August 01, 2011

Report from Prague

In the ten years gone by since my last visit to Prague the city of a hundred spires has turned into the city of a hundred Franz Kafka tourist spots. T shirts featuring a close up of his enigmatic eyes definitely outnumber the Mucha t shirts and perhaps even the t shirts saluting the joys of beer drinking. I mused, do I want Kafka's eyes looking at someone from out of my chest, and decided I didn't. The souvenirs I'm taking away are a miniature baby doll in a walnut shell cradle bought from a stall in front of Kafka's synagogue; a set of antique green travertine coasters etched with red elephants picked up cheap from a bric-a-brac shop in the old quarter because two were missing; a book by Bohumil Hrabal, the most famous Prague literary denizen of modern times; and the taste of a yellow plum plucked from a tree on Petrin Hill, the ex-vinyard of the Emperor planted now with trees bearing walnuts, hazelnuts, pears, plums, apples, apricots, pomegranates and cherries, all there to be picked and eaten by the strollers-by.

The one I'm going to zoom in on is, as you might have guessed, the book. Bohumil Hrabal is my favourite modern Czech author, the one whose wonderful books Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age inspired me not to worry about long sentences (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age being the ne plus ultra in this sense; the entire book is one long sentence).

 He died in 1997 so I didn't expect to see any new books by him, but I spotted this in the window of a tiny bookstore built into the foundations of the Charles Bridge (you had to climb down a spiral staircase to get in), replete with an annex full of folding chairs, mismatched wineglasses and stacks of papers which you could imagine old samizdat publications. It's called Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, borrowed from a Hrabalian description of a famous soccer player's footplay, and it's a posthumous edition of an extended interview in which Hrabal lets himself go into long, free-wheeling flights of thought just like the kind his characters are always going into, full of comedy and pain, joy and failure, the trivial and the grand.

I loved this part, especially the description of Dostoevsky's laugh:

Do you cry often? When did you last cry? Very often. Very often. Deep emotion from whatever source mists my eyes. Tears are in a way a typical element of Slav-ness. The old Russians have always enjoyed a good weep, they would even have mild forms of choleric passion, rising to fits of tears. Most of Dostoyevsky or Chekhov's heroes melt into tears. They weep for joy, they weep from discovery, no matter whether it is death or love that they have discovered. It all goes together, love and death and futility and happiness and unhappiness – it all lies together in such a way that the transition, the rhythm, evokes one and the same response…

So you reckon tears are a specifically Slav thing. How can I put it? What's typical is in literature, where heroes have no qualms about crying. Dostoevsky himself weeps like that. After all, he was a man who burst into tears so very often and when he laughed they would tell him to cry instead. His way of laughing was like that of someone released from prison – people's hair would just stand on end. He better suited the role with wrinkles, with those tears ever in his eyes as if touched with emotion. 

Only half my blood is Slav but I'm prone to expressing emotions with tears myself, and I had two good watery-eye moments in Prague, one when I stepped into the beautiful Gothic cathedral of St. Vitas and looked up and saw the ceiling floating away as if the stained glass windows were red and blue bonfires lifting it with the force of their heat, and the other at the Pinkas Synagogue, where the walls are covered with the names of the 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews murdered by the Nazis.

I didn't cry, but it did grip my throat, when I read in the book's preface that Hrabal, 83 years old and ill, died in 'an appropriately bizarre manner', falling from the window of his hospital room while feeding the pigeons. Was this so, I asked my Czech cousin? She shook her head.

In the book, in response to the question "Have you ever contemplated suicide?", he had said that he had not, except in literary terms. But then the book also opens with this quote:

I withdraw everything that I have ever said
That was just to avoid my soul's damnation,
To which I still don’t have the key.




 
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