KAFKA IN PRAGUE, Summer 1996
by Peter Haigh


Zlata ulicka, Golden Lane, in the Hradcany Castle high above Prague. As good a place as any to start a search for Kafka, who lived here in the winter of 1916, lodging with his sister and writing short stories. It's an apparent blind alley, hidden among the castle complex, and jammed with tourists. Amid a babel of uncomprehended languages, each person videos, photographs and records the others; the international leisure-time action of mutual surveillance. Surely Kafka is here. A few people stop at the doorway of number 22, its windows full of books and trinkets, no longer a dwelling, now merely a premises like all the houses in the row. They stand their ground, a little tribute, against the flowing, jostling crowd around them. But Kafka rubs shoulders with strange company in this row of miniature dwellings. There are alchemists and charlatans, Imperial bodyguards and those goldsmiths who gave their name to these dolly-houses in dolly mixture colours. Such a little man, Kafka is elbowed into the corner of doorway 22 by this loud, flamboyant crowd. He has left one trace here, a little photo pressed against the window, but like Klamm, Kafka was here and now he's gone.

Out through the castle courtyards and into the narrow labyrinth of the Mala Strana, glad to be pulled down towards the river and not climbing up. Even in mid summer, it's easy to picture these lanes and alleys, clinging to the castle rock, deep under falling snow. They were always too steep for exhausted land surveyors and can still mock many a tourist. Here, K is everywhere; K, but not Kafka.

Over Charles Bridge to the busy tourist shops and stalls in and around Karlova, Kafka's face is everywhere. He looks out from mugs and posters, key rings and ash trays. From 1968 to 1990, Kafka's work was unpublished in Czechoslovakia. Now his image is a commodity to be marketed to tourists from across the world. It's a symbol proclaiming kinship. Its an identity card. Every other tee-shirt on the rack has the same face across it; the same large dark eyes, the narrow jaw, a high stiff collar, neck tie, the formal business suit. Here, you'll find Kafka on a tee-shirt but never in one.

Staromestska namesti, the old town square, the traditional heart of the city. It was in and around this area that Kafka spent his formative years and today the square strenuously tries to claim him. On one the corner is the Goltz-Kinsky Palace, where, on the third floor Kafka attended the strict German Gymnasium. His father owned shops in and around this square, putting up the sign of a crow, a pun on the family name. By the old town hall is the Renaissance Dum U minuty where Kafka lived with his mother and father for seven years after they moved out of Josephov in 1889. These beautiful buildings capture little of Kafka except perhaps that sense of withholding, their baroque facades concealing much, much older buildings. The squalid, oppressive architecture of the novels comes directly from Josephov, that legendary nightmarish ghetto just to the north of the square. A foul coagulation of choked alleys and airless hovels, this is where Kafka was born and he carried the place in his head for the rest of his life. A place of violence, corruption, suspicion and pogrom, but we find more of Josephov in Kafka's head than of Kafka in Josephov. Before Kafka was in his teens, the old Josephov was gone, swept away in a burst of urban renewal leaving behind only the synagogues and the cemetery among the quiet five story apartment buildings. A place to rest and reflect before one last attempt to find Kafka, back to where he began.

If the old town square fails to hold onto Kafka, Josephov at least has his head. On the corner of Maislova and Kaprova was the Battalion schnapps bar, more famous in its time in Prague than Kafka was in his. It was above this bar, on the 3rd July 1883, that Kafka was born. The original building long since demolished, a head now sits in the wall of its replacement. Long-headed, sightless and bronze-faced, this is not the anxious, questioning feverish Kafka. This is our Kafka, Kafka the idol, accepting homage and offering nothing. Kafka of the empty, hollow head.

His body lies in the New Jewish Cemetery in Zizkov along with his mother and father. The cemetery is over half empty, the generation that was expected to fill it were transported to the death camps in the 1940's, among them Kafka's three sisters. A bleak place, I didnUt go.

So is Kafka to be found in Prague? Yes, in this beautiful, haunting, elusive city you will catch glimpses of him everywhere but you will only meet him full-face in the texts. You won't find the key to Kafka by visiting Prague any more than you need to explore Dublin to unlock Joyce's Ulysses. But should you walk the streets and squares and alleys of the city you will find, after you leave, that you understand a little more of what Kafka meant when he wrote, "Prague never lets you go... this dear little mother has sharp claws."

Constructing Kafka
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last updated: 31 March 1997
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