write during the years of censorship. With the political changes of 1989, Foglar - then in his early 80s - could again publish, and he enjoyed a renewal of popularity. In the ten years that remained for him, he brought out 'Dobrodruzstvi v Tmavych Ulickach' ('Adventure in the Dark Alleyways') as well as several collected works, including the complete collection of 'Rychle Sipy'. In 1995, his health began to fail, and he spent the last four years of his life in and out of hospital. He died in 1999, aged 92. Looking back at a life dedicated to entertaining and inspiring children and adolescents, I wonder whether Foglar would have been moved to write his style of children's fiction if he hadn't had those early experiences in the scouts. That was my final question for Dorka Labusova:

'It's very difficult to say but I think yes. All his life was tending towards writing about this aspect of human life. In his diaries he often wrote about himself that he is still like a boy between 13 and 15 years, so I think if he had not been a scout he would still have tried to work for these young boys or write for them. It was his destiny.'

27-09-2007