Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Behind the Iron Curtain

“I would erect a monument to the typewriter …” Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky


Vaclav Havel,
architect of Charter 77
The often mysterious world of Czechoslovakian typewriters has been covered by Will Davis in ETCetera No. 79. As Will said in the introduction to that story, little is known about Zbrojovka Brno's typewriter endeavors–even with the benefit of the Internet. Language is an obvious gulf, but without a collector in former Czechoslovakia I think that the typewriter side of the Consul story will remain a mystery. 

But digging and searching did reveal some interesting things about typewriters and Czechoslovakia. The story takes us behind the Iron Curtain back all the way to 1977 where a group of Romanian academics, artists, and politically-minded young people drafted a document to protest the state-ordered harassment of a Czech rock band called Plastic People of the Universe. The original charter, no doubt tapped out on state-made Consul typewriters, was a sign to the Communist leadership that Czechoslovakia was still a place where debate on the future of the country would take place. Any person that signed their name to the Charter 77 marked themselves for police harassment and intimidation. Future president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel was one of the signatories and went to prison for his beliefs. His Wife Olga would clandestinely type various Charter 77 documents and distribute them to member of the Communist opposition. 
 Illegal Czech samizdat
Communism created a typewriter culture in Czechoslovakia. While publication of books without approval through the state censors was forbidden, manuscripts, monographs, and short stories were not illegal per se. Obviously, if the content was anti-state and it became widely known that you were participating in seditious activities, you could be arrested. But if you hand-typed your work, bound it, and signed the front you were merely distributing a manuscript. It was a tenuous precaution against being accused of spreading unauthorized publications, but it worked. Thousands of publications of Czech samizdat (Russian for self-published) were typed and distributed in a network of underground manuscript-sharing.

The Typospherian in me loves that so much bad was undermined by the typewriter. In reality it could have just as easily been pens and pencils or Facebook and Twitter (as seen in the Arab Spring), but I am unwilling to let the typewriter miss the laurel because of a trick of time. 

The typewriter was the tool of revolution. But I would argue that typewriters are very often symbols of revolution–or at least of independent thought. If you read about the power that the typewriter had in countries like Czechoslovakia, Bukovsky's statement makes sense. So often Americans cite corruption in the Communist system, the prowess of Western markets, or Ronald Reagan as to why Communist countries went through political upheaval in the late 1980s. None of these things mattered. Cruel regimes exist regardless of political climates, economic conditions, or the beliefs of old men. The women and men who were the cause of change and the typewriter was their agent. So, it is more fitting than anything that the typewriter should receive the accolade as acolyte of revolution.

So, where does my little Consul come in? Probably nowhere. I am fairly certain it was intended for the American market. It is unremarkable as any other Consul 232.


This particular example, however, does have a very nice paint finish.


As portables go, it has some interesting features like this stop to prevent the carriage return lever from marring the body while in-transit.


It types nicely even if the top row of keys has an extreme angle compared to the bottom row. It's not noticeable in the pictures, but when you type you can feel it. 






To end my meander, I wonder what a monument to the typewriter would look like? Pillars and marble? Steel and concrete? No. The real monument to the power of the typewriter is everywhere. It's in the word of Charter 77, illegal student samizadt, even in Richard's Typewriter Insurgency.


3 comments:

  1. Interesting. I never knew much about Consul typewriters. Better than a Skyriter. Now that is a challenge. I need to look for one because I really like the nice action of my Skyriters.

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  2. Interesting post. And that's a lovely Consul.

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  3. For being brown it really is a very pretty typewriter.

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