Looking for Kafka in Prague

How many Kafkas are there? The New York phone directory gives you between 13 and 21, depending on the quality of your internet research. Berlin’s registers 22. In the Prague phone directory, you can find 146 male and 94 female people proudly bearing that name. What can we learn from this? Kafka is a central European phenomenon, and the most auspicious place to look for him is Prague.

Night in a withered, old Jewish cemetery. Swinging open a gravestone, a man, alias Kafka, alias Jeremy Irons, enters a grave. The secret tunnel leads him straight up to “the Castle”, a place of mystery, crime, and the making of artificial human beings. The connection between Kafka’s works and biography and the topography of Prague lies before your eyes. By creating this scene, Steven Soderbergh, the director of the 1992 movie “Kafka”, embodies the dream of every kafkaniac Prague traveller. A long, long time ago, I was one of them. But things aren’t that easy in the real world.

Illustration by Ryszard Kajzer

My first visit to Prague in the late Eighties was a big disappointment. Having read a few novels of the so-called Prague German authors on my way there, I was expecting to plunge into the thick mystic atmosphere of “Magic Prague” that is created in Gustav Meyrink’s version of the “Golem”. I was eager to see the dark and unique places that could have bred the existential fear that breathes from the prose of Franz Kafka. I was hoping to sit in the cafes that the authors of the Czech and the German avant-garde had frequented. But reality was different.

The atmospheric medieval ghetto had long been torn down and rebuilt in the late 19th century, and the wide streets of today’s Josefov, lined by gracefully decaying art deco houses, felt like betrayal in spite of their indisputable beauty. No trace of the Golem, High Rabbi Loew’s mysterious artificial servant made of clay, who once was said to haunt the streets of the Jewish quarter. Restaurant “U Golema” with its particular late socialist charm couldn’t console my deceived romantic soul. Most cafes of once upon a time were long since closed. And on top of it all, Kafka’s grave wasn’t in the Old Jewish Cemetery as I had expected. It was only later that I found out I wasn’t the only visitor to make that mistake.

I didn’t give up. On my second attempt in 1990, I was better prepared. This time I appreciated the modest bronze plaque — face, name, date of birth and death — that was fixed on the corner of the artist’s birthplace on the edge of Staromestske namesti (Old Town Square) during the more liberal period of the Sixties. Having learned how to use the Prague tramway system without getting lost, I even made my way to Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery. Using my first words of broken Czech, looking for Kafka and all the others was an adventure, a way to discover something that had long ceased to exist in Western Europe.

Now here I am again. Standing on the corner of Staromestske namesti and “U radnice” (Town Hall Street), lately renamed into “Namesti Franze Kafky” (Franz Kafka Square), I almost get run over by one of those horse-drawn carriages that serve to induce the retro-feeling all over the world. Cello music is blurting from a loudspeaker nearby, English and Italian is spoken in front of “Restaurant Franz Kafka”, which now occupies part of the ground floor of Kafka’s birth house. From between the two windows of “Franz Kafka Gallery” next door, a purple, deformed Kafka-stencilled graffiti stares back at me with a malignant, frog-like smile.

“I really like that picture!” A young tourist in jeans and a white T-shirt walks up to me. He’s holding out a matchbox with the picture of the black silhouette of a lonely man walking down a cobble stone street. The figure wears a hat, a cane and a coat; the old fashioned fairy-tale houses to his left and right seem to close in on him, while the sky above is full of illegible letters in an unknown alphabet. “Franz Kafka — Prague” it says on the matchbox, and the young man asks me: “Do you know what this Kafka thing is all about? It seems to be all over the place. Is it some kind of chain?”

In some ways, today’s visitors seem to be luckier than I was on my first attempt. In the growing Disneyland of Magic-Prague commerce, you can find your Kafka without even looking for him. There’s a Kafka for everyone. His sad dark eyes follow you from T-shirts, postcards and posters, available on every corner, and multilingual guidebooks and town-walks are at the disposition of those who wish to track down the different residences of the Kafka family or follow the insurance agent on his way to work, to the swimming pool, on his favourite walks to the park.

Several “Franz Kafka” bookshops supply his literary work and memoirs of the type “The time I ran into Kafka in the street”. The visitors can have a coffee at Franz Kafka Cafe on their way to the Jewish Cemetery and then have their picture taken in front of the big brown plastic Golem statue across the street. More advanced Kafkaists can retire to Cafe Milena on Old Town Square, feeling superior to the average Prague traveller with their knowledge that the Czech journalist Milena Jesenka was a great love of Kafka and the addressee of his famous “Letters to Milena”.

“Isn’t that too much?” squeals the scholar inside me. “Wouldn’t Kafka be turning in his grave at the sight of the family from New Mexico proudly presenting their souvenir coffee-mugs to prove that yes, they have been there, in Prague/Europe — without having a clue that the face on their mugs is one of the most important 20th century writers?” yelps my inner aesthete, the admirer of Kafka’s prose. While certain features of Kafka’s Prague, which could still be felt in the late Eighties, are now disappearing, the “symbol” Franz Kafka — his name, his face, a symbolic meaning of his person — is taking on an independent form and drifting further and further away from its source. Day-tripping tourists attracted by the beer prices or nostalgic (German) intellectuals with a strong, romantic inclination towards the past, like me; the Magic-Prague and -Kafka industry serves us all. 

Yet, not all of the Kafka-business is purely commercial. In the doorway of Cafe Milena, the Prague Franz Kafka Society informs you about its ownership of some of the Kafka-Institutions. As its “chief aim” this non-governmental, not-for-profit organization, “associating about 800 members from all over the world” claims to be making an “effort to revive the traditions that gave rise to the unique phenomenon of the Prague German literature and to restore the general awareness of the cultural plurality in the Central European region (where for centuries Czechs, Germans and Jews used to live side by side) and of its meaning for tolerance, humanism and democracy”.

Still, neither the tourist industry nor information boards like this one can restore the atmosphere or the destroyed “unity of three” that is referred to. In the present setting, Kafka is before your eyes more than ever — but even less to be seen. Finding historical traces of Kafka still requires as much imagination as it did before, maybe even more.

One man who has the kind of imagination that lets him see the invisible is Professor K. Leading a group of students along the streets of Old and New Town, the internationally known Prague German literature expert does not seem to be affected by today’s (Czech) life: his eyes are looking straight into the past. Stopping on a street-corner here, in front of a blind shop window there, he describes places, dates, meetings, moves to new houses, letters and other changes that took place more than 60 years ago in a way that makes you expect that Franz Kafka or Franz Werfel are just about to come around the corner.

I bow down to his historical and topographical knowledge and tip my hat to his power of imagination. There’s just one question spinning in my head: Wasn’t/isn’t there a Czech culture too?
This is where I can fully grasp my feeling of uneasiness about the whole Kafka business for the first time. Obviously, Czech society is opening up towards its German and Jewish past, rediscovering its ,invisible Germans’. There is a Czech Kafka, too, for Kafka is one of many Czech, German and other authors whose works are about to be fully re-established in the literary canon of Czech culture after 1989.

But the Germans coming to Prague come to seek only the vanished German Prague, the authors, the places, the atmosphere of a “middle European” town that in many ways still breathes the atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or an atmosphere that their own German towns might have preserved had there not been the war. What they look for and what they see is pretty much what they expect: a museum of a now vanished German-speaking culture, whose capital was Prague. At best, it is the things “we” have in common with the Czechs that we see, at worst: only our own, the German past.

What about Czech writers and artists? The Czech population of then and now? What about Prague as a modern capital, as the cultural, political and economical Centre of a state in the 21st century? All this is hidden in a language that a deeply rooted prejudice claims at best to be too hard to learn or simply funny, at worst to be inferior. For us, looking for Kafka is much safer than trying to confront the overwhelming preponderance of consonants of the Czech language. So there we are. Ukoncete prosim vystup a nastup, dvere se zaviraji. Pristi stanice — Stary zidovsky hrbitov.

This article was posted in Issue No.2 »Failed Projects« and tagged .

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