Books PragePrague, as every traveler will tell you, is a wonderful town, full of surprises and visual delights.  It is full of improbable and heart catching characters as well, as many Czech writers can introduce you to.  Prague: A Traveller’s Literary Companion from Whereabouts Press provides a superb selection.  In short readings you can go with Franz Kafka in late night companionship to the Charles Bridge in “Description of a Struggle, or watch on as Bohumil Hrabal‘s “ugly little man” finds himself as a beer waiter and a much sought after lover in the “Hotel Paříž” in the 1940s.

This is one of the strongest of the Whereabouts volumes I’ve read, though all of their fine list are must-carries when on the move.  Of the 22 authors included, most will recognize only Kafka’s name, though a few will know Jaroslav Hašek as the author of the not famed enough anti-war novel,  The Good Soldier Švejk. In a life almost exactly the years of Kafka’s, the two could not have had more opposite temperaments yet both were alive to creating characters caught in conditions not of their own making.  His contribution in Prague, “A Psychiatric Mystery,” is a tickling account of such a man.  Leaning over the Charles Bridge rail to locate the sound of a man he thinks is in trouble he is ‘rescued’ by a passer-by and the police from committing suicide, the reality of which is proven by the fierceness of his resistance to being rescued.

Others will recognize Karl Capek, the contributor of the word ‘robot’ to the world, and of whom Arthur Miller said, “ There was no writer like him…prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humor and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination… he is a joy to read”  And indeed his story, “The Receipt” is. 

My favorite story (before I read “The Receipt”), is “What Shall we Do With It?,” written by Jan Neruda, whose name was appropriated by the Chilean poet, Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto as his pen name, Pablo Neruda. I suppose Pablo admired Jan’s stories, however different their styles and politics were. I certainly enjoyed the offering here.  “What Shall We Do with It?”, 1886, is the earliest of almost all the included stories which share an interest in ordinary people doing ordinary things, and told in a droll, sympathetic manner.  No tales of deering do, strong men doing heroic acts, no narrow escapes or agonies of the heart, though in Kafka’s 1904 story you will certainly see the vertiginous anxiety and loss of self that culminated in the 1915 “Metamorphosis.”

Instead we have a man trying to get rid of the old straw from his mattress, an old washerwoman trying to save her son from indictment for a crime by confessing her own and claiming heredity, not criminality, as the cause of his deed.  We hear a re-invented tale of the magic of King Wenceslas sword, long believed to be hidden in the Charles Bridge, which will one day free the Czech people from trouble and strife.

Gustav Meyrink who, though born in Austria, lived for 20 years in Prague, contributes three short pieces, one from the novel for which he is best known, about the legend of the Golem, a Jewish pre-industrial kind of Frankenstein, which is still part of the popular culture.

The stories turn serious in the last section of the book, two about the Nazi occupation, one about a Jewish father devoted to the Czech communist party and his despair and disappointment when the party begins blaming Jews for its failure, and a short short story of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague in 1968.  Two pick up since 1989 and the collapse of communism and the eastern block, including a stop at the most famous jazz club in Prague waiting for a well known western president to come play the saxophone. It’s a wonderfully diverse volume in authors and in years covered.

I’ve found a dozen novels, previously unknown to me, which now should be at the top of anyone’s reading list.  For a small nation, the Czechs have produced more than their share of prodigiously gifted writers.

The translations are all very well done, though with 8 translators, some seem more accomplished than others.  Paul Wilson is the over all editor as well as translator of 8 of the stories.  I don’t know if he had final say on all those included but “buzz off,” “yokels” and “creep” pop out as flags in one story, “humping a capacious shopping bag,” in another.  “Hardly were we outside when I evidently began to feel very gay,” seems odd to my ear since one knows about one’s feelings; we need evidence when observing others for clues to feelings.  There are a few other puzzling sentences scattered though the stories that stop the eye: what is going on here?  Always, it’s a question of what the original author intends: if to puzzle us, well and good; if not, a failure of translation. But these are small.  Specks, or sand in otherwise fine paintings.

Wilson contributes a useful preface shaking out the broader cloth of Czech writers from which he had to chose. The title piece of a collection of essays, “The Spirit of Prague,” by  Ivan Klíma, a contemporary novelist and essayist is used as a very very good epilogue.  He speaks of the paradox of the city, the unostentatious character of its citizens, the nature of the Charles Bridge, unifying two cultures when it was built in the mid 1600s and symbolically now as east and west Europe try to find their bridges. He reminds of the ‘Velvet Revolution,” of 1989 when the weapon of choice was not IEDs or kidnappings or assassination, but ridicule, laughter at those in power until the foundations collapsed.  The deep roots of this are visible in the stories here.

Fully recommended to anyone going to Prague — read early, read during, and read while traveling on.  It will give you much.

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