A few moments of history, horror, and Kafka in Prague

This is an edited extract from an essay I am working on about my trip to Europe early this year.

I have never seen buildings so old. The aged stone of Edinburgh or Venice, the disturbingly mismatched architecture of London, Oslo and Berlin. Ancient blackened churches rise out of the steel, gripping defiantly to tradition.

The Jewish Cemetery in Prague has graves dating back to the 14th Century. They are stacked upon one another like a splayed-out mossy card deck. These deaths are so old that I feel nothing. These skeletons would be the kind that you might dig up and study, indifferently.

I feel something before the cemetery. The synagogue – an empty cavern despite 80,000 names on the walls. A deep, staggering sadness grabs me. These 80,000 people were Czechoslovakian Jews who perished under Hitler’s regime. I walk up and read one name, and another, but they begin to blur together in a sea of red. I have to sit down. Other faces drift by, silent. Can anyone take this in? Does anyone remember their faces? What is left from that but horror?

Outside the Kafka museum stand two statues stacked up like Lego men, pissing on each other. I giggle. What else is there but the absurd? Inside, not only are there enigmatic sketches made by the suffocating Kafka in his diaries, but art installations to emote the moods of his works. A strange, tumbling stairway; a blue foggy mirrored room. Traps and unease, things bearing down. A bureaucratic wall of drawers and black telephones. But the most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness. I am in The Castle, at The Trial and I have metamorphosed. I am also Kafka, a Czechoslovakian Jew, I have difficult romances at distances, there is difficulty in all my pursuits, and literature is everything. I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else.

I think of The Metamorphosis and its image of a deflated, dusty bug, lying forgotten in the centre of a room. Kafka wrote out of frustration for his small but comfortable surroundings in Prague and the conflict of vocation versus profession. He had an innate sensibility for the conflict of power and desire within human relationships, which predicted events of the twentieth century. I relate to Kafka’s expression of closets and cages, and swallowing confusing irrationalities. A cage went in search of a bird.

My favourite Kafka story is In the Penal Colony.

7 thoughts on “A few moments of history, horror, and Kafka in Prague

  1. Your description of Prague is so vivid – especially the line “Ancient blackened churches rise out of the steel, gripping defiantly to tradition.” – you aboslutely must read “The Golem” by Gustav Meyrink – which is set in Old Prague, which doesn’t exist anymore.

    My favorite Kafka story is “A Letter to an Academy” (My guess at the title) – I saw it presented as a monolog, by a German actor. He was in a full dress suit, but with the hairy face of an ape, speaking thoughtfully, reflectively, and pausing to play passages of Beethoven on the piano.

  2. Isn’t it just? Inside is even better.
    There are actually a couple of YouTube videos I found that people have taken outside the museum – it’s funny hearing different accents and their perceptions of the statue.

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