On the slow train to Summerau, on the border between Austria and the Czech Republic, my wife and I discover that we should have brought along the receipts for our Vorteilskarten—the discount rail cards we just bought. The young conductor seems entirely disgusted that we can’t prove we deserve the cheap price we’ve paid—only 69 euros round trip from Salzburg to Prague. He berates us for a while, then comes back to go at us again about how ignorant and possibly criminal we are. “Anyone can buy these tickets! I should make you pay the full fare!” We cringe, apologize, plead ignorance . . . finally he stomps away and lets the train-car door slam behind him. Frazzled, we wonder if we’ll have to go through that scene every time a new conductor comes on. (There are four more, there and back, but only one will ask to see the cards, and he’ll be gracious when we fling ourselves on his mercy.)
Outside things are greening and rolling, blooming bushes and budding trees, fields sprinkled with dandelions or bare and ready for seeding. It’s been a hectic week. I had class on Thursday morning, then met with the tiny creative writing group at the university (a post-doc, a long-haired grad student, and a couple of women who show up every third or fourth meeting) in the afternoon. I biked back to the apartment, put my stuff down, then left almost at once to go out for dinner with the Loefflers, our landlords and new friends next door. We came home tired and a little tipsy around ten, hurriedly threw some things into the suitcase, and I went to bed feeling out of sorts and ill-prepared. Up early the next morning, we hustled off to the bus stop, but halfway there I had to turn and run back for the hotel directions and reservation information. By the time we discovered that we’d left the camera behind, we were already on the train. It seems likely that at least one of our butts will turn up missing too.
But we’re heading for Prague, city of Franz Kafka the great and mysterious German-speaking Jew, a writer I’ve been fascinated with since college. No one has matched Kafka for matter-of-fact strangeness, and few have had their names turned into adjectives, however oddly and awkwardly they are applied. Prague was always his uneasy home; he tried living elsewhere, but wrote that “Prague doesn’t let go . . . This old crone has claws.” Of course, the real Prague outlived Kafka long ago, and has since survived both its dreary Moscow-dominated days and its post-fall-of-communism hippy refuge days to become just one more overpriced and tourist-driven European city, trading on its diminishing quaintness. Still, I want to see it for myself.
In my college German class we studied a few of Kafka’s short parables in the original, and the memory of hearing them read fluently by the professor—their prose inescapably simple, lucid, and forceful even when I could barely catch the sense—led me to devise one of my favorite classroom stunts. After one or two class periods on Kafka, I enter the room with that old German textbook under my arm, and announce "Heute ich werde Deutsch sprechen," in a brisk, no-nonsense voice. I read Kafka’s parable “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law”) aloud in German—it’s only a few paragraphs long, and while my German is weak, it’s just good enough to sound authoritative.1 Of course most of the students can make nothing of it. Then I start asking the questions that follow, also in German. They can tell that I’m asking them something, but no one has any clue about how to respond. I act increasingly distressed and angry as silence follows each question, and after three or four attempts, I throw the book down on the table with an obscure exclamation, rush out of the room, and slam the door. (I lurk just outside so I can observe, or at least listen, to what happens next.)
The hope, as you have probably figured out, is to provide an experience of a typical Kafka authority figure, the sort who makes harsh and rigorous demands that cannot be understood, much less obeyed. In the best cases, the students start talking amongst themselves and piece out some sort of understanding of what just happened, and when we meet again we talk about it some more. At worst, they just shake their heads, shrug, and leave. Even at that, an obscure sense of possible significance seems to linger, sometimes for the rest of the semester. And of course the best lessons don’t fit into words anyway.
As the train meanders northward, I’m thinking that after inflicting such confusion on dozens of students it would serve me right if we never found the city, or arrived to find it entirely deserted, or waited out our weekend at a small gate on the border guarded by a doorkeeper in a fancy uniform. What we get, though, is mainly just tedium. The train stops for every town, village, hamlet, wide spot in the road, and cow that might want a ride—but at least they haven’t thrown us off. At least we’re moving north. At least nobody has yet grabbed my wife and dragged her off to the back of the train, leaving me surrounded by noisy villagers chanting “Kill the doctor.”
Another change of trains—this one just as old as the last—and we enter the Czech Republic. The border is not marked, but we soon know that we are in another country. Many birches and some pines, lots of scattered small buildings, little garden lots, woodpiles, rows of tiny houses along the creek, fine cars passing on the highway. The bitter Communist years, the time of laughter and forgetting as Milan Kundera called them, are themselves almost forgotten—or so I imagine, knowing nothing. Still, many railroad stations and other public buildings need paint and deeper attention. A long-haired man and a brown-haired student share our compartment, silent, the man glancing at his cell phone every few minutes, the boy with his music cranked high in his ears as we stop at the village of Plananada Lusnicki, then carry on past a big sawmill and into the open again.
A raw cut along the tracks, then workmen putting in a new platform, mostly sitting, smoking, talking, one moving gravel with a rake. New track alongside the old, with concrete sleepers instead of wooden ties. Store signs: Hypernova, Kaufland, Tesco, Lidl. Slowly, slowly we go, the gravel still settling under our steel wheels. I doze off, dream of being invisible, able to slip into anyone’s head and trace the webs of their thoughts and fears. I dream of being loved so much that the apple trees bend to offer me their fruit, the swans approach shyly just for the blessing of my touch.
In Kafka’s city everyone speaks English, at least when asked questions likely to bring them a little tourist money. The streets run crooked but the maps are pretty good. The old towers of blackened stone stand right next to the bright Art Nouveau buildings, and they all seem quite at home. The cobbles are mainly in place. The grand churches mostly have ticket sellers at their doors, and inside every night bored musicians play Eine Kleine nachtmusik and The Four Seasons for bored, dutiful Americans who think they should get some culture while they’re in the Old World. The hotel room seems clean, but the shower floors are paved with egg-sized pebbles for the bruising of heels, and the towel loop and soap dispenser detach with a tinny clatter at the slightest touch.
Kafka’s books are sold in every Prague bookshop, in six or eight languages. His name hangs on buildings, on restaurants, on bars, and his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery is pointed out by large black-lettered signs. At the foot of the Charles Bridge, a Dutch girl asked if we spoke English, but she didn’t want directions to Kafka—she asked if we knew the way to the Lennon Wall. John is a local hero, probably more revered among the young than Kafka himself. Someone painted his portrait on a wall in the Little Quarter after his assassination in 1980, and the wall became a symbol of resistance to Communist oppression. It is still being painted and repainted with peace slogans. I extracted the guide book, puzzled over it, pointed vaguely uphill. The Kafka Museum was closed for the night but a laughing crowd had gathered in the courtyard, where a fountain features two well-endowed pissing men. Cameras snapped and flashed, but we had forgotten ours.
We will come back tomorrow. The museum will only be open before we arrive and after we leave. When I try the door I will pull and then push. A large, strong voice will say nothing. The people around will not meet my eye. The signs are in six languages, two or three of which we read, but none fluently. At last I will turn away, push through the crowd, sweaty and thirsty. I will hear the door creak open as I walk away. I will not turn around.
The many bars offer huge mugs of pilsner, so cheap it seems a mistake or a plot. If you ask they will bring you absinthe in a wide-mouthed glass with a cube of sugar, a butane lighter, and no instructions at all. It flares beautifully in the spoon, in the glass, blazing with a quiet blue flame while you ponder how long to wait and how to put it out. The taste is hot and strong and devious, impossible to master or describe, each sip another crack of liquid thunder, another blank command.
Outside the streets are damp. The hotel is just around the corner: you have planned ahead. Three doors, three keys, and you are safe—or so it seems. The room is stuffy, the streetside windows must be left open, and professional shouters and firework artists run through their routines again and again for the edification of the newly arrived and half-drunk. You dream wildly: a neighbor who draws you along on an errand that becomes a robbery, a colleague who is moonlighting as a reserve shooting guard for an NBA team in the northwest, though in his waking life he considers team sports a bizarre capitalist perversion.
Prague is also the city of Jára Cimrman, the peculiarly Czech hero who—according to the best information—once made it to within seven meters of the North Pole, invented yogurt, convinced the Americans they should build the Panama Canal, and told Chekhov that his play needed three sisters. Existence cannot not exist, he wrote before his time. Beloved by all, voted the greatest Czech of all time by his grateful nation in 2005, he was nonetheless declared ineligible for the honor by the inflexible authorities—they cited his technical lack of an actual, physical existence, except in the sweetly expansive communal mind of the Czechs. (He was brought into being by two ingenious Czech humorists named Jiří Šebánek and Zdeněk Svěrák in 1966.) He has a museum somewhere on the far side of the river, but when we try to get there we become trapped in a circular labyrinth and find our bodies going foggy and insubstantial, so when we glimpse a window back into everyday life we hastily leap through it.
In my home town there were several Zimmerman families, all of them dark-haired and good-looking. I played high school football with one a year older, who lived a couple of miles from me and gave me rides home after practice, the year he could drive and I couldn’t. He was the fastest guy on the team, and saved a game for us his senior year when he ran down a breakaway running back fifty or sixty yards down the field. The girl he took to homecoming, it turned out, was pregnant with somebody else’s baby, which did not make him pleased when he found out. I don’t suppose she was all that pleased either, though I never talked to her. She and the father, another dark-haired and good-looking guy who had been a star player the year before, got married, but it didn’t last. The imaginary child she would have had with my friend, had she and the other guy not blundered into parenthood in the back seat of his parents’ Buick, was sent into exile . . . but these are just rumors, impossible to confirm.
We slept within a few blocks of the Tyn Church, burial place of the great astronomer Tycho Brahe and once a focal point of the fifteenth century proto-Protestant movement led by Jan Hus. A century before Martin Luther, Hus fell under the influence of English reformer John Wycliffe, and especially Wycliffe’s main idea: that a sinful authority carried no authority at all. Hus championed the common people, and preached in Czech rather than Latin at the new Bethlehem Chapel. He urged reform of the priesthood, opposed the sale of indulgences and the doctrine of papal infallibility, and called for preaching in the common language and full communion for all Christians. The Catholic authorities lured him to the Council of Constance in 1415 with promises of safe passage, but he was imprisoned by the Antipope John XXIII and burned as a heretic. Many Bohemian nobles had become Hussites by this time, and they protested bitterly. The dispute led to the First Defenestration of Prague in 1519, when Hussites threw several members of the Prague Town Council out a window to their deaths, driving King Wenceslaus IV to an apoplectic fit and a fatal heart attack. (Not the famous Good King Wenceslas, # IV is described by Radio Prague as “mean, a drunk, and wildly unpopular.”)
Rome was incensed by the Hussite insubordination, and in 1420 Pope Martin V proclaimed a crusade. Using the “wagenburg” (wagon fort) tactics devised by brilliant, one-eyed military genius Ian Zizka, the Hussite armies, mostly peasants and burghers, several times fought the Catholic armies to a standstill over the next several years. But the movement became fragmented by internal disputes between the moderate “Utraquists” and the more radical “Taborites,” who ended up fighting each other at the Battle of Lipany in 1434. The moderates triumphed, and soon reached an accommodation with Rome (later abandoned by a new pope) that allowed them to take full communion and conduct services in the Czech language, though at the expense of Hus’s more radical egalitarian demands. The movement faded, but today a grand statue of Jan Hus faces the Tyn Church. One of the statue’s inscriptions reads, “Love each other and wish the truth to everyone.”
In the gray morning old women wander with their shopping bags. Young men ponder last night’s excesses over plates of eggs and sausage in the hotel restaurants. Kafka would surely have laughed or wept at the notion that Prague was his city; he was possessed by it, not the other way round. Schoolboy mornings, the terrifying walk past the astronomical clock with its many arcane dials, across the rough cobbles of the old square, dodging carriages and black-suited hurrying men, past the Tyn Church with its jagged spires and turrets and down the narrow alley, momentarily clutched by the horrifying cook (“...small, desiccated, thin, with pointed nose, hollow cheeks, yellowish but firm, resolute and superior...”) who habitually threatened to tell the school authorities what a bad boy he’d been. Around the corner to the German school on Masna Street, where order and discipline ruled the day and a boy’s mind beat against the firm walls of the room like a sparrow, like a moth in a wire cage.
But we don’t mind. It’s our city now, or close enough, and we don’t have to go to school, German or otherwise. We have sauntered past the balcony of the Hotel Europa, where Havel and Dubček and the others told the Russians it was time to go home, and thousands cheered and shook their keys in the cold, and the tanks did not fill the square. (Only later do I learn that Kafka read his terrifying story “The Judgment” there, although certainly not from the balcony, and certainly to a smaller crowd than came out for Havel and Dubček.) We have walked under the pale patches in the columns of the National Museum, where the stubborn masons assigned to fill the holes from Russian guns in ‘68 made certain that some signs would remain, at least for those who know how to read them. We searched out fine places to eat lamb and spicy chicken, and paid our bills with the Czech crowns that the machine obediently supplied us when we inserted our card and entered our secret number.
We made our way to the Mucha Museum and the Charles Bridge and even the John Lennon Wall, though the latter appeared before us only after we had given up on finding it. We paid a hefty fee to see too little of the castle, where the best rooms were all closed so the Crown Jewel display could be renovated.
Most disappointingly, we were forbidden to enter the Bohemian Chancellery, site of the Second Defenestration of Prague. Like the first, the second involved throwing people of high rank from a window. In this case, two Catholic imperial governors and their scribe were flung from a high window in the palace during a dispute with the local Protestant aristocracy in 1618. They landed in a pile of horse manure, and both survived—according to some accounts, because of divine intervention, while according to others the affinity of Catholics for horse manure had more to do with it.
I savor this event for its quirkiness and arcane name, but guiltily, because it triggered the horrible Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). This nasty and protracted struggle between Catholic and Protestant rulers and their armies laid waste to much of central Europe and killed half of the male population of the German states and a third of all Czechs. Thousands of towns and villages were entirely destroyed. At times like these my inner Moral Authority informs me, sternly, that it is better to resist the impulse to throw your enemies out of windows, even if there is horse manure below.
It was three centuries later that Franz Kafka briefly rented a tiny house on the Golden Lane, an artisan’s street within the sprawling castle complex, as a writing hideaway. The low-ceilinged downstairs rooms are now crammed with souvenir books and cards, but they feel so claustrophobic that we turn and leave without even touching any of their possible treasures.
Our last night we had a last drink at the piano bar just around the corner from our hotel. A pony-tailed piano player banged out a few blues numbers. Then a large black man sat down beside him, pulled up a round table holding four empty glasses and one almost full, and belted out “Kansas City,” “I Got My Mojo Workin” and a long improvised number that developed in considerable detail the proposition that rich people couldn’t possibly have good sex. It seemed an excellently perplexing last note for our last night in Prague. We found our way back to the Pension Accord and awakened nearly refreshed and almost alert.
Early the next morning, on Sunday, we entered the baroque Basilica St. Jacuba, where the angels and saints climb every wall. There is so much gold leaf that it seems the whole edifice should either collapse of its own weight or rise shining to Paradise. Instead the organ begins, itself baroque and cryptic in its swells and echoes. No tourist concerts here; the priest comes in, unfolds the cloth, lights candles, lays out the sacraments. The pews are hard on the back, designed to make kneeling seem a good option. A few dozen people sit scattered in them; most, like us, will leave when the organ stops and mass begins.
High in the nave is a small round window, the Holy Dove framed in bursts of red and gold. Above it, Jesus carrying the cross. And higher yet, a single eye set in a golden pyramid, clouds and lightning and music swirling all around. Notes elbow, swerve, soar and echo like a message from another time, whether prophecy or memory I cannot tell, cryptic but reassuring in its confidence, its grace, its movement through so many trills and ripples, passages and byways, challenges and answers, all leading toward the tuneful, inevitable and long-sustained last chord.
We know that Kafka walked the streets around these grand churches, but did he ever enter them? Perhaps for a funeral or a wedding. His place among all this was famously, dually displaced: a German-speaking Jew in a Czech, Christian city. The old Jewish Quarter, which had been a warren of tiny streets and rickety buildings, was drastically rebuilt during Kafka’s youth, though his family was prosperous enough to live in the city proper by then. Except for six synagogues and the cemetery, the whole area was demolished, streets rerouted, new houses and shops built.
What remained, and remains, is haunting enough: the “Old-New” Synagogue, built in 1270, is still in use, but the Nazis wiped out most of the Jews of Prague, and the other synagogues are now museums and memorials, crowded with perplexed tourists with video cameras and water bottles. We edged up narrow stairways at the Pinkas Synagogue to see drawings and paintings made by children at the Terezin camp. With hundreds of others we walked the narrow paths of the Old Cemetery, where the mortal coils of as many as 100,000 of God’s creatures rest in a dozen layers of narrow graves. For generations this tiny plot of land was the only place in the city where Jews could be buried. The surface is a crazy hodgepodge of tilted gravestones, many nearly touching the next. Rabbi Loew (Juda ben Bezalel), the sixteenth century rabbi who according to legend brought to life the mystical Golem to protect his people from their enemies, is buried here, and the golem is said to still be sleeping in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, awaiting the call to defend his people once again.
Kafka himself was not an observant Jew nor especially religious—unless living one’s life in a constant, agonized struggle with belief and nihilism counts as religious. But he deeply studied Jewish folklore, history, and Yiddish, and grappled with this tradition on many levels. “A belief is like a guillotine,” one of his aphorisms reads, “just as heavy, just as light.”
Where is the Prague where Kafka lived, the streets he walked? It remains, as he remains, both tangible and ghostly. The Unicorn building where he attended the literary salon still stands on the square. His father’s store is now a bookshop where I bought a copy of his early, very odd novel Amerika. A statue of him stands near the Spanish Synagogue, riding a human-like figure with no hands or feet, with an empty oval where head and neck should be. Kafka-esque, as we say.
Why do I find Kafka, and all his agonizing and skepticism, not merely fascinating but finally comforting? I have taught his famous stories many times, talked through their dark humor and comic agony with many students. Still, every time I venture into the more obscure corners of his writing, his aphorisms and journals, I find some new turn on his long confrontation of the concrete and the metaphysical, the known and the unknowable. “The observer of the soul cannot penetrate into the soul,” he wrote in 1917, “but there doubtless is a margin where he comes into contact with it. Recognition of this contact is the fact that even the soul does not know of itself. Hence it must remain unknown. That would be sad only if there were anything apart from the soul, but there is nothing else.”
Prague remains, like Kafka’s eerie sentences, lucid and crystalline, entirely unknown, entirely soul.
We ride back toward Linz on the slow train, through the countryside I don’t understand. Those tiny houses along the stream—could they be vacation places? Lone deer run through the green fields, a long-eared rabbit startles, crows in plenty go about their business. The birches are just beginning to unfold the leaves that will hide all their undertakings. A young mother in one of the tiny towns holds her baby to see the train, to wave. Kafka dreamed of America, perhaps as I have dreamed of Prague, but he never crossed the ocean. The landscape he imagined for his Amerika is utterly wrong, obviously so to the least observant American—although saying so is much easier than writing even such an odd and disoriented novel.
A few centuries back, some of my Anabaptist ancestors found refuge in this Bohemian landscape, filtering north out of the Alps, fleeing the persecutions in the Tyrol and Salzburg. They moved on or melted into the local population centuries ago. To find their traces in archives or cemeteries I would have to get off the train, and there is no time for that now. All I can say is that at dusk these fields and hamlets and villages seem as otherworldly to me as their names, though those who live here surely find them entirely commonplace: Pavlice, Bujanov, Psenice, Rybnik. Here, one white chicken loose and scratching near the tracks, others dark in pens nearby. There, a little swimming pond with diving board and raft and a white-clad figure on a pole at the other end, as if to scare off . . . who, or what?
Inside the small houses people are eating, resting, talking in a language of which I know not a word, not a syllable. Perhaps if we sat together we could find some things to share—there is still chocolate and cheese in our bag. But the steel wheels roar and moan through one tight turn after another, bearing us south toward our temporary home. And why should we presume to enter the lives of others? We should be content to know that we all dwell within the single soul of the world, which as Kafka said is both unknowable and all that there is.
The hills continue on into the twilight in every direction, like promises that were not trusted but have turned out to be true, at least for some. And even this, as we sit quietly and the night comes on, is a reason to be glad.
 The story concerns a man who comes to a court and asks to be admitted, but is told by the gatekeeper that he cannot enter. He waits out his whole life by the door, never allowed inside, and with his last breaths, he sees the doorkeeper closing up the entrance. “It was made only for you,” the doorkeeper tells the dying man.