Prague women say, 'I'll take romance'

March 19, 1994|By Michele Kayal | Michele Kayal,Special to The Sun

PRAGUE — Forget the Partnership for Peace. Eastern Europe is being vanquished by that greatest of all conquerors: Love.

Harlequin romances, so long a staple of the American night stand, have stormed into these ex-communist nations and are amassing loyal troops.

In the former Czechoslovakia, 5 million readers a month -- or nearly three-quarters of the female population -- pick up a book by Harlequin, the Canada-based leader in formula romances. Each of the 500,000 sweet nothings Harlequin sells here every 30 days finds its way into 10 sets of hands; in some towns, a single book may be devoured by as many as 80 insatiable women.

The rank and file are marshaled by "Lady Harlequins," 55 women who comb the country pushing the product and doing market research -- for free. They pay their own expenses and work for Harlequin as many as 20 hours a week for the simple pleasure of receiving new editions two days before they hit the stands. The books are produced in Germany because no Czech press can print them fast enough.

"I read four books a week and it's not enough," says 19-year-old Jirka Valentova, a Lady Harlequin from a city 60 miles east of Prague. "I've stopped going to the park. I've stopped going to the movies."

While print runs of "quality" literature have shriveled to one-tenth their size four years ago, romance novels continue to rake in nearly $10 million a year. The most popular are Harlequin's steamy, red-covered "Desire" series. But the real bodice-rippers -- from the violet-covered "Temptation" line -- seem to do well in the economically depressed areas of eastern Slovakia. All the books are translations from the English-language originals.

Women reading romance fiction is nothing new. In the democratic Czechoslovakia that existed between the wars, such simple love stories also enjoyed enormous success. But the outrageous popularity of these novels today comes from a fascination with a genre that was forbidden fruit just four years ago, and from a growing need to escape the unfamiliar pressures of nascent capitalism.

The bulk of women buying the books -- which sell for about three times the price of a quart of milk -- are educated professionals who say the guaranteed happy endings give them a break from family and job stress. Absentee husbands are on the rise, as men work unheard-of hours to cash in on new opportunities. And many women who may have been teachers or computer engineers under communism have grabbed at high-paying support positions with Western firms that fill their pockets but leave their minds and aspirations unsatisfied.

"We call them 'brainwashers,'" says one Czech secretary for an American company, who along with her seven colleagues devours all 14 Harlequin titles a month, plus a few dozen local publications. Between sorting and filing, these twenty- to thirtysomething women with degrees in literature and art read about blind lady journalists who have over come their plight, air balloon racers who travel to exotic lands and botanists in search of cures for children's diseases.

Harlequin quickly realized the value of human need. "After the revolution, I found it would be very good business and very useful because women started to feel very frustrated and alone," says Dagmar Digrinova, who founded Harlequin Enterprises' Prague franchise in May 1992. "We try to promote Harlequin not only as a book, but as your friend."

Like any good friend, Harlequin offers women intimacy and advice. Readers receive free "monthly" calendars on which they can track their menstrual cycles next to Harlequin's publication cycle. And women unlucky in love can seek counsel with Aunt Valentine, the in-house psychologist who has office hours every Wednesday. Ms. Digrinova hired Aunt Valentine after she received26,000 letters from readers asking for solutions to their tattered love or family lives. "Sometimes they travel [four hours] to Prague with three children for advice," Ms. Digrinova says.

Harlequin valiantly raced to the aid of Eastern Europe's love-starved women as soon as it was able. In 1989, company executives in Germany charged into the melee at the Berlin Wall to deliver 720,000 books. "As soon as it went down, we were there," says Katherine Orr, vice president of public relations in Toronto.

The responsive public melted like a maiden in its hero's grasp. Today, Harlequin sells 11.4 million books a year to Hungary's 6 million women; in Poland, enough books are sold to supply half the entire population of 39 million. Operations recently began in Bulgaria, and executives say they expect to sell 40 million books a year throughout the region.

Even the most optimistic officials at Harlequin headquarters say they're surprised by the rampaging success of the pre-fab tales. But Ms. Digrinova says the mystery of love is no mystery at all.

"Sometimes you think you've already read it, but you still have to read it," she says. "Because you need it. It's like a drug."

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