Are you trying to make me believe I’m unreal standing here absurdly on the green pavement?
Kafka – Description of a Struggle
It seems an appropriate day (3rd June) to post these rough diary fragments and photographs from a trip to Prague in September 1990. Retrieved from the attic, the photographs would have been taken on one of those pre-loaded cameras that you stuck into SupaSnapS or Boots for developing. These have just been re-photographed digitally. Not the best quality but may give a subjective sliver of an idea of what Prague looked and felt like not too long after the Velvet Revolution.
In deepest sorrow we announce that our son, Doctor of Law Franz Kafka died on June 3, at the age of 41, in the Kierling Sanatorium near Vienna. The burial will take place on Wednesday afternoon, June 11, at 3:45, at the Jewish Cemetery in Straschnitz.
Prague, June 10, 1924. Hermann and Julie Kafka, the parents, in name of the bereaved family.
We request that there be no visits of condolence.
Sunday morning and Prague is quiet and still as I head to the Metro station. Descending deep underground, the station is kitted out in a 1960s vision of the future: all steel bubbles, coloured squares and abstract shapes. I take the A-line to Želivského, heading for the New Jewish Cemetery. The Metro deposits me very close to the white perimeter walls, and outside the entrance, a few flower sellers are setting up their stalls. Going inside is like entering a wooded park with wide avenues and paths. There is a solitary sign that has seen better days:
[Dr Franz Kafka —->]
The sign offers no further information so a random choice of a path, branching off from the general direction indicated by the arrow, will have to suffice. The cemetery is extremely overgrown and with no other people around, I’m soon thinking that unless the grave is on one of the main avenues it may be impossible to find. The horror of why the graveyard may be in such an overgrown state hits when I recall that Kafka’s sisters, Valli, Ellie and Ottla all perished in the concentration camps. What are the chances that whole families who lie here were wiped out in their entirety with no bloodline survivors. What a disturbing thought…
I seemed to have been walking for quite a while with no sign or indication that I was on the right track so struck out on another path. If anything this took me through an area even more overgrown than the last so eventually decided to head back in what felt like the direction of the entrance at the next junction.
[After some time]
If you stumble around for long enough, what you are looking for tends to reveal itself and it was the red and pink of fresh flowers bleeding through all of the greenery that eventually guided me to the grave. Like many secular shrines, pilgrims have written messages and placed them under the white pebbles that lie in front of the gravestone. I attempt to read some of them but they are mostly in languages that I cannot understand: German, Japanese, a postcard sent from Russia (?).
I sit on a bench close by and think of Kafka dying at the Sanatorium in the arms of Dora Diamant who threw herself on the grave at his funeral. This was too much for Hermann Kafka, who turned his back on her, only to say later:
I don’t remember who took care of the girl who had broken down. I still feel ashamed that I did nothing to help the poor girl.
I also wonder what has led me and all of these other people to this place? The importance of writers to all of us? Writers who speak to us? I don’t really have a definitive answer but feel glad to be here.
As I walk back towards the entrance, I am approached by what appears to be a young family. A man, woman and toddler. The man asks me something in (I think) Czech. I ask if he speaks any English. I can see the surprise in his eyes by my utterance as he turns to his partner who, after a few seconds, says: Dr Franz Kafka? Through gesticulation and pointing, I manage to send them off in the right direction. Imagine helping someone to find Kafka.
I decide to walk back into the City, although have no idea how far it is or how long it will take. The direction feels right so off I head through the Prague suburbs. Past small cafes, people out enjoying a Sunday stroll and a surprising number of people working under the bonnets of their cars. Hammering and bashing away at the engines of their Ladas, Skodas and Trabants.
I pass a structure that looks as if it has escaped from a Thunderbirds set. Presumably some form of broadcasting tower sitting amongst the residential area.
The road I’m walking takes me straight back to Wenceslas Square. It is so vast that it appears almost empty of people. A few skateboarders practice their moves around the Wenceslas Monument.
The only obvious source of fast food in the square is a stall which serves up hearty sausages accompanied by a howk of bread and a dollop of mustard. This is delivered on what can only be described as a square of cardboard. Certainly not a plate. However, as I sit enjoying this delicious meal, I can see and sense the tendrils of consumer culture already emerging. A sign proclaim’s Coke – It’s The Real Thing whilst a Casino announces that it has ‘recently opened’. How long until McDonalds and the tourist tat shops arrive?
Walking in the Footsteps of Kakfa:
Site of The Workers Accident Insurance Company, where Kafka worked from August 1908 until June 1922.
Alchimistengasse 22 – Apartment of his sister Ottla, where Kafka wrote from November 1916 to April 1917.
Fragments of Prague (September 1990)
Prague can only be visited by organising a visa through
Prague airport is more like a provincial railway station than an airport. One person greets you, stamps your visa and then you walk through customs which is a basic turnstile. Two steps and you are in the country.
It doesn’t take long to work out the currency situation. The goods in the Czech shops where you can use Czech crowns are stocked with all the basic essentials – food, drink, clothing. For ‘luxury goods’, with western brand names, these have to be bought in special shops which only deal in hard currency such as dollars or sterling. Consequently, almost everyone is tempted to deal a bit on the side to try to obtain this. Waiters in cafes, the hotel receptionist, even people in the street all whisper their own exchange rates way above the official rates.
Prague is one of those places where a tight budget, for a visitor, goes a long, long way. Four botttles of Czech Budvar beer: equivalent of 60p. What seemed like a luxurious slap up meal – around £1. An ice cream 4p. Entrance to museums, 5p if not free.
Restaurants require a bit of negotiation. They are not restricted by the number of free tables but by the amount of food that has been delivered for that day. Once that has gone they cannot serve anyone else. I find that ‘making a reservation’ usually in a small amount of hard currency does the trick. I feast on pork cooked in marjoram, garlic and wine with potato dumplings.
No uniform colours on these buildings. Instead, greens, pinks, orange, white.
A two-stroke ‘Trabbi’ chugs away from the traffic lights. In the opposite direction a red tram approaches, bell ringing.
A brass band are up in the Tower, playing a repertoire of fanfares, marches and anthems(?). After each piece they wave to the people watching below (a crowd would be too grand a term) who applaud enthusiastically.
I soon notice that there is no extraneous music in Prague. No muzak or pop songs blaring out of shop doorways, yet there is a lot of street music. Usually of the brass band or classical nature. One evening, leaning out of the hotel window, a neon light flickers on and off accompanied by a melodious drunken melody. Overall, quietness reigns.
Walking the streets of Kundera, Klima, Škvorecký, Hrabal, Havel and of course Kafka. Strange to think all of these writers have been repressed in their own homeland. The fear of the written word that existed right up until the Velvet Revolution.
Arriving at the river, there it was: My first sight of The Castle:
Swans swim and preen themselves on the Vltava. A mother and child throw food to them from the river bank.
An old carousel wheezes out a carnivalesque folk melody. Spinning around slowly in the lightly falling rain. Not a soul is on it.
Can’t believe how quiet it is. Almost no-one on the streets after dark.
and not many more during the day:
… continuing into the Mala Strana, I begin the long, steep climb to the Castle. Despite its towering presence, any attempt at arrival is elusive, reinforced by the fact that there is no clearly discernible path to the Castle gates. You expect to see a clear path at the top of the hill, but instead you have to negotiate narrow winding streets and squares before you arrive at the castle walls. Even then there is no obvious entrance in sight. Eventually a steep curve doubles back to Hradcany Square where you have magnificent views over the Mala Strana and the whole of Prague. You enter the Castle past guards resplendent in their new blue uniforms apparently designed by the costume designer of Amadeus. The flag flying indicates that Havel is in residence. When you ponder that statement, it only reinforces the turnaround in the political life of this country. Havel, a dissident playwright of the absurd, fan of Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground and former prisoner of the communist regime is now the first democratically elected President of the Czech Republic.
The Castle is almost a miniature city. From the earliest wooden fort around 973, an organic complex of fortifications, cathedral, houses, and gardens has evolved; influences of the neo-classical, baroque and gothic. The image of Kafka wandering through these narrow streets and courtyards is very vivid. Surely St Vitus Cathedral must be the location for the ending of The Trial?
The Old Castle steps are beautiful. Wild hues of russet and green tumble over the cobbled stones.
A small opening in the castle wall leads into the Wallenstein Gardens. A peaceful oasis. An artificial grotto, aviary, and pond with unknown golden fish. Park myself on a bench with a direct view up to the castle above. Sit back scribbling in the notebook as the pitter patter of rain begins. Sitting under these natural rhythms, looking up at the castle. The pond filled with water lilies and the golden streaks of darting fish.
Before I leave. A time to stand and stare from the Powder Tower:
R.I.P. Franz Kafka. Born 3rd July 1883. Died 3rd June 1924.
Gyorgy Kurtag: Kafka-Fragmente (Juliane Banse/Andras Keller ECM) – whilst writing.
The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane – whilst walking Prague.
14 replies on “In the footsteps of Kafka”
I love this reconstruction of memories through old photographs, outmoded technology, that themselves have slightly fuzzy edges. Also, your delicious lines about the old-style Czech visa system and the castle: “no clearly discernible path,” and “no obvious entrance in sight.” Minded of snow, cemetery visits while in Paris and New Orleans, and W. G. Sebald’s writing about such places. Beautifully conceived post and neatly written. Enjoying reading it over morning coffee.
Thanks for the kind words Susan. I was surprised how much I’d jotted down at the time. Delighted you enjoyed it.
Very atmospheric piece. It reminds me of my trips to E Berlin and Hungary around the same time – all places on the cusp of change. Your words and photos really capture that sense of the different-ness (at least to the eyes of western visitors) of Eastern Bloc countries at that time.
Yes I think at this time there was a perception of social and economic changes starting to happen and a feeling they were certainly coming. However, as you say, perceived very much through the eyes of the western visitor. I had been in East Berlin a few years before when the Wall was still up and going through Checkpoint Charlie from west to east was a huge contrast at the time.
A wonderful post!
Cheers Paul. Many thanks.
This reminded me of my first (and, thus far, only) trip to Prague, in 2000. I remember finding it strange and exotic and edgy, and no doubt it was to a rather sheltered American 20-year-old travelling around Europe for the first time (although in reality I’m sure it was actually much tamer than its 1990 self). You’ve inspired me to dig out my own photos and see what they stir up!
Thanks. I was pleasantly surprised how much I had scribbled down about the trip which certainly helped rekindle certain memories. I don’t recall feeling it was too edgy (unlike Berlin which I had visited when the Wall was still up) but it was clearly in a state of transition. Whilst the’Velvet Revolution’had happened a lot of entrenched cultural practices still remained which, I guess, is no real surprise. Would love to see your photos if you come across them.
Wonderful, partly because I was in Prague at a very similar time, within months of you. I had one of the most insane weekends in my life which I really ought to blog about. Your photos stirred-up all kinds of memories, especially how relatively quiet the streets were before tourism got going attracted by what is a beautiful city. I also remember being served food in those cardboard squares. Funnily enough I didn’t see Kafka’s grave because, well the weekend went pear-shaped. Love the ‘old’ feel of the photos.
Thanks very much Alex. I think you are going to have to write up your visit now. Sounds like quite a story to be revealed. Would love to read it.
fifepsy How do you do it! = allow the time for so much writing! As one can see from your commentators – so many of us wish to do something more with our journeys about this world but don’t do what you do i.e. get it down and out there. I, for one, am a) too shy to put my words out there and b)swept up by the day jobs and its entrails – to make time for honing the words. But however – I am going to Prague for Christmas and will go with a little bit extra in my mental baggage now. Cheers T
You are perhaps lucky that I don’t have more time as there is probably years of this drivel stashed away in some form or other. Hope you enjoy Prague. Haven’t been back since this visit but would love to see what it is like now. Have fun!
Really enjoyed reading this. Somehow missed it first time around. I really wanted to visit Prague around this time. Spent a bit of time in East Germany in 1991 and 1993, and have similarly grainy and evocative photos of those trips. Still haven’t managed to get to Prague yet, but expect it must be vastly changed since 1990. Friends tell me I wouldn’t recognise East Berlin now. One half of me doesn’t want to mar the memories, but the other half would like to go and see how it’s all been transformed. I’ll probably get to both one day, especially Prague as I’m a huge fan of both Kafka and Havel.
Thanks Tim. I haven’t been back to Prague since then and have been told it has changed a lot. Would happily go back though!