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Prague Tales

Quadrant
July-August 2008
Patrick Morgan

THE BOUNDLESS INTIMACY OF STRANGERS
Prague Tales, eds. John àBeckett et al.; New Europe Writers, Warsaw, 2007, 5.99 euro.

For the tourist, Prague yields up its distinctive atmosphere, captured in this impressive collection of recent writing on Prague: stone alleys, music in churches, tram brakes screeching on bends, the Vltava river and its bridges, cafes and beer cellars, eager bustling crowds in the town squares, construction sites, restored Baroque facades in gaudy pinks and yellows. By day it amounts to a colourful theatrical display. Daniela Hodrová describes Wenceslas Square:

The city has had for me some mysterious link with theatre. The curtain of the playhouse-city is to be found somewhere near the National Museum, where the Horse Gate once stood. Before the eyes of the audience standing on the forestage in front of the museum, overlooking a fountain that never plays, the curtain parts and tableaux vivants begin to file past. Come to think of it, the downward slope of the square also reminds one of a stage.

This is magic Prague, charming, alluring. For the visitor and resident ex-pats, the city is a potential paradise which provokes desire, and stimulates longing for unexpected relationships and transcendent experiences. People seek an alchemical change. But spelling-binding Prague doesn’t necessarily provide them. Writing on Prague is also saturated with unfulfilled yearning, with a sense of let-down. It is, as Sasha Skenerija understands, a world of chance encounters:

My three-day friend from Slovenia
is suddenly going to Berlin. He’s leaving. We
got drunk in some bar, confided some painful
masculine things to each other. At 2am we’re
saying goodbye at the railway station, it lasts
too long, we fall silent in the boundless intimacy
of people who are sure they won’t meet again.

With the coming of dusk the colours and the spell begin to fade; the streets stalls, the crowds, the artists and the spruikers are gone. It’s windy, cold and melancholy, as you emerge from a warm bar suffering Prague Blues. Like the memory of ‘groped waitresses carrying round the drinks’, experiences tend to be vicarious. Justin Quinn, an Irish poet living in Prague, captures the emptiness of sexual fantasies in his poem ‘Saint Nicholas Café:

…..love is the eddy
That floats and swerves and flicks
Out rippling through the hips
Of this girl bringing me a beer just now.
She barely lingers, midriff bared,
And seems amidst all this so Tao.
And oh how smoothly, quickly, she now slips
High tight back trousers fared,
backs into the flows and systems of her global clientele.
the press of KOOKA? and GAP clothes,
their jet-lagged, blue-chip ironies,
and her flesh taken with their push and swell.
Her mouth, her hands, her eyes…
I find the bill days later –
The date, the time, my itemized half-litre,
full record of our brief transaction,
The printed chit with till ID,
Which is her numbered name relived of accent – SARKO 03.

Prague Tales is an anthology of recent writing mainly on Prague, but also on other parts of Bohemia and Moravia. Edited by three English speaking ex-pats from Australia, UK and USA, it is dedicated to “The Travelling Reader.” The writing is impressive, clear and immediately attractive to readers. It consists of poems and short prose pieces by about 80 authors, half by Czechs and translated into English, and half by outsiders to Prague. The outsiders seek history, excitement, and raise large questions, whereas the locals have a more confined focus, are understandably less romantic, more world-weary, and with less expectations.

There’s another sense of let-down, expressed in John àBeckett’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Snow’: things were much more exciting when Havel was a dissident, a time when eccentrics and the unexpected flourished, in comparison with today:

These days could not be sleepier – I more slumbier
Where’s the old noise? Say, where did their makers go?
Where is Yesterday’s snow?

The present is a lesser age: ‘Even ancient stonecarved kings/Seem bereft of majesty’ writes Stephan Delbos. Peter Bateman contrasts Prague before the Velvet Revolution – tired, dirty, brown, still – with Charles Bridge today:

These days it is gorged with crowds
Waving greedy cameras, collecting Prague,
Harvesting bright palaces that are empty
dovecotes awaiting long flown birds.
So many look but do not see.
No grit will give them pearls.
Tomorrow they will tour Vienna.

Like the city itself, one focus of this book is on the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River which bind the city together. Daniela Hodrová recalls the martyrdom of St John Nepomuc in the river and imaginatively assimilates that sacrifice with the many political murders which have occurred since. There is a desire, especially by outsiders, to understand and relive the famous Czech past, and to see it all happening again in recent events. Libuse’s prophecies of Prague future are retold and re-enacted. Czech history weighs heavily on the writers. The ghosts of the Nazi and Communist periods are ever present. Two poems depict a signwriter engraving in gold the names of Jewish holocaust victims in a Josefov synagogue. A short story describes Old Communists in bars defending the ancien regime and drifting back to their rooms in suburban flats, still nursing their wrath to keep it warm The Tasmanian poet Graeme Hetherington, who now lives in the Bohemian provincial town of Hradec Krávolé, writes of survival through suffering:

I was struck, as I toured the land
Following Communism’s fall,
By all the grey stone statues of
Christ crucified. They’d suffered much
From half a century of neglect.
And often missing faces, limbs,
And lichen ingrained made them hard
To recognize. Yet even though,
Against the odds, he somehow still
Was hanging on for dear life to
The Tree of Man, it was the blood-
Red berry clusters, spread throughout
The rowans everywhere like flesh
Imagined after bombs, which proved
That always He’d survive the times.

The writers refer back to the great cultural figures (Kafka, Smetana, Mozart), to past disasters such as the battle of Bila Hora, and right back to Vyšehrad, Libuse and the Premsyls where it all started.

The Moravian capital Brno stands in contrast to Prague. The Moravian countryside is softer, with muted colours; Moravia is a wine rather than a beer drinking culture. Brno is not overwhelmed by tourists, nor by its own past – there are no famous names, except perhaps Friar Mendel. It is quieter, non-theatrical, more adjusted to everyday life, more unreconstructed, less conscious of itself than Prague. Katherine Reid writes of the city:

Everything here in Brno runs on Czech time. In this warp no one knows what the time is until something has actually happened. For example, if you want to know what time a movie starts, there’s no asking, your enquiry will be met with a shrug of the shoulders. Instead you must go to the cinema, then wait and see. No one can tell you when it starts until it has. And if it does start at a certain time on one day, that doesn’t mean it will start at that time the next…So, in order to fit in, don’t walk directly to your destination. Rather ensure you walk in a concentric circle, arrive when you thought you were supposed to be there, have a beer and wait for whatever it is you came for to happen.

And while you wait you could do worse than read this stimulating collection.

Patrick Morgan lived in Prague for six months in 1994.

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