‘Memory encircles [Prague] with a wreath, a smoke-ring and the paper lattice of a valentine. I might have been shot out of a gun through all three of them and landed on one of its ancient squares fluttering with the scissor-work and the vapour and the foliage that would have followed me in the slipstream.’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts
The taxi driver’s English isn’t sophisticated, but he has sufficient patter to give us a blow-by-blow guided tour over the course of the journey from the airport to the centre of Prague. He points out a large social housing complex where, he says, many Ukrainian women live; they come to work in the city as cleaners. Conversely he tells us about the cube-shaped private hospital we are passing, and how many, many women from the States go there for cheaper plastic surgery than is available at home. Captive in the front seat, I do my best to engage, until the prejudice that seems to inform taxi drivers the world over shows itself in disparaging remarks about gypsies, the very people who are lauded in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy of books about his journey across Europe in the early 1930s, the first volume of which is in part the reason I am here, because the picture Paddy paints of Prague under snow in A Time of Gifts is simply (and typically) magical.
Today Prague is under sun rather than snow. Spring has barely begun – while the daffodils are out, the trees are blossoming but yet to leaf – and yet the weather has turned suddenly summer-like, as if especially for us. Like any sizeable city, Prague works and acts upon you at many different levels. It is the city of a thousand statues and a hundred spires. The spotlessly clean city of bubble-shaping street entertainers and caramelised chimney cakes. The historic city of defenestrations, spring liberations and velvet revolutions. It is also the city of Kafka and Kundera, of Miroslav Holub and Václav Havel, and of their literary descendants, names unknown to me. Simultaneously, it is a city of the past and a city of the present. The future, it is true, is harder to detect, but it is there too, behind the health and safety hoardings guarding building sites, and in the eyes or the sure-footed pacing of the city’s younger generation.
Soon we are making the first of many crossings and recrossings of the Charles Bridge, watched over by its succession of statues of saints, their robes and faces blackened with centuries of grime, a state that enhances their silhouetted outlines in any photos you take of them. Wenceslas, Vitus, John Nepomuk, Ludmilla, Christopher, Francis of Assisi, and Augustine, all are here, a panoply of saints venerated both locally and across the Catholic world.
We are not alone, of course. The bridge is teeming both with other tourists and with locals making their way between Old Town on the right bank of the Vltava, and the Little Quarter on its left. You have to stay up late or rise early to have the bridge even somewhat to yourself; we manage it once only. The crowds gather round busking bands, creating bottlenecks, but we are in no hurry and idle past one playing a Czech version of motorik krautrock on steel drums, and later a string quartet supplemented with an additional pair of hands drumming out rhythms on a cajón as they reinvent songs such as ‘Sweet dreams’.
Beyond the other end of the bridge stands the complex of baroque buildings called the Clementinum. Within there is not only an astronomy tower from which – being right in among its spires – you can take in some of the best views of the city, but also one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Images of the interior show it well-lit, but we are only permitted to see the library from its threshold with the blinds drawn, and under dim electric lights, which enhances the sense of the library having been untouched since the 18th century, but frustrates the urge to look at everything close up. The air about the books is deliberately chilled and rarefied, the hush almost visible. Is this all strictly necessary from a conservation point of view, or is it a piece of theatre designed to give the library an air of untouchable mystery? The question of what a library is for if one can tread upon its floor and take down its books only in exceptional circumstances is a vexing one. It seems that the space cannot be both a working library and a tourist attraction. The Czech National Library has chosen to preserve this particular treasure in both aspic and darkness. But then, only academic specialists might really need to consult one of its twenty thousand predominantly theological volumes, so perhaps it is not unreasonable to allow greasy-pawed tourists merely a glimpse of such wonders.
In his short story ‘The secret miracle’, Jorge Luis Borges has ‘Jaromir Hladik, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies’ dream that he has hidden himself from the Gestapo in the Clementinum’s library. ‘A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter. I’ve gone blind looking for it.’ At that moment Hladik is handed an atlas by another reader. Randomly opening it to a map of India, he instinctively touches one of the tiniest letters on the page, and hears a divine voice tell him that the time he needs to complete The Enemies has been granted.
I suspect that Paddy also found his way into this enclave of a library. No doubt he used his considerable charm to see it; or perhaps there was always an unofficial way to see what you wanted to see, in those days, the ones before mass tourism:
‘Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-line Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades. Along the shallow vaulting of these chambers, plasterwork interlocks triangular tongues of frosty bracken with classical and allegorical scenes. Ascanius pursues his stag, Dido laments the flight of Aeneas, Numa slumbers in the cave of Egeria and all over the ceiling draped sky-figures fall back in a swoon from a succession of unclouding wonders.’
Franz Kafka also haunts this city as I walk around it (as, I imagine, Kundera might also have done, had I been able to get past the start of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – that I didn’t is of course my failure as a reader rather than his as a writer). The low, long expanse of the castle – the complex owing that name more to its hilltop position than any especially imposing fortifications – dominates the skyline to the north-west of the city, especially at night, when it is lit up with a creamy golden glow, while the spires of the cathedral of St. Vitus, which lies within its precinct, rise as silhouettes of contrasting blackness. It is not necessarily the presence that specifically inspired Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle (which he began in the mountain resort of Spindlermühle) but I imagine he must also have had Prague’s seat of government in mind as he wrote it.
The Kafka Museum shares a courtyard with a riverbank restaurant and a sculpture of two male figures pissing into a Czech Republic-shaped pond. Apparently their watery urine spells out literary quotes, but whether any of Kafka’s are among them, I couldn’t tell you. The museum is darkly lit and somewhat disorienting. Glass cases contain photos, letters, and first editions, while a watery, rippling dream of a film projects images of Prague from the early 20th century. Like Fernando Pessoa, Kafka never married; the photos of three women with whom he had significant relationships – fiancée Felice Bauer, journalist and translator Milena Jesenská, and teacher Dora Diamant – and the letters to his employers pleading for a raise or time off for ill health are affecting, but perhaps an hour in the museum might have been better spent re-reading ‘The metamorphosis’ and a chapter from The Trial. But then this sentence on one of the information boards would not have struck me, partway through a discussion of how the myths about the city and the writer feed off each other (one suggested derivation of the Czech name for Prague being práh, meaning threshold): ‘The threshold is a deferred place, a postponed end, an unfinished work.’ A secret miracle.
One of at least two statues of Kafka stands in the Jewish quarter, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was inspired by a scene in his first novel, Amerika, in which a politician is carried on the shoulders of a giant. Kafka himself now assumes that position, ironically becoming the great upon whose shoulders we now stand. The brass of both of his shoes has been worn shiny with rubs for luck. I have my photo taken doing likewise.
Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery; no-one who died later than 1786 is to be found in the older cemetery. But in the Pinkas synagogue adjoining it, the names of the 77,297 Czechoslovak citizens who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and subsequently killed in various Nazi extermination camps are written in careful red and black script upon the walls. The scale of the loss is overwhelming. I try to focus on just one or two names and curtailed lives. Rudolf Buchbinder, 1913-42. Ludvik Buchler, 1936-42. Upstairs, the exhibition of children’s pictures rescued from the concentration camp is almost unbearable to look at; again, I focus on just one of them, ‘A boat in turbulent seas’, drawn by Jindrich Triescheř, 1932-44. It is as bleak a rendering of a boat at sea as you can imagine.
This city of statues and spires and bubbles and chimney cakes is also a city of death.
Outside, in the old cemetery, a single magpie emits a harsh cackle; but then there is also the sweet birdsong of two great tits foraging in the earth at the foot of some ivy. It’s said that owing to the yard’s confined space, the dead here are buried 12 deep. The gravestones are arrayed at every angle besides the perpendicular, some leaning on others for support. The script upon them is in Hebrew, so I cannot tell for how long these ancestors of the generations who died in the Holocaust lived, nor whether or not their lives ended in relative peace. There are little notes among the graves, lodged in crevices or weighed down with stones, upon which prayers or wishes or perhaps even secrets have been written, feeding upon the legend of the Golem of Prague. Its creator, Judah Löw ben Bezalel, a late 16th-century rabbi and an inhabitant of this graveyard, gave the Golem life by inserting slips of paper inscribed with incantations into its mouth, in an effort to defend his people from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms.
On a day of brilliant sunshine, we go to see the cathedral within the castle, but already in the middle of the morning it is swamped with others doing likewise. We confine ourselves to gazing up at its exterior, seeing how it shapes itself against the sky, just as Paddy himself had once done:
‘From the massed upward thrust of its buttresses to the stickle-back ridge of its high-pitched roof it was spiked with a forest of perpendiculars. Up the corner of the transepts, stairs in fretted polygonal cylinders spiralled and counter-spiralled, and flying buttresses enmeshed the whole fabric in a radiating web of slants.’
Prague is so filled with historical wonders that inevitably we miss out on all too many of them, like the colourful artisan cottages of Golden Lane, once the haunt of both goldsmiths and Kafka, and the Old Royal Palace, within which the Riders’ Staircase leads up to Vladislav Hall, big enough for indoor jousting tournaments. Both staircase and hall are hymned in A Time of Gifts, in which Paddy imagines ‘lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostrich-plumes under the freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep the bright paint that spiralled them unchipped.’
Our last crossing of the Charles Bridge is marked by a brilliant fanfare played from the steps of the Church of St. Francis by two men in black cassocks, heralding not a service, but a concert taking place there that evening. As with Golden Lane, the Riders’ Staircase, and who knows how many other miracles of history returned today to secrecy only through efforts of the imagination, we will have to take up the invitation on another occasion.
Clementinum photo: ccmailb. All other photos by awildslimalien.