All the dark fantasy, satire and sometimes despair that lies under the surface of the city of Prague – from some of Prague’s most extraordinary writers like Franz Kafka, Jan Neruda and Jaroslav Hasek .
A quick dip into the nineteenth century – which is best represented by Jan Neruda (1834-1891), ‘the Dickens of Prague’. (The famous South American poet Pablo Neruda pinched his surname: Pablo was born a ‘Reyes’ …). Though of humble origins, Jan Neruda was born in Prague and received a good education. He lived on what is now Neruda Street – one of the most attractive and interesting in the city. His Prague Tales were first published in 1877 and remain well-loved and widely read.
The tales focus on the area of the city called Mala Strana (‘Little Quarter’) and paint the ordinary lives of its residents. It creates a portrait of Prague at the point in history when it starts to establish a sense of national identity, challenging that imposed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and has also helped to form how that part of the city is ‘seen’, just as many people have seen London through the lens of Dickens. And, like Dickens, one of Neruda’s avowed aims was to bring the problems of the socially disadvantaged to the notice of his readers.
In his excellent introduction to my copy of the book, the famous contemporary Czech writer Ivan Klíma explains why relatively little Czech literature of the period is read today. The Czech lands had long been undergoing a process of Germanisation, and Czech had been increasingly a language confined to the countryside.
The resurgence of Czech national and linguistic awareness was triggered (ironically) by the ideas of a late eighteenth-century German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder. He believed a nation’s ‘genius’ resided in its language. And, of course, the nineteenth century saw a surge in nationalism across Europe.
The first stage in re-establishing the Czech language was the compiling of dictionaries and grammars, along with the translation of the world’s great classics into Czech. It was then up to the next generation to begin to produce literature in the newly dignified language. According to Klíma, the writers of this period were mainly ‘patriotic dilletantes‘ from provincial, plebeian backgrounds – often the first in their families to receive an education.
Both writers and audience were few in number, the readers often unsophisticated and rural, mainly interested in morally uplifting stories, along with farcical comedies, poetry related to folklore and broadside tales. It was only with the next generation (Jan Neruda was born in 1834) that more meaningful and lasting literature began to emerge.
But we can’t move onto the twentieth century proper without mentioning Gustav Meyrink (1863-1934) who, though born in Vienna, moved to Prague, making the city the setting for his most famous story, The Golem – published first in serial form just before the First World War, then as a single novel in 1915. It draws on a popular Jewish myth of a being created by man from mud. It could be brought to life by the ritual of placing in its mouth or on its forehead a piece of paper inscribed with Hebrew letters denoting one of the names of God. Meyrink uses the story Rabbi Loew of Prague who is asked to create a Golem to protect the city’s Jews from pogroms and persecution.
But many other writers have been inspired to write Golem stories – including Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (his short story, The Golem, first appeared in 1969, but was rewritten and published again in 1981). And the linked stories of The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague (1909), by Hebrew author Yudl Rosenberg, actually pre-dates Meyrink’s famous Golem by several years. More recently, great Dutch author Harry Mulisch‘s The Procedure (1988) has a chapter called ‘The Golem’ set in the Jewish ghetto of sixteenth-century Prague.
The next big names in Czech literature – and they are still very big indeed – are Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek. They were almost exact contemporaries (both born 1883, Hašek dying in 1923, Kafka in 1924), but are very different in biography, personality, and literary work – though both regarded as quintessentially ‘Czech’, even though Kafka wrote in German.
The period between the two world wars – when Kafka and Hašek were writing – is regarded as one of the high points in Czech literature. Hašek’s The Good Soldier Sveik has the reputation of being the most widely translated work of Czech literature. It’s very long, but even if you don’t have the stamina for the whole picaresque novel (still unfinished at the time of Hašek’s death), it really is worth dipping into. In our Penguin edition, the fun and satire is captured in the novel’s original illustrations by Josef Lada. There are also a number of films of the book to enjoy, including animated versions.
Hašek was a journalist and an anarchist, with a chaotic and intemperate ‘bohemian’ life-style. But it was his experience as a soldier in the First World War – in both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies – that spawned the unforgettable character of the cheerful but seemingly incompetent little soldier, Sveik. His ‘adventures’ provide a running satire on the madness of war and the stupidity and incompetence of the people running the show.
The successful way in which Hašek uses the comic mode to tackle dark subjects is – or maybe became, under his influence – a recognisable trait in much subsequent Czech literature. A statue of Hašek stands in the Žižkov district of Prague: apparently it’s close to the pubs in which he used to write – and drink.
Like Hašek’s soldier, the protagonists of Kafka’s most famous novels – The Trial and The Castle – are ‘little’ men who find themselves caught up in a mad machine in which rational rules, responses and expectations no longer apply in the strange hierarchies of power with which one must engage.
The Trial (published 1925, though written much earlier) is a nightmarish version of a legal system both insanely bureaucratic and inexplicable. The protagonist, Joseph K., is sucked into the labyrinth of that indecipherable legal system. Kafka had a ready knowledge of legal matters in the real world, having gained a Doctorate in Law at Prague University. But the irrational processes of this powerful fictional world have given us the term ‘Kafaesque’ (often coupled with the noun ‘nightmare’).
Although The Castle opens with the protagonist (just ‘K’ this time) arriving in a village over which looms a castle to which he’s been summoned, anyone who knows Prague can’t help being reminded of the great castle which overlooks the city. The world of The Castle is as strange as that of The Trial, and although little of Kafka’s work gives recognisable physical descriptions of the Prague he inhabited, it creates a dark, unforgettably sinister psychological landscapes that reverberate in the later story of the city under first Nazi then Soviet rule. (His three sisters and his one-time lover and early translator, the beloved Milena Jasenska, died in concentration camps.)
Kafka also gave us many extraordinary short stories (some quite long), the best-known being Metamorphosis (1915): the opening is one of the most famous in literature: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.‘ But have the tissues ready. It may seem like a dark and bizarre fantasy, but Kafka’s triumph is make us feel deeply for the human-turned-insect and his fate.
But it’s easy to overdo the image of Kafka as a brooding, tortured writer. More recent translations and critical commentary have rediscovered and drawn attention to the humour in his work. Yes, it’s the wry, dark humour of a central European consciousness – the kind found in much subsequent Czech literature – but it seems the case that Kafka’s ‘image’ has been deliberately skewed toward darkness, intensity, and suffering. Perhaps this panders to the tastes of those who can’t quite grasp the complex tones and dark humour common to much Central European writing. bearing this in mind, we can see Kafka within some kind of Czech tradition, while acknowledging his dark and startling genius.
A different kind of dark fantasy is found in the work of Karel Čapek. He was born in 1890, so only slightly younger than Kafka and Hašek. He is known mainly as a science fiction writer: his play, R.U.R. (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’), gave us the word ‘robot’, though it actually seems to have been the invention of his brother Josef, with whom he frequently collaborated. (‘Roboto’ is a Czech word for ‘work’ or ‘labour’.) A leading light in the literary scene of the Czechoslovak Republic that rose from the ashes of the First World War, Karel Čapek didn’t live to see the Nazi invasion of his young country in 1939 (he died in 1938) and the death of his talented brother in a concentration camp, along with so many other Czech writers.
Although he was already writing before the First World War, Čapek’s mature vision resulted from witnessing that catastrophe – though not as a soldier (he was unfit to serve). As Ivan Klíma has pointed out, ‘Artists whose works had often shone with admiration for the human spirit and its technical achievements suddenly stood face to face with rampant destruction.‘ The only consolation for Čapek’s generation was their country’s freedom after three hundred years of domination.
His journalism and short prose was directed at helping to shape the emerging republic in a positive way, while his longer fiction tends towards apocalyptic scenarios that threaten the whole of mankind. But it was his ‘robot’ play of 1921, in which ‘synthetic’ people rebel against humans, that catapulted Čapek to international fame.
The War with the Newts (1936, translation 1985), written just two years before his death, is usually considered his greatest work. Definitely worth trying if you’re a science fiction enthusiast, though it isn’t a particularly useful read as a preparation for a quick trip to Prague.
The year 1900 saw the birth of Jiří Weil (d. 1959). Like Kafka, Weil was Jewish and was among the first to write about the devastating effects of the Holocaust, including the destruction of pre-war Prague where different nationalities and religions lived side by side. Set during World War II, his most famous work, Mendelssohn is on the Roof (1960, translation 1991), uses black humour and satire in the exploration of devastation and grief – an approach that has become recognisably Czech – or as Laurent Binet describes it in HHhH, when speaking of Weil’s novel, an ‘apex of burlesque typical of Czech literature, which is always imbued with this particular kind of humour, sugarcoated yet subversive.’ For me, the darkness of the novel, as the Nazi régime becomes more and more brutal, outweighs the farcical situation at the unforgettable start of the novel.
It begins with an order from Reinhard Heydrich – known variously as the Blond Beast, the Hangman of Prague, and the Butcher – to remove from the roof of Prague’s Academy of Music the statue of the German composer, of Jewish extraction, Felix Mendelssohn. The person ordered to remove it has no idea which of the statues is Mendelssohn. But, fed by the Nazis’ racial stereotyping, his reason tells him it must be the one with the biggest nose. In a comparison of nose-sizes, it’s Richard Wagner, the Nazis’ favourite composer, who wins hands down. It’s a brilliant image for the ludicrousness of those racial theories and is the trigger for an exploration of the régime’s brutal occupation of the country and of Prague in particular. It includes the famous assassination of Heydrich
Weil’s other outstanding novel, Life with a Star (1964, translation 1989) , chronicles one Jewish man’s struggle to exist in Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s based on Weil’s own experience: he managed to evade transportation to the camps by faking his own death.
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.