Edward W Batchelder

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A Kafka Project

Kafka aroused attention outside of Czechoslovakia for his books expressing an atmosphere of fear of life, but he really belonged to German literature.
—1965 Czech travel guide

photo of bust of Kafka in Prague

I had not anticipated the hours required to cross the border into East Germany. For lack of a natural boundary between East and West, an administrative one has been erected. Lines twenty to thirty people long wait to be processed at booths titled Day Visiting, Overnight Visiting, and Passing Through Without Stopping. This initial sorting doesn’t seem to speed things up at all, yet people wait patiently, without even the rolling of eyes that accompanies waiting in America. There’s nothing else to do. The East Germans have elevated bureaucracy to the level of a natural disaster: It can be predicted but nothing can be done about it. A couple of teenagers try to cut in front of me, but the guard marches them to the back immediately. They not only have long lines, they have police to enforce them.

By the time I had finished crossing over, I had missed my train to Prague and had to catch a later one, finally arriving at 10:30 at night, by which time all the tourist offices had shut. I had no Czech money, having assumed, with the American’s faith in the omnipotence of totalitarian regimes, that some official would require me to exchange currency on the train. I had no hotel arranged for the night, and I didn’t speak a word of Czech. It was late November.

There is an ethics of vulnerability in travel, I think, that requires me to act like this. By not insulating myself from the roughest potential experiences of traveling, I suppose I hope to become sensitized to my new surroundings, stripped down to the nerves like some medieval heretic journalist flayed alive and left to wander through Central Europe jotting down his impressions. General impressions: discomfort, fatigue, anxiety. For lack of a koruna (8.5¢) I can’t even check my luggage, but have to haul it around with me as I pace the streets, trying to puzzle out a solution to the fix I’ve put myself in.

~

It’s difficult to know how these projects get started: a National Geographic from 1967 with photos of Prague in winter; a book on the life of Kafka with old, sepia prints of the city; an enthusiastic comment from a friend with stories of wheeling and dealing on the black market. Everything comes together into that wistful longing to travel, to visit one’s fantasies on some new location, to make the specious literary pilgrimage across Northern Europe to trace, as with paper over a gravestone, the contours of Kafka’s life in the streets of Prague.

Finally, after several hours of wonder sliding into fatigue, I approach two young Czechs on the street, explain my predicament, and ask if they can help. They are both extremely gracious, and after a brief conversation in Czech they agree that, yes, although there is not a lot of room in the flat, they would be happy to put me up. This is all arranged through Dmitry, who speaks a bit of English, while the flat belongs to his friend, Bohumil. By chance I have heard of Bohumil Hrabal, the popular Czech writer, and I indicate this to them. They are pleased. Dmitry says to me: “Edward Kennedy,” and I reply: “Dmitry Shostakovich,” and we play this for a while, trading famous names from each other’s cultures while we walk through the misty streets, up cobbled hills and through narrow, unlit alleys that break unexpectedly into tiny squares. In the absence of other dialogue, this attains a marvelous irony, as if we were commiserating on our mutual lack of fame, which has left us here, schlepping through the dim, anonymous streets of Prague late at night.

“You must excuse us,” Dmitry says to me at one point, “we were drunk today.” And though they still are, the hospitality is more than I could have hoped for. I am ushered into Bohumil’s tiny, two-room apartment, given slippers, and fed successive courses of soup, peanuts, red wine, and a dense grey bread that Bohumil has spread with pink liverwurst and decorated with little designs in ketchup.

Abruptly, Dmitry asks what Americans think of Gorbachev. The question is blunt enough, but out of fear of offending, I manage not to express any personal reaction. After Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, Americans want greatly to believe that Gorbachev is reasonable man, a man they can understand and work with. (In some way, I’m detaching myself from my nationality.) Dmitry nods, apparently satisfied for a moment, but then turns and says to me intently, “You must know this, it is very much worse here than you can think. Czechoslovakia is a very small country, and Russia . . .” he pauses, and then Bohumil, who I had not thought understood English at all, finishes it with a nervous, giddy laugh, “Russia so big!” (Later it occurs to me that Dmitry is not a Czech name at all, but Russian. When I ask him about this he smiles at me abashedly. “Now you know a secret. My mother, she is Russian.”)

The Czechs have not let the invasion of ’68 fade from their mind. Even Dmitry, who was only six or seven at the time, recounts the events as if he remembered them personally. A bitter cultural memory is kept alive in a way that is hard to understand for Americans, whose history is not so clearly in the pocket of the government.

This bitterness hangs over most interactions I have with Czechs, as if on top of the Soviet occupation, they have added an additional burden of their own as a matter of pride. The thing that keeps them alive through all this is their well-developed sense of irony about their own situation. Lacking that, I am merely exhausted by the whole business, and I refuse Dmitry’s offer of his apartment for the rest of my stay. I’m like a sponge for negativity. When I finally get a hotel room, I have to sit and stare at the wall for several hours just to recover my equilibrium.

~

In the 1890s the Jewish quarter of Prague was subjected to a severe urban renewal (The Sanitization), and with the establishment of the Czech republic after World War I, all German street names were changed to Czech. This provides an almost insoluble puzzle in tracking down the sites of Kafka’s life. With a copy of Klaus Wagenbach’s Franz Kafka: Pictures of a Life and a current street map of Prague in German, I find the house where Kafka was born and lived the first few years of his life. A good spot to start, even though that house was torn down in the sanitization and a new one built in its place. The house itself is rather nondescript, but I’ve heard there is a bust of Kafka in the area, which I can’t find anywhere. I stick my head inside the open front door, where in the dim light I see two sturdy maintenance women hauling buckets around. “Sprechen Sie deutsch?” I ask them politely. They straighten themselves out, shake their heads, and smile as they wave their palms at me, “Hier kein Kafka Museum, kein Kafka Museum.” No Kafka Museum here. I have the distinct impression it’s the only German they know, just enough to deflect the legions of German tourists on their own Kafka sightseeing tours. I go back outside.

On my second look, I find it. There, on the second-floor corner of the house that stands in the place of the house where Kafka was born, about fifteen feet above ground level where quite probably no one ever notices it, is an ghastly quasi-expressionist bust of Kafka—his gaunt, black, cast-metal face lurching out of a curved rectangular shield that seems to have been massaged by clumsy children into their misunderstanding of Hebrew lettering. A completely inappropriate memorial in an inappropriate location . . . presumably for a man whom the regime considers an inappropriate writer. Aside from a poster hanging in the back of a closed bookstore, it is the only acknowledgement of Kafka I find anywhere in the city. He is not prohibited but has become instead, in the words of his title for his first novel, The One Who Disappeared.

~

One of the reasons I arrived here with no Czech currency is that it is actually illegal to bring Czech money into Czechoslovakia with you. This seems a step of illogic out of The Trial, but actually has an economic basis. The government profits from requiring you to exchange money at their absurdly inflated rate each day you are in Czechoslovakia. The people, for their part, profit by exchanging it at a better rate on the black market. It’s system which is oddly both symbiotic and mutually parasitic.
The black market is ubiquitous in Prague. Its existence, as well as the long lines in almost every shop at every hour of the day, points most clearly to the inadequacies of the centralized economy. Of course, there are never any lines on the black market. Precisely because it is unregulated, the laws of supply and demand are in full force, and there appears to be unlimited demand. I follow several tourist groups, both German and English, and find them continually strafed by quick-striding men muttering: “Change money? Umtauschen?” At times, it becomes difficult to hear the tour guide above the sound of haggling over exchange rates. It’s a floating stock market. Although employed by the tourist agency, which is an arm of the government, no guide I see ever officially takes note of all this. In fact, they are quite scrupulous about not noticing it.

I change money in the main squares of the old town, in crowded restaurants, in the train station under the eyes of the cashiers and passing soldiers. At one point I go into a government tourist agency to change money at the official rate, and the old woman behind the counter looks around, takes a drag off her cigarette, and asks me: “Official, . . . or better?”

I mention all this to Dmitry one night as we walk up the steep steps of the Hradčany Castle overlooking Prague. “I will tell you now a public secret. Yes, there are millionaires in Prague. Every waiter and every taxi driver. From the black market.”

~

The Schoenborn Palace, where Kafka lived when he discovered he had tuberculosis, is now the American embassy. Dmitry takes me by it on an afternoon walk. I am intrigued and want to go in, but Dmitry looks at me like I am crazy. “Go in, no! I do not even want to stand here. Great danger.” He points nervously to the Polish embassy across the street and the police station next door. We walk away quickly. Dmitry seems awfully paranoid to me sometimes, but I have since understood that this is the operating attitude of most Czechs. Few people’s lives can stand close scrutiny by the state; the best thing is to never attract attention. Even drunk Czechs I met, drunk past the point of focusing their eyes or speaking coherently, were capable of walking inconspicuously down the street. It’s apparently a very deep-seated instinct.

~

Orwell’s status in Czechoslovakia, not surprisingly, is almost that of a prophet. Dmitry shows me his samizdat edition of 1984, hand-typed in Czech and hand-bound, with no name on the spine. Looking at it is a very spooky feeling, like examining a relic from a religion I don’t really believe in but can’t help being oddly moved by, if only because of the huge amount of energy invested in it by others. He got it, it turns out, in exchange for using a photocopy machine at work to make a copy of a banned Milan Kundera novel. “Danger, you know, anyone could catch me, but it was worth it.” Ah, I think, there are many black markets in Prague, the money thing with the tourists being only the most obvious.

~

I continue to make the rounds of various, unnoticed Kafka sites—The House of the Golden Pike, his first apartment; the Worker’s Accident Insurance building where he worked; his close friend Max Brod’s house; the various synagogues; the cafe where he was exposed to Yiddish theatre from Poland. The fact that I can’t actually get inside any of these buildings greatly diminishes my desired literary epiphany. Radiating out from the center of the old town, I finally locate the building where Kafka lived with his parents from 1907 to 1913, years encompassing the intense few months when, in a corner room on the top floor, he wrote “The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” and the early chapters of America. I’m not sure what to expect when I find it—perhaps another plaque, some sort of notice of what was written here. Instead, it’s a merely a tall, elegant building, a half block from the Vltava River, with a Lufthansa office on the first floor.

Emboldened by the knowledge that I may never be in Prague again, I walk up the five flights of stairs and stand outside the door of what I imagine was the Kafka apartment. I admire the ceramic angels above the lintel. I eavesdrop on the Czech conversation emanating from within. I procrastinate for close to an hour, torn between my curiosity and my sense of shame. Finally, I knock on the door. “Excuse me,” I announce in loud German, “I am here writing an article about Franz Kafka, may I talk with you?” After a long silence, the door opens a crack. “Bitte, was wollen Sie?” An old woman, her hair neatly tied back, peers around the edge of the door. I explain myself, doing my best to radiate earnest trustworthiness. “Ach, ja, gut.” She lets me in.

The door opens into a long, dimly lit hall, with her two rooms off to the right side. Profuse apologies for the mess, though it is not messy at all, merely overcrowded with furniture. “Yes, yes, I know, this was once Kafka’s apartment,” the old woman tells me in impeccable German. “Now it has been broken up, I have only these two rooms. But this one here, this was his. I know, I have read his work, his desk sat right there before the window.” She gestures at the corner of the room, where tall glass doors lead out onto a small balcony. “Please, feel free to stay here for a while.” She graciously leaves me alone.

It is more than I could have imagined, but somehow less as well. I stand on the balcony, looking down Parizka Street towards the river. An ugly modern building blocks the view somewhat, but after all, here I am, in Kafka’s room. For heaven sake’s, I think, why isn’t this a small museum, with a facsimile of his desk and furniture, a few books propped gently on some nearby shelf, the old woman employed selling postcards in the next room? The moment a writer is born, though easier to ascertain, is never as significant as the moments when he is writing.

Eventually, I go back into the other room and talk with the woman. She is melancholy in the way old people are when they see, from their long perspective, that everything is going wrong. Over tea she tells me her husband was Jewish and died in the camps; most of the rest of her relatives left for America after the war. Because she had been from the upper classes, the government took all her family’s property from her and gave her these two rooms. She sighs. “They did not know what they were choosing when they voted in the Communists.” But then she talks some more about Kafka. I am, in fact, the eleventh visitor to these rooms, all the rest having been German. I tell her I think Prague is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen. “Oh yes,” she says, “in Prague everything is for the eyes.” It’s a haunting remark, implying that the city is a hollow facade, with nothing left for any other part of the human soul. After another few minutes, and a last trip around the room, she lets me out.

~

The city is crumbling, not from age so much as from pollution. The coal smoke from innumerable European chimneys passes over Prague, and Prague contributes with thousands of its own. Piles of coal sit on the street, waiting to be carried inside and burned. The soot settles on the stucco sides of the buildings and the stone statuary and gives them a dingy, smudged look, as if they had been handled by a giant with dirty fingers.

At twilight, however, this dinginess gives way to the feeling of a pastel sketch: The buildings take on a delicate, powdery quality, and the grey stonework looks roughed in with a heavy pencil. The low sun diffuses through the fog off the river and is refracted by the million tiny particles of soot suspended there. Everything becomes strangely luminous, as in a snowfall, only muted by it being coal black rather than white.

One night, a young Czech introduces himself to me in a bar, hoping to have a chance to practice his English. Like other Czechs I meet, he speaks with great grammatical precision and agonizing slowness, as if English were a complex mosaic he is constructing as we speak. We discuss the play he has just seen, what he is studying in school, and the pros and cons of the few pieces of modern architecture in central Prague. There is a brief lull while he formulates his next conversational attack, and then he asks, in that slow-to-almost-completely-sedated voice that makes me want to claw the underside of the table with impatience, “So . . . tell . . . me, . . . do . . . you . . . like . . . Negroes?” The question is asked in an absurdly offhand way, as if we were discussing foodstuffs, yet Dmitry had asked almost exactly the same question. Have they rehearsed together? Clearly, Czechs hear a lot about the failings of the West—racism, unemployment, homelessness—and because they are far from believing all that they read, they seem always anxious to get first-hand knowledge.

Later, in revenge for his question, I ask him what he thinks of Gorbachev. He smiles, and says, “He is good for drinking.” It turns out that Gorbachev is the name of a brand of vodka in Russia. “Like Smirnoff’s in America,” he tells me. Where in the world did he learn about Smirnoff’s, I wonder? The details these people accumulate about American life astound me.

~

The first night, Dmitry had asked me if I was a Communist. Several days later, curious, I mention this to him. He laughs, says that his question about being a Communist was only a joke. I ask if he is a Communist. He gestures vaguely, half avoiding answering it. “No, politics is not so important to me. Like many young Czechs.” I ask how many are Communists. “It is hard to know, many say they are Communist to do better.” His voice drops. “This makes great danger. You never know who is a Communist.” He nods his head knowingly, as if his look could communicate everything his English couldn’t. The irony of this, which he misses altogether, is immense. Even in Communist countries you have to watch out for the Communists, who conceal themselves by hiding among groups of people only claiming to be Communists. It’s a hall of mirrors.

~

The last night I am in Prague, I walk up to the castle again, overlooking the city. It’s a particularly cool night and the streets are almost deserted; only a few groups dodge from cafe to cafe. The city looks elegant at night, spacious and misty, an aristocratic fantasy from the last century hanging on gracefully in the economic backwaters of Eastern Europe. Hundreds of years of architectural history sit undisturbed along the wide, promenading boulevards, while the people who live here seem like phantoms, appearing and disappearing through some eternal Platonic idea of Prague. This is incorrect, I know: The Czechs belong here, it is their city.

The luxury of the Westerner is that he can phase in and out of Prague, like a mood that would be painful if prolonged but is rather pleasant to indulge in for short periods. The effect of Russian imperialism, as seen from the underside, is that Czech citizens have come to have the status of immigrants in their own country. Like immigrants, they have become nostalgic, dreaming of a homeland that is distant from them, not geographically but temporally—the former Czechoslovakia that existed between the wars, and the future Czechoslovakia that exists in their hopes. This is a cruel and enervating situation, and while I shy away from simplistic political explanations, it’s hard to see the Czech experience as anything other but a lesson in the effects of totalitarianism—that it is, in fact, possible to keep a stranglehold on a people long enough that the next generation grows up stunted for lack of air.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Albany Review)


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