One of the things I love to do while traveling is look up authors from the places I’m going. It’s wonderfully nerdy, but it also gives me a bit of an insight into the personality of a place. When I went to Prague, I started the trip off by hitting the Kindle store and downloading The Golem by Gustav Meyrink. If you want a read that will make your skin crawl, that’s the book for you. I’ve never read anything that was so creepy. It was great.
At any rate, while reading The Golem, I realized that there was a special relationship between Meyrink and Prague. The story couldn’t have taken place in any other city; the place itself factored into the story in a crucial way, although not overt. Prague has an effect on writers, one that is both essential and agonizing.
As you walk around Prague, you can see why. It’s a beautiful city, but with a dangerous edge to it. Virtually untouched during either World War, Prague still follows the medieval layout of the town – which means there are many winding little streets and poorly lit nooks. You walk into a restaurant only to find that the main seating area is in a basement that looks like it could either have been a wine cellar or a torture chamber (either is a distinct possibility). The entrance to the main church is almost impossible to find, giving the impression that there’s no way in and no way out for grace. If you’re used to a city grid, getting turned around in Prague is a matter of course; left, right, up the hill, down the hill, around the corner, and you’re in the same place you started.
Living in a city like that, it’s no wonder that the writers tended toward the weird.
For Meyrink, this weirdness took the form of superstition and mysticism. For other authors, though, the weird took a different shape. Perhaps the most famous form of Praguer weirdness comes from Kafka.
Franz Kafka was part of a German-Jewish diaspora living in Prague. He attended German schools and learned to read and write in German (he was fluent in both Czech and German). Living at the turn of the 20th century, this would have put him in a very peculiar position; he was raised in Prague, so he identified as a Praguer, but he was educated as a German, and would have been perceived as a German. In the post-World War I era, his Jewish identity would also become a problem for him, as it would preclude him from being included with either the Praguers or the Germans. Combine that identity crisis with the beautiful, chaotic danger that is Prague as well as an inclination towards writing, and you’re in for a fascinating headache on paper.
Kafka’s writing wasn’t very well received in his own time. It was just a bit too strange for people who were living through a very strange point in history. Also, it was a headache on paper. Before he died, Kafka actually instructed a friend of his, Max Brod, to burn everything that he had written. Like any good friend, after Kafka died in 1924, Brod followed Kafka’s instructions to the letter – if publishing the manuscripts can be equated to burning them.
After the fall of communism in the Czech Republic (1989), censorship was done away with and Praguers started to read Kafka again. Now, he’s very important to the city’s intellectual culture. Every book store, souvenir shop, or tourist trap you walk into has a display of Kafka books translated into various languages right in the front window. Cafes are named after him, there are statues depicting scenes from his stories, and, my personal favorite, there’s even a museum dedicated to the life of Franz Kafka. That’s right, the guy that wrote that weirder-than-weird story about a guy turning into a giant cockroach that we all had to read in high school has his own museum, right in the heart of Prague!
The Franz Kafka Museum is located in the Malá Strana (muh-lah struh-nuh; Lesser Town) district of Prague, very close to the Charles Bridge, right on the Vltava River. It’s very easy to walk by; the front entrance looks like a courtyard of sorts, and the major distinguishing feature is a sculpture made out of two large, black Ks. Of course, there’s also a piece by David Černý, who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite bear-pokers in the art world, just outside the Kafka Museum. It depicts two men, standing in a pool shaped like the Czech Republic, urinating. One of the men even has swiveling hips! I think Kafka would have approved.
After taking in the vista, you should venture into the museum bookshop and pick up your copy of “The City of K.: Franz Kafka and Prague” before heading into the actual museum. This neat little book is actually a museum guide. It contains some additional pictures that couldn’t be displayed in the museum, as well as translations of some of the signs. Most of the signage in the museum is in both Czech and English, but the quotations from Kafka’s works are all in German (he did all of his writing in German). This little book has the translations in case, like me, you don’t read German.
The museum itself is very Kafkaesque. The exhibit is darkly lit, with the brightest lighting coming from the display cases showing Kafka’s personal letters, sketches, and first editions of his works. The displays move chronologically through his life, beginning with a family tree showing where his mother and ever-present father came from. While you’re reading the letters Kafka and his father exchanged, strange noises are going on. From the musical saw to shrieking crows, they’ve got the place filled with weird sounds. It fits the general feel of a Kafka story to a T.
All in all, the Kafka Museum does a wonderful job portraying the relationship between the Prague that Kafka lived in and his writing. After wandering around the museum for a bit, you see Prague just a bit differently. You start to wonder if, maybe, when you come back, things will be “in totally different places, farther away and higher up.”