When it comes to really contemporary writers on Prague , it’s hard to know who will stand the test of time.
And when relying on translations, it depends on decisions made by publishers and translators as to which books are deemed worthy of a wider audience. All we can do is suggest a few we think worth looking at – but our suggestions are by no means exhaustive.
If you like very long, American-influenced novels (with lots and lots of dialogue), you might enjoy the work of the self-exiled Josef Škvorecký, a long-term Canadian resident where he set up the ‘Sixty Eight’ publishing company to ensure that the work of dissidents would have a platform. I’m quite a slow reader so got on better with shorter works, such as Emil Hakl‘s prize-winning and much praised novel Of Kids and Parents (2002, translation 2008), a father and son pub crawl around Prague in which their personal stories are shown to be intimately bound up with the story of their city and their country during the past sixty years. It has what I’ve come to think of as a very ‘Czech’ tone in which humour, irony, tragedy, and the every day are in seamless dialogue through the voices of the protagonists.
Patrik Ouřednik (b. 1957) is another interesting Czech author (and translator) who moved to France. I enjoyed Case Closed (2006, translation 2010), a rather different kind of detective story set in post-Communist Prague and involving a group of retirees who chat regularly on a park bench.
If you enjoy very imaginative, rather surreal, Borges-type narratives, try Michal Ajvaz‘s The Other City (1993, translation 2009) – the first of his novels to be translated into English. And in a completely different style – deliberately colloquial and lively – try Jáchym Topol‘s Night Work (2001, translation 2014) and City Sister Silver(1994, translation 2000) said to be ‘the voice of a generation’.
Michal Viewegh (b. 1962) has a high profile among Czech readers – which started with Bliss was it in Bohemia (1992). His tackling of the Soviet period with humour and detachment seemed like ‘a breath of fresh air’, apparently, after the unravelling of such a problematic time. The novel – which is partly autobiographical – gives us one particular family whose political trajectory could be described as typical for the time, starting with optimistic faith in the reformed brand of Communism of the Prague Spring, through disillusionment after the Soviet-led invasion and crackdown, and through the compromises necessary, before 1989, in order to have a reasonable standard of living.
As far as I know, his only other novel available in English is Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia (1994, translation 1996), on the surface the story of a teacher asked by a local mafioso to teach his daughter ‘creative writing’ in the hope it will cure her depression. Not quite as simply light-hearted as its cover suggests, one of its ‘functions’ is the exploration of creative work in the context of the post-Soviet world. (After all, writing is no longer a ‘dissident’ occupation!)
And now, yes, EUREKA!! A female Czech novelist translated into English! Are there really so few female Czech novelists, or are they just not given a high profile, or not translated? It raises all sorts of questions about the publishing and translation scene – who makes the decisions about what becomes ‘visible’ and what remains in the shadows. Also, perhaps, about how long it takes a culture to recover from the influences of régimes in which women’s voices are regularly ignored in certain areas of life.
A female Czech novelist
But, when I finally had in my hand a book by Daniela Hodrová (b. 1946), it was well worth the wait. A Kingdom of Souls (1991, translated 2015 – significantly by two excellent female translators: I note that most Czech translation is in male hands), is a beautiful portrait of her city – memories, histories, haunting images. Its starting point is actually the view from her childhood bedroom in a fifth-floor apartment on Vinohhradská Street, looking out over Prague’s Olšany Cemetery. Another work on the city is her Prague, I see a city… (translated 2011). An academic as well as a creative writer, Hodrová was awarded the Czech State Prize for Literature in 2011 and the international Kafka Prize in 2012, and it’s not before time that her work is becoming available in English.
When it comes to non-Czech authors writing on Prague, those that stand out for a variety of reasons include Philip Kerr who, in his 2011 novel Prague Fatale sends his well-known Berlin-based investigator Bernie Gunther to Prague in response to an invitation from his former boss Reinhard Heydrich – now Hitler’s man in Bohemia and later to be known as ‘The Hangman of Prague’ or ‘The Butcher’. (He was instrumental in planning ‘the Final Solution’, and even Hitler called him ‘the man with the iron heart’.) The first ten chapters are actually set in Berlin, but then Gunther goes, unwillingly, to Prague. In some ways, it feels a little uncomfortable, this use of such a real-life monster in the mode of detective fiction, but is perhaps for some readers at least an entry point into the history of Czech suffering at the time of the Third Reich.
Another non-Czech writer, the French Laurent Binet, has taken the story of Heydrich’s assassination and written an extraordinarily original historical novel on the subject – a novel which includes the process of researching it along with comments on the various options open to the historical novelist, thus disposing of the discomfort of turning such a truly monstrous human being into a ‘character’ in a story.
Called HHhH (2009, translation, 2012), its curious title is the initial letters of the German phrase ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ (Heydrich’s boss was Himmler). I learned a huge amount from this book about the intricate history of that time and place about which I’d only had a vague knowledge, as well as learning the story of ‘Operation Anthropoid’ when two Czech parachutists were sent from London to assassinate Heydrich. It kept me reading late into the night and feeling humbled by the courage of the people who volunteered for what would clearly be a suicide mission, and the many people who risked – and gave – their lives to help the young men. Essential reading. And you’ll find streets named after the three heroes of the assassination – Gabčík, Kubiš, and Valčík – close to the scene of the assassination.
I really enjoyed Utz (1988), a short novel by Bruce Chatwin, best known as a travel writer. The ‘Utz’ of the title is a Prague gentleman with a passion for sometimes eccentric Meissen porcelain figures. His fortunes – and those of his precious collection – are intimately tied to the fortunes of the city. It has elements of the mystery story as the collection seems to have disappeared without trace … An elegant and intelligent tale with a sure sense of place and cultural climate.
If you’re a Philip Roth fan, you may already have read his Prague Orgy (1985), which forms the ‘Epilogue’ to his trilogy Zuckerman Bound. In this short work, Zuckerman goes to Prague in 1976 to search out the manuscripts of a martyred Yiddish writer and becomes immersed in the struggles of writers trying to survive under a totalitarian régime.
High-profile French writer Sylvie Germain‘s ‘Prague Trilogy’ starts with the rather beautiful The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague (1991, translation 1993), followed by Infinite Possibilities (1993, translation 1998) and then Invitation to a Journey (1996, translated 2003). Her writing is poetic and atmospheric but she also gives us a world sharply perceived.
As promised earlier, a few more non-fiction recommendations to finish with. Admirers of John Banville‘s wonderful writing will be delighted by his non-fiction Prague Pictures: portraits of a city (2003), mentioned earlier. This was probably my personal favourite non-fiction read. It’s quite hard to define, but Banville himself calls it, ‘A handful of recollections, variations on a theme. An effort to conjure a place by a mingled effort of memory and imagination.‘ And if you don’t already know his work, this is a lovely introduction.
I must admit that Magic Prague (translated from the Italian in 1993) by Angelo Maria Ripellino (1923-1978) is not to my personal taste, though it’s a book often mentioned in connection with the city. It’s not an easy read: the style is quite verbose and complex, but it’s an interesting mix of travelogue, history, culture and ‘atmosphere’, though a bit too full of ghosts and golems and gloom for me! I probably can’t improve on one description I saw of the book as a ‘haunting, clotted, mad masterpiece.’ By all means give it a go if you’re an ambitious reader, but don’t let it put you off Prague!
And finally …
If you want to explore the history and culture of Prague in the sixteenth century, Peter Marshall‘s The Theatre of the World (2006) is a good read – magic, alchemy, religion, and fascinating figure of Rudolf II. American Myla Goldberg gives an enriching experience of the city in Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague (2004) – with some stylish illustrations. And a Prague memoir by a particularly eminent Czech-born American, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012), which blends her own family’s story with the tumultuous events of history.
One could go on and on and on … There is so much wonderful writing about – and set in – Prague. But the suggestions above will, I hope, open a few windows onto this beautiful, complex and culturally rich city.
For a Prague literary visit don’t miss The Franz Kafka Museum in Malá Strana district (Cihelná 2b) Metro: Malostranská. It’s a fairly small but ‘atmospheric’ museum with quite text-based exhibits. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but fine if you don’t already know much about Kafka.
Click here and here to discover other writers on Prague, including Franz Kafka, Ivan Klima, and Bohumil Hrabel. And for a taste of Prague history – you really can’t ‘get’ Czech writers without knowing a little about Prague’s past – check here.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.