Prague In Literature


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There has to be a graveyard. If there isn’t a graveyard scene, the book isn’t really taking place in Prague.

Prague is an odd sort of city, a melancholy, dark place. The greatest Prague writer was Franz Kafka–that tells you a lot right there. And every once in a while, Prague turns up in an unexpected place. When that happens, the way to tell if the author has actually been to Prague is to ask “is there a graveyard scene?”

Helen Oyeyemi, author of “What is Not Yours is Not Yours,” lived in Prague. I know that because I read an interview, but also because her book is full of eerie puppets in Prague graveyards. Jonathan Stroud, author of “The Golem’s Eye,” spent time in Prague. I don’t have a clue if he admitted that in an interview, but his protagonist went to the Prague Cemetery pretty quickly.

Certain places are alive in ways that are not quite understandable to the human eye. And when the feel of those places is captured in books–something special happens.


On Reading The Place

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A lot of travel books–especially those written with the guidebook in mind–are just boring. They talk in matter of fact tones about sightseeing, the best restaurants, the can’t-miss art installations. People write chattily, wanting to give you the impression both of their expertise and -approach-ability. And the spirit of the place falls between the cracks in the words.

“Prague, I See A City” is so far from those books, it’s in an entirely different world. A world where ghosts haunt Prague around ever corner. Where the writer muses on her walks through the city, on the meaning and metaphor in what she sees, on the depth and layers of the city.

I’ve found that Prague books fall into two categories: those which take place in the city, and those which take place in Prague. The books that take place in Prague are filled with alienation, with doubt, with astonishing hidden depths behind the seemingly innocuous. Ever panorama has a history, every building its haunting, each street its winding and terrible tale.

“Prague, I See A City” guides the strange through those streets, in the only way that matters: the way that looks beyond the easy, the obvious, the tourist and the traveler. It brings you as close as any book ever written in English to the city on the Vltava. If you want to know Prague, this is the only book to read.

History, one person at a time


We all know that history is made up of people, but the majority of histories look at events. People are actors in those events, but we see them only through the lens of a certain time and place.

Sometimes, though, a writer will reverse it. The events are seen through the people. The grand dramas of decades are replaced by marriages, mother’s and father’s burials, and the births and deaths of children.

That’s what happens in a wonderful new book I’m reading called “Women of Prague.” A hundred years ago, Prague was a city of three vibrant ethnic groups: after WWII, it was homogeneously Czech.

There were years of history before that schism, and Wilma Iggers looks at them through the lives of prominent women. She collected letters and diares, translated them, and then analyzed some of them.

What results is a tumultous time in Europe and in Bohemia, related through the lens of marriages happy and unhappy, social events, school openings, and endless funerals.

The book is full of anecdotes that bring the time alive, like the woman who didn’t know that her son was dying until six weeks after he wrote to her, when the censors let the letter through. Or the woman who, despite her worn clothes and tired eyes, was monitored constantly by the police. Or the husband who became violent.

So many stories, so much history.

War With the Newts

KAREL_CAPEK_War_With_the_Newts_1998It’s a pretty basic sci-fi conceit (today): What would real people do if they started interacting with another intelligent race?

In this novel, Capek simply creates a very basic race–salamander-people–puts them in the ocean, and then tries to let events play out as they will. What sort of people would be the first to find these newts? What would they do? How would they react? How many minutes before violence started? How would economies react? How would labor react? How would politics react? Individual people? Religions? Hollywood? Science?Newts.1

It’s exhaustive, and I think it’s meant to be so. Pages and pages of documentation, of news reports and private memos, of footnotes and sub-footnotes make up the middle of the book. It’s boring as hell, with occasional macabre notes, and it’s meant to be so. It’s meant to convey monotony, exhaustion, the ordinariness of this race, and the ways they were taken for granted.200px-WarWithTheNewts-BantamA1292

Then, of course, there’s a turn. The kind that everyone familiar with the genre can see coming, and yet still has a sort of inevitable pain that you can’t stop reading, like when watching an avalanche or a crash and not being able to tear your eyes away. You know how it’ll turn out, but you can’t stop.

It’s not a hopeful book, but it’s one of those books that makes you remember human nature, and the importance of not discounting it. Because despite the occasional regional touches, and despite the time removal, it feels like it was written yesterday.