Kafkaesque or Kafka-less Prague


Earlier this month, literatis in this country and all over the world marked the 130th anniversary of one of the most famous Prague writers – Franz Kafka. Outside of the Czech Republic this was a chance to take another look at one of the best known writers of the 20th century, but locally the occasion brought to the fore the unresolved relationship that this country, and particularly the capital, has with the German-speaking Jewish author.

Franz KafkaFranz Kafka On the one hand Kafka – and his distinct facial features most of all – has become maybe one of the main symbols of central Prague – for the tourists at least. No souvenir show is complete without merchandise with his pale and slender visage, no Pragensia section in book stores is complete without at least one translation of his books, and every place he stayed in this city is adorned with a plaque, and again…his portrait. Sometimes it feels as if Kafka’s eerie face is floating over the whole city, like a gigantic specter of the metamorphosed Gregor Samsa.

Recently, at a reading in Malá strana a Chinese poet lamented how Czechs just won’t let Kafka go, constantly making more and more memorials to his name and person. Which reminded me of the so-often mentioned quote from the man himself: "Prague won't let you go, the little mother has claws."

In fact, it is still unclear to me why and how Kafka became the poster boy for Prague. Most sources indicate, he had a love-hate relationship with the city, with the latter emotion being most common. In addition to which, most people who buy the tee-shirts, mugs and even boxers indicating Kafka’s allegiance to Prague, have probably never read more than a couple of pages of his work. So why him? Aren’t Krteček, Švejk and goulash enough?

One literary critic recently wrote, only partly in jest, about the good old days under communism, when the small group of intellectuals showed their true and undying love for Kafka, both for his work and for being a symbol of passive resistance to the machine, while the rest of the population showed their compliance with the party ideology and, at least outwardly, expressed disapproval of the degenerate German. Apparently, things were much clearer back then.

But whether int he past or today, Kafka undoubtedly occupies a strange place both in the narrative of Prague and in Czech literary history. At least for me, Kafka, besides being a fascinating writer, is worthy of a fan club particularly because of one crucial contribution, which is that he has given us the ability and metaphors to loath and laugh at the craziness of bureaucracy, and also allowing Czechs to coin an invaluable word – Kafkárna.