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.