Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery. Translated by Richard Dixon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011
From the Kampa side the Marysko Bridge looks like a bathtub, with passers-by gliding across it / on their rear ends on rollers, wrote Bohumil Hrabal in his long poem Bambino di Praga (1950). As everyone knows, there is no such bridge in Prague—it is just Hrabal’s joke, a playful wink in the direction of his closest friend, Karel Marysko. Years later, when Hrabal uses extracts from the poem in his story Kafkárna (1965), there will be a mention of the Charles Bridge which “looks from Kampa like a long bathtub, on which the passers-by are gliding along on their rear ends on rollers.” Either way, the rollers take us to the neighborhood of the UPM—the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts.
This is one of my favorite places in Prague. Josef Kroutvor works there, essayist and art historian, whose article Central Europe: Anecdote and History expressed one of the most interesting views in the debate prompted by Milan Kundera when communism was in its decline.
“As Hrabal once said to me at the Golden Tiger: ‘I do love your snap judgments’,” Kroutvor told me when we met shortly after Hrabal’s suicide, when the writer was pictured on the front page of a Prague tabloid, wearing a railroad man’s cap with a gold band, with a photograph of the hospital next to him; a red arrow pointed to the spot where he had fallen from a window on the fifth floor. The caption read: “Here ended the life of one of our greatest modern authors.”
“I try to retain the things Hrabal said to me,” Kroutvor continued. “Besides, making snap judgments is one of our national characteristics— it’s typically Central European,” he added after a pause for thought.
His neatly knotted, unchallenging bowtie made him look like an Austrian bookkeeper from the turn of the century, or a home-grown philosopher from the same era, someone like Ladislav Klíma, who called himself a continuator of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas, but was famous as the author of brilliant aphorisms, philosophical tales and the novel The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch (1928). One of its main characters, a German general, claims to know the perfect way to halt an attack by the Czech infantry—you have to fire knedle (potato dumplings) at them.
“We haven’t the time to think everything right through,” said my interlocutor, picking up the broken thread. “It is because Europe is divided into three parts: the West, where real history happens, the East, where there is no history at all, and Central Europe, where history appears to be absurd, and falls apart into individual, meaningless events. It might look as if history dwindles from West to East—as if the mechanism of time known as history operates far more efficiently in the West, while in the East time slows down, and sometimes even comes to a standstill, or vanishes entirely. That’s why our part of Europe is typified by those periods in history when, after long stretches of stagnation, time seems to break free of its chain and race forwards to catch up. For in a short while we’ll be back to times when nothing happens”.
As I listened to him, I realized that we do not find Kroutvor and his compatriots’“snap judgments” offensively superficial, thanks to the self-irony that is a typical feature of Prague intellectuals— Hrabal even spoke of “Prague irony.” A person can only cultivate this sort of self-irony and the tendency to make snap judgments by spending long hours over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer—not on one’s own, of course. That is why kavárny (cafés), hospody (inns) and výčepy (bars the size of a goods elevator where you only drop in for a glass of beer) are an intrinsic element of the Prague environment, often situated in quite surprising places. For instance in the long (as a bathtub?) basement of the UPM, from where you can only see the rollers… I mean feet of the passers-by. To use the restroom you have to climb the marble steps in the main hall to the second floor of the building. From the restroom windows, you can see one of the most unusual, least expected views in such circumstances— looking over the old Jewish graveyard. The very one that Umberto Eco writes about in his latest novel, The Prague Cemetery.
Eco was on a visit to Prague in August 1968— just when the Warsaw Pact troops, a force of 300,000 soldiers and 6,000 tanks, brought their ‘fraternal aid’ to Czechoslovakia. Throughout 1968 (annus mirabilis, annus horribilis, as Josef Škvorecký described it), “time seemed to break free of its chain and race forwards to catch up.” Alexander Dubček’s attempt to create ‘socialism with a human face’ ended in Moscow’s military intervention. Socialism as understood by Dubček’s successor, Gustáv Husák, looked more like one of Arcimboldo’s fruit and vegetable portraits.
It is no accident that the hero of Václav Havel’s famous essay, The Power of the Powerless (1978), who so convincingly explains to himself that there is nothing wrong with displaying a sign reading: “Workers of the world, unite!,” is the owner of a greengrocer’s store. Dubček became a gardener, Havel was an assistant at a brewery, and the future Czech primate was a window cleaner. Kundera kept himself going by writing horoscopes, while Hrabal became a “writer in liquidation,” who wrote his most famous books: Cutting It Short (1970), I Served the King of England (1971) and Too Loud A Solitude (1975) “for the drawer.” They were fetched out of it by Ludvík Vaculík, who founded the underground publishing house Hasp (Edice Petlice). It was reading these books that prompted me to travel to Prague for the first time in the spring of 1990.
I only spent five days there, but actually I stayed for ever. Not until many years later did I realize that one of the main reasons why this happened was a desire to participate—if only in the role of an observer—in an exceptionally egalitarian model of national community, unfamiliar to us Poles. This egalitarianism certainly does not mean that Czech political culture is thoroughly democratic; on the contrary, this is the very reason why the Czechs gave in to the temptations of totalitarianism so easily, identifying egalitarianism with so-called uravnilovka— literally “equalization,” or artificial egalitarianism. Disproportions in ownership have been rising non-stop in the Czech Republic, just as they have in Poland. And yet the lack of any division into gentlemen and louts is still a typical feature of Czech society. And it is this feature, to do with the model of “national revival” (“from the bottom up”) which was adopted in the nineteenth century, that invariably surprises visitors from the rest of Europe.
We also find echoes of this fascination in Umberto Eco’s notes from his visit to Czechoslovakia, My 1968—On the Other Side of the Wall (only published in Polish as Mój 1968. Po drugiej stronie muru, Krakow, 2008). This little book is a collection of “snap judgments” made by Eco at the age of thirty-six, when he found himself in Prague by accident—the actual goal of his journey was Warsaw, where he was going to take part in a conference organized by a semiotics society. “I was on my way to Warsaw by car with my wife and two friends to attend a congress. It was meant to be a cultural trip,” he recalled. ‘First we stopped in Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary, where we enjoyed a dose of Habsburg glitz in the cosmetics of folk tourism, then Prague, where we were to meet up with friends from the writer’s union. …we stopped in Libeň, a working- class suburb in the north east of the city, on the highway that goes to Poland. When we woke up on Wednesday 21 August, we saw columns of tanks outside.’
Once the initial shock has passed, Eco calls his Czech friends, who advise him to get out of Prague immediately. However, there is not enough gas in the car to get to the border, and there are already “endless lines” at all the gas stations (and grocery stores). So he goes back to Libeň, from where he and his friends decide to walk into the city center—”about ten kilometers.”
At two, they have lunch at the restaurant in the Hotel Paris (where Hrabal’s wife Eliška worked as a cashier). “Through the windows we can see tanks going down a narrow street, heading for the downtown area. We’re on our way there too, to Old Town Square, where there is a ring of machine guns surrounding the statue of Jan Hus, aimed at every building.”
By three they are “at a café near the castle,” on the other side of the Vltava river (it looks as if our Italian friends were pretty good walkers). There they meet a writer friend; the three hours they spend with him are“infinitely sad.”“It’s the end of socialism,” says Jan K. “The people I’ve talked to had no doubts about socialism as such,”adds Eco. “They regarded it as something obvious, and they were simply demanding different conditions within its framework—they were challenging authoritarian politics. ‘But now it’s over,’ says K. ‘From now on my son will be just as much of a skeptic as I am’.”
Two days later Eco reaches Vienna. He calls the editors of the weekly L’Espresso and dictates a report from Prague (his article, headed Dancing Among the Tanks, will appear in the issue dated 1 September). ”We are in Austria,” he ends his account of the four days during which he saw ‘everything needed to understand the style of this nation.”“The danger is over. In a way, we are at home. What am I to do? Play the March of the Marines? But the betrayed socialists whom I left behind in Prague would not want that.”
Eco’s account was not the only one to appear in the Italian press at the time. His fellow countryman Angelo Maria Ripellino was also in Prague in those days. His Magic Prague (1973), ‘a historical and literary prose-poem in 116 chapters,’ is perhaps the most famous book about mythical Prague. But for as long as I can remember I have been more interested in historical Prague—a Central European city which in the nineteenth century was the site of the difficult symbiosis of Czechs, Germans and Jews.
We have grown used to associating that century with ladies in crinolines and gentlemen in top hats. Yet it was underneath those top hats that all the twentieth century’s most monstrous ideologies, conspiracy theories, prejudices and deranged projects were incubated. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the history of which— from Maurice Joly’s pamphlet (1864) through to Sergei Nilus’s The Great Within the Small (1905)—is presented in Umberto Eco’s novel, is the quintessence of all those lethal myths. Thus although its main protagonist, the brilliant Italian forger Simone Simonini, is a fictional character, The Prague Cemetery reads like a faithful record of the events that led to Europe’s greatest crime. It is like the read-out from the black box of the twentieth century’s greatest catastrophe.
The story is swarming with double agents and international spies, impostors and plagiarizers, devious Jesuits and Masons, Satanists in priest’s cassocks and Russian mystics in bast shoes, crowned heads and suicide bombers, as well as a whole crowd of supporters and creators of conspiracy theories. The Protocols was Adolf Hitler’s favorite reading matter, and also that of the last tsarina of Russia. Henry Ford himself had half a million copies printed and distributed at his own expense. In the modern day, those who believe in its authenticity include former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, members of the Palestinian organization Hamas, and terrorists belonging to Al-Qaida. It is required reading for all anti-Semites, not just in the Arab world or South America, but even in exotic Japan.
In Europe and America, which experienced the atrocities of the Second World War, only a complete fool would now refer to The Protocols. In the West books such as The Da Vinci Code enjoy popularity, in which the roles of the baddies are played by members of the Catholic organization Opus Dei. By this token history has turned a circle, as the negative characters in the original Protocols were Jesuits, as Umberto Eco reminds us in his new novel.
Franz Kafka was born and spent almost his entire life in Prague’s Old Town. He attended the German high school within the Kinsky Palace. This is one of the buildings in Old Town Square at which the Russians aimed their machine guns, positioned around the statue of Jan Hus.
Twenty-five years after Kafka’s death, Bohumil Hrabal, then a thirty-four-year-old poet, doctor of law, insurance agent and soon to be manual laborer at the Poldi steelworks in Kladno, moved into the nearby Stone Bell House. He was fascinated by surrealism and existentialism, and read Breton and Camus. Kafkárna is a compilation of several poetic works, which Hrabal wrote in those days, at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s. The allusions to Kafka only appeared in the final version of the story; the title itself is an expression of the “Kafkamania” prevalent in the mid-1960s in Prague. It is really just a harbinger of the Prague Spring, yet another period in Czech history, when ‘time seemed to break free of its chain.”
However, the genesis of the concept kafkárna dates from a much earlier period, namely the 1930s, when the Czech translation of The Castle was published. Although the book did not sell particularly well (apparently during the war it was still possible to buy it under the counter), the Prague surrealists saw Kafka as their forerunner. And it was at an exhibition by one of them, on seeing paintings depicting the grim arterial roads of the big city, tangled in a steel cobweb of wires, cables and God knows what else, with passers-by furtively darting along, that one of the spectators cried: “To je kafkárna!”—”That’s pure Kafka!”
From then on Kafka was always present among the Czechs: the surrealists discovered a pre-surrealist in him, the existentialists a pre- existentialist, and the Christians a religious writer. There was only one way in which it was quite impossible to interpret him—as a “pre-socialist realist.”
Pavel Eisner, who translated The Castle and was a leading expert on Kafka’s work, defined it—without a shadow of malice—as “clerical- metaphysical.” Since the time when his book, Kafka and Prague, was published in 1958, the theme of the Kafka’s relationship with his native city and its Slavic citizens has spawned a copious literature. And yet following the “Czech trail” is bound to lead scholars of Kafka’s work astray. Even though he knew Czech (Milena Jesenská— at his request—wrote to him in her native tongue), even though he was a contemporary and near neighbor of Jaroslav Hašek (whom he never met), even though he undoubtedly read books in Czech, and in The Castle one can discern a similarity to Božena Němcová’s The Grandmother (1855), a novel which he rated highly, in fact no feature of the Czech identity, however we understand it, left its mark on his writing.
He might just as well have lived on the moon. And there is something relevant here, in that Prague is an “unearthly” place which each person sees differently, but which everyone finds fascinating. A place where people pass each other by, knowing nothing about one another.
This is exactly what happens to the narrator of the story Kafkárna, whom we accompany on an evening walk about Prague.
Not all of it fits, because from Old Town Square we go straight into Uhelný Trh (meaning “Coal Market”) near Wenceslas Square, and from there to Maiselova Street (which is in the Josefov district), then back to Štěpánská Street, in other words the New Town, whence we return to Old Town Square, where a militiaman sternly instructs us: “Please don’t shout like that, Mr Kafka.”
We must have been on our rear ends on rollers (as Hrabal put it) to fly round such a large part of the city in a single evening. On top of that, a major portion of the events described in Kafkárna actually takes place not in Prague, but in Nymburk. But that is a completely different story, on which there is no need to elaborate here (the story of a poet’s proscribed love affair and his resulting flight from his native city to Prague).
What matters is that in the fall of 1949 Hrabal moved from the Stone Bell House to Josefov, where he settled near the Jewish cemetery. And there he began to write fiction.
Nowadays it seems unbelievable, but the Prague cemetery was once due to disappear in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1893, Emperor Franz Joseph I signed a sanitation decree, which envisaged the demolition of about six hundred houses in the former Jewish district. In place of buildings including the Gothic ones, which had delighted Franz Grillparzer sixty-seven years earlier (“I liked Prague beyond all comprehension. No city, apart from Venice, had ever made such a strong impression on me”), in the course of a few years dozens of modern tenement houses appeared, with spacious apartments and elevators.
The most impressive buildings were erected along Pařižská Street, running from the Old Town Square to Čech Bridge. In 1914, it was in an apartment on the top floor of one of these tenements that Kafka wrote Metamorphosis. The name of the street—an elegant Prague boulevard where even today aficionados of window shopping from all over the world gaze at the displays exhibited by the most expensive clothes stores between Milan and Moscow—testified to the ambitions of the constructors, who wanted to transform Prague into a modern metropolis modeled on Paris. For instance, the tourists were to be carried up to Hradčany by a funicular railway similar to the one that takes willing customers up neighboring Petřín hill to its miniature Eiffel tower (one-fifth the size of the original). The railway line was to run along Nerudova Street, from near the Tomcat inn on Malostranské Square as far as a good restaurant called the Golden Star.
Josefov, which dated back to the days of Charles IV, was not the only district due to fall prey to the destructive passion of Prague’s imitators of Haussmann. So was the Old Town, including its most famous streets, Karlova and Husova, where in a fourteenth-century house at number 17 there had already been a café 200 years earlier, among whose regular habitués were the Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha and the historian František Palacký (it is now the Golden Tiger beer cellar). There was also a plan to fill in the Čertovka, the branch of the Vltava, which divides Kampa (then still an island) from Malá Strana. And this would surely have happened, if not for a protest initiated by the writer Vilém Mrštík, who wrote a series of articles entitled Bestia triumphans. The leading artists, intellectuals and politicians of the day sent countless petitions to the city authorities, demanding a stop to the mindless devastation, and when this brought no effect, they created a voting bloc, which in 1898 took charge of the city. The defenders of old Prague rescued the most valuable historic buildings in Josefov, including the Old New Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. But not entirely. Within the limits of the cemetery the UPM building had appeared.
How does the Prague cemetery come to feature in the title of Umberto Eco’s novel? One of the most absurd motifs in The Protocols is the scene describing a secret meeting of twelve rabbis at the Jewish cemetery in Prague. At conferences like this one, held once every 200 years, the Jews supposedly established the future fate of the world. Like all the themes exploited in The Protocols, this one too was taken from another source. In 1868, and thus barely four years after the publication of Joly’s pamphlet, a novel entitled Biarritz was published in Prussia, apparently written by someone named Sir John Retcliffe. The man hiding behind this pseudonym was called errmann Goedsche, a counterfeiter, fraudster and agent of Prussian intelligence, who also happened to be a prolific scribbler. In a chapter entitled The Jewish Cemetery in Prague and the Council of Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel he described this secret conference of rabbis, deliberating on how to take over the world.
This is the most famous and the most often cited motif relating to Prague in world literature. It bewitched Adolf Hitler, among others, whose Mein Kampf was defined by American literary scholar Peter Demetz, not without reason, as “magic Prague’s most poisonous flower.” The legend of the Czech capital, city of mystics and alchemists, of Rabbi Loew, the Golem and Emperor Rudolf II, was born at the turn of the 1860s and 1870s; it was then that travelers from England, America and Germany—among them such celebrities as the English writer George Eliot—discovered the Jewish district in this city, the only one in Europe (apart from Venice), preserved since medieval times in an almost untouched state. Delighted by it, they created one of the most enduring literary myths in modern Europe, the crowning of which was the posthumous career of Franz Kafka’s fiction. And the death of six million Jews, including Kafka’s sisters, gassed in the Nazi extermination camps.
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