Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr. is a champion of diplomacy through culture, arts – and comics.
Diplomacy With a Twist
Jan Victor R. Mateo (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Having just rushed through Manila traffic on a rather busy day, Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša, Jr. quickly shifts into his element as he enters a roomful of comics on display at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Gallery in Intramuros.

 “Darna Vs. The Planet Women,” he did not miss a beat when asked for his favorite Filipino work of science fiction, referring to the 1975 film starring Vilma Santos and Rosanna Ortiz.

He then lists other names of Filipino authors and comic artists whose works he admires: Mars Ravelo, Francisco Coching, Dean Francis Alfar and Arnold Arre, among others.

A prolific collector of science fiction literature, Olša is not your typical diplomat.

Far from the image of ambassadors in formal attire attending state banquets and cocktail parties, he appears more relaxed as he begins to talk about Czech culture and his experience living in Manila.

“I like the Philippines. My first trip here was 24 years ago and I have been visiting the Philippines repeatedly,” he tells STARweek. “When I had the chance to become an ambassador, I said yes immediately. I was really happy to come here.”

Appointed as ambassador to the Philippines in 2014, Olša first visited the country two decades earlier when he was just starting his career in the diplomatic service.

“I remember my first visit. On my second day, I went to Solidaridad bookshop (in Manila) and bought my first Filipino book there,” he shares.

The book, a rather obscure work by Filipino science fiction writer Jose Ma. Espino, would be the first of dozens of Filipino literature that would form part of his extensive collection.

Over the years, he would become more acquainted with works of other Filipino writers and artists, including those writing in local languages.

One of his latest acquisitions, in fact, is a booklet containing fantasy and science fiction stories written in Hiligaynon which he personally received from the author during his recent visit to Iloilo.

Czech comics on display at the “Meanwhile, Elsewhere” exhibit mounted recently at the NCCA Gallery in Intramuros.

“Everywhere I go, I try to understand the people through history, culture and of course science fiction,” he says.

Olša’s love for science fiction began when he was very young. “I had an interest in the non-European world since I was a child,” he shares. “I remember that it was in 1982 when I came in possession of a Nigerian fantasy book. I realized that there should be science fiction and fantasy outside of America and Europe and started collecting it.”

He would later work as an author and editor of various science fiction anthologies.

In 1993, armed with an international relations degree and a keen interest in the history and culture of Asia and Africa, Olša would join the diplomatic service of the then newly-constituted Czech Republic (one of the two states created following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the other being Slovakia).

He would rise from the ranks, serving in various offices before becoming an ambassador in 1998. Prior to his assignment in Manila, he was his county’s top diplomat in Zimbabwe and South Korea.

Despite a change in career, Olša says his interests – science fiction, as well as film and history – continue to play a significant role in his work as a diplomat. “I feel that diplomacy is changing. It used to be the job of very silently looking gentlemen,” he says.

The exhibit celebrates 100 years of Czech comics from 1918 to 2018 and features both mainstream and alternative themes and authors.

“The 19th century was a kind of diplomacy of war and peace. The 20th century was about the diplomacy of trade. Now, more and more it has become the diplomacy of branding and public relations,” he adds.

The challenge, he says, is for diplomats to be able to showcase their countries and show the people how interesting and beautiful it is.

Indeed, what better way to do it than by tapping on history, culture, art and literature?

With his background and interests, Olša says he finds it easier to connect to people he meets in places he visits.

“It is quite important because part of our work is to meet people, to talk to people. This is the way how to reach various people I would never reach,” he says, referring to his interests in history and culture.

“Through this, you reach many other people. And it’s quite good that you can talk to a wide variety of people where, as a diplomat, you won’t be able to talk to,” he adds.

It was no surprise, then, that the embassy chose to feature Czech comics to commemorate significant events in Czech history this year: the centenary foundation of Czechoslovakia, 70 years of the establishment of the infamous communist regime and 25 years of the creation of the Czech Republic.

On display at the NCCA Gallery last month, the Meanwhile, Elsewhere exhibit showcased the history and evolution of Czech comics during the country’s colorful history.

“Comics is the right thing because it will also be interesting for Filipinos,” Olša says when asked about the exhibit.

“It’s a bit different because it’s very much intertwining with politics. Comics in Czechoslovakia was a highly politicized topic for half of the last century. That’s why we are showing not only the best comics, but also how the history influenced comics or otherwise how the history is depicted in Czech comics,” he adds.

Despite the differences, the ambassador believes that the shared passion for the arts would connect the Filipinos to the people of the Czech Republic.

Aside from the exhibit, the embassy has also organized various activities that feature their culture, including film showings and musical events.

On the flipside, Olša says he is finding ways to introduce the Philippines to their people. In 2016, he curated a set of Filipino films featured at a festival in Prague.

“It was quite a difficult task because I wanted to show Filipino cinema as it is, not as it is often shown in Europe,” he says.

To do this, the ambassador said he chose a combination of films that feature not just the highly-acclaimed works of directors such as Lav Diaz, but also of other genres such as those that tackle history (Baler, Heneral Luna) and – of course – science fiction (Panday, Darna).

Olša says he wanted to showcase typical films that Filipinos like to watch in cinemas. “I selected four films with Anne Curtis for that,” he quips.

Finding a shared history and culture between Filipinos and Czechs may seem a daunting task. But, according to Olša, this is not totally impossible.

“We do have historical ties. More than 300 years, the Czech Jesuits were operating here in Intramuros,” he says. He cites Georg Joseph Kamel, a Jesuit missionary and botanist known for his comprehensive accounts of Philippine flora and fauna, who was born in Moravia, now part of the modern-day Czech Republic.

“As a historian, wherever I was, I try to connect these or countries through history,” he says.

“I am preparing a book of translation of letters by two Czech Jesuits who served in the Visayas in the 1730s. The letters were previously unknown. They are describing their work in Bohol, Leyte and Negros,” adds Olša.

On the literature side, the ambassador says he is working on a Czech translation of select Filipino works. “From Alfar to (Jessica) Zafra. I’ll have Chinoy writers, writers writing in Hiligaynon and Cebuano. It’s a kind of a selection that will show what Filipino literature is,” he says.

“I’m trying to do the same with Czech literature here. We have a couple of anthologies of Czech writings, poetry that maybe we can translate not just to Tagalog but also Waray, Masbateño, Bicolano,” adds Olša.

Admittedly, there is more work to be done. But, according to the ambassador, the strategy of improving the cultural connection to strengthen ties between the two countries appears to be working.

Over the years, he notes an increase in the number of Filipinos visiting the Czech Republic and the other way around. Cultural exchanges and ties between universities have also materialized.

On the economic aspect, Olša says more and more Czech companies are entering the Philippine market. “Czech-Philippine trade relations are also increasing slowly,” he says, stressing the potential of improved economic ties between the two countries.

“When I first visited (the Philippines), hardly anyone knows about my country,” he says. “Now it is starting to change.”

JAROSLAV OLšA JR.
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