KAFKA AND THE KAFKAESQUE PRAGUE

Have you ever wondered why Kafka’s novels are riddled with strange, inexplicable phenomena? If so, I will give you the answer: Kafka’s novels are inextricably linked to the city of Prague and, at least in Kafka’s times, Prague was a mysterious city.

Of course, Prague citizens did not usually wake up in the morning turned into a cockroach. That was an exaggeration, a poetic license of the great writer who one day, as a child, was playing with a magnifying glass and, when observing through it his father’s bed, saw a cockroach. That vision traumatized him and largely marked the relationship with his father, whom since then he could not look at without imagining him as a “monstrous vermin”.

But apart from the inventiveness of the Prague writers, very numerous at that time (so much so that it is estimated that two out of every three Prague citizens were either writers or illiterate, or both at the same time), in Prague strange things happened: abnormal, bizarre, absurd, ridiculous phenomena.

A man sneaked into a party and ate all the canapés without anyone being able to avoid it. A woman preferred to enter her house through the window instead of through the door, and it was not a street-level window, so she was forced to climb a plumbing. People queued daily outside Leppin’s department store despite knowing that it had been closed for two years and there was no expectation of a new opening…

And not only people did strange things: things themselves behaved in a strange way. During a gala dinner, a chair was tilted enough for its occupant to fall to the ground at the climax of his speech. A pipe persisted in continually deviating from the face of its owner, who never managed to take it to his mouth and who nevertheless didn’t stop trying. Kafka himself suffered similar phenomena at first hand. His bedside table appeared every morning in a different location as if it had a life of its own. In fact, Kafka tells in his diary that he met it often while he was out on a binge. However, the bedside table was not part of their small circle of friends (so small that it was practically non-existent).

How could this singularity of Prague not affect the hypersensitive mind of the young Kafka?

Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883 on Maislova Street, right in the center of Prague (at that time the center was located on the outskirts). His family was a prosperous family of merchants. Too prosperous for the social sensitivity of the young Franz who, feeling guilty, sabotaged the family business from time to time by setting fire to it.

Fire always exerted a magical attraction on Kafka, who built a fire at the slightest sensation of cold wherever he was. In fact, he always carried with him a box of matches and a bundle of firewood. This custom of lighting bonfires straight away displeased the mother of the young woman whom Kafka courted for a while. In his fiancée’s house there was no fireplace but central heating. However, he was too shy to ask to turn it on; so, when her mother left them alone, he hurried to light a huge fire in the middle of the living room.

Another of his fixations while the two lovers flirted, was to always sit upside-down on the couch, with his feet on the back. All this riled up the girl’s mother who, however, did not stop considering Kafka a good match until she learned that his occupation at the prestigious General Insurance company where he worked was to lick the stamps on the letters. Even so, it was he who broke the engagement with the girl without another explanation that he had an itch on his back.

Kafka used to walk a lot through Prague, with his black bowler hat and overcoat, and his pants with only one pant leg (this eccentricity was a mere excuse to get cold in the leg and justify the ignition of a bonfire). Being a shy man who did not want to attract attention, he was very uncomfortable about his inability to walk in a straight line, always turning to the left until he hit a wall. Inevitably, this attracted the attention of pedestrians, who sometimes took him for drunk when the truth was that he didn’t drink alcohol or any other drink including water. (This withdrawal caused him severe attacks of dehydration that forced him to throw himself frequently and without warning into the Vltava river).

During his walks, he used to pay attention to those Prague phenomena that did not fit in with the rationality of things (a criterion of behavior that the other European capitals followed strictly). For example, in his diary, he often refers to Karlova Street, which often moved out of the neighborhood with the consequent inconveniences for its inhabitants and the postal service. Kafka himself suffered this inconvenience at first hand when, one night, at the end of that main street he ended up in a marginal neighborhood where the tramways didn’t yet arrive and where he was the victim of an assault by a very thick woman who smeared him with black paint and then made him dance with her the Black Swan Pas de deux from the third act of “Swan Lake”. The influence of this disconcerting episode can be recognized in some of his works, for example in “The trial”, when the bank in which Josef K. works suddenly becomes a Chinese laundry.

Another similar phenomenon affects the protagonist of “Josephine the Singer or The Mouse Folk” when she rushes open the door of her house to go buy an anteater and she is stamped against the back of a wardrobe with a smell of naphthalene. (Another of the curiosities of the inter-war Prague was the disproportionate abundance of ants, which forced its inhabitants to adopt anteaters as pets instead of dogs or cats.)

Prague had a magical past to which many attributed any extraordinary phenomenon that took place in it. The magical past of Prague dated back at least to the end of the 16th century, when Emperor Rudolf II of Austria moved the capital of the Holy Roman Empire from Vienna to Prague. (One hundred thousand men were needed to push the capital from Vienna to Prague, three hundred kilometers away.) Rudolf II was known in clandestine circles as Rudolf II (in the pejorative sense), but the Emperor’s faithful comrades called him “The Crackpot” and “The Mad Alchemist”. That’s why you should not be surprised when you learn that he brought with him to Prague a large group of magicians, necromancers, occultists, alchemists and tightrope walkers. But his favorite ones were the alchemists, because on them he based his aspiration to become the richest sovereign in the world, the most overweight and also the most long-lived.

To serve as residence for these weird and long-haired men, Rudolf II set up some little houses in an alley inside the enclosure of Prague Castle. There he kept the alchemists occupied in the three searches that shook off his slumber: the conversion of lead into gold; the elaboration of all kinds of cakes, biscuits and snacks for all occasions, with a high level of fats and sugars; and the production of the elixir of eternal youth.

At the beginning, he treated them with the greatest deference and confidence. But one day one of these alchemists assured him that the transmutation of lead into gold was already closer since he had just discovered by chance the reverse process and now it would be enough to keep his eyes wide open while carrying out this alchemical process, in order to make the appropriate logical deductions.

This explanation seemed reasonable to Rudolf, who provided the alchemist with all the necessary means, including all the gold he kept locked in chests so that the alchemist could carefully observe its conversion into lead to deduce from it the inverse conversion. Nevertheless, when Rudolf came to see his progress, the alchemist had disappeared days ago taking with him all the Emperor’s gold. This was a blow to Rudolf’s confidence in his alchemists, but indirectly that incident saved his life. Because, when a few days later another of his protegés claimed to have found the elixir of eternal youth and offered him a bottle with a yellow concoction, the Emperor, remembering the recent scam, distrusted and made one of his beloved comrades ingest the drink before he did. The beloved comrade drank it in one gulp and immediately fell as if struck by lightning, his corpse volatilizing afterward as if it had never existed.

This was the death-knell for the confidence that Rudolf had placed in his alchemists. Thereafter, they were forbidden to leave the Alchemists’ Alley and received a highly degrading treatment (they were not allowed to choose the dessert of their favorite meals). Meanwhile, the Emperor began to appear taciturn and to shut himself in his room stuffing himself with medovniks.

However, the cohort of magicians who for years he had attracted to his court left their indelible imprint on the city of the Vltava river. That’s why, according to Prague chronicler Edvard Holan, Prague is a magical city where anything can happen. Which is literally true if we take as representative the case of my great-aunt Esther who, at the end of her Prague tour, went astray and was helped by “a short, goggle-eyed extraterrestrial named Gfrkj” who brought her back to her home and encouraged her to continue her studies. (But not before implanting a chip in her brain that allows her to predict the future with five seconds in advance.)

And my great-aunt’s is not the only case related to sightings of UFOs or to contacts of some type with alien beings in the Czech capital. Some years prior, the press around the world echoed the discovery of a crashed flying saucer in the Prague’s Old Town Square. It was not until the citizens called a demonstration to protest the treacherous substitution of the emblematic sculptural ensemble called “Jan Hus Memorial” for what they interpreted as an abstract sculpture, that the authorities noticed the tragic event and hurried to warn the military, who cordoned off the area and seized the crashed UFO.

Events such as this abound especially in the Old Town, where (for example) a lot of sightings of a clay giant wandering through streets and alleys have been reported. Some identify it with a being from another planet. Others, with one Jan Heslova who one day of torrential rain fell rolling down the muddy slope of a hill. Finally, there are those who see, in this enigmatic giant, the Golem manufactured in the time of the Emperor Rudolf by Rabbi Löw to protect the Jews from the ghetto. Kafka himself came across him on numerous occasions during his nocturnal walks.

In his diary he refers to one of these encounters.

He explains that one night of a new moon, when he turned a corner, he collided with what at first he thought was his cousin Arele. But as soon as he stepped back he realized that it was the mud giant known as the Prague Golem. Remembering that it had been created for the express purpose of protecting the Jews of Prague, he asked him to protect him from the harassment to which his fellow workers constantly subjected him. (They used to hit him with fly swatters.) The giant of clay lacked the gift of speech but his gestures were very expressive, so when Kafka received from him a tremendous blow that took him through the air to St. Vitus Cathedral, he realized that his request had been rejected.

Kafka had a difficult relationship with his father, a tough and unloving man who underestimated his son’s intelligence. In fact, when he discovered the notebooks where the young Franz wrote his stories, he was greatly surprised because, until then, he had believed that he was illiterate. However, he had provided him with a careful education, but he had no confidence that Franz would benefit from it. He had interned him in an elitist school simply to get him out of his sight because he could not stand his son’s hypersensitive and delicate nature. (The father had the sensibility of a hippopotamus, animal with which he felt deeply identified and with which until the end of his days he dreamed of adopting as a pet.)

In his diaries, Franz tells many anecdotes that show the tenseness of his relationship with his father. On one occasion, for example, he was learning to sew near to the open window when his father came running behind him brandishing an ax. At the last moment, Franz noticed and quickly moved away from the window, whereupon the impulse of the frustrated ax blow threw the father through the window, stamping him against the pavement of the street. (Following that episode, the father lost all teeth as well as the ability to pronounce any word started by J.)

Despite all of this, Kafka never stopped trying to win the affection of his father. For a while, he acted before him as the tough guy Franz knew his father would have liked his son to be. He started chewing tobacco and spitting it around the house following the paternal example. He also bought a hunting rifle and began practicing his marksmanship inside the family home, just as his father used to do. For the first time Mr. Kafka was proud of his son till the day Franz was testing his marksmanship and he shot the chandelier that hung from the ceiling just above the table where his father was absorbing worms through his nose.The unfortunate accident completely cooled the relationship of Kafka with his father, who, because of the collapse, lost the ability to walk on two feet and had to learn to walk on all fours.

But let us leave these familiar anecdotes aside and go back to the unfathomable mysteries of Prague.

The writer and occultist Matyas Capek devoted much of his life to the investigation of these mysteries.Capek belonged to the same generation of Kafka, with whom he had shared desk during their school years although they never spoke to each other. Already in his early youth, Capek used to walk the streets of the city in search of mysterious events, such as his own inclination to do somersaults for no apparent reason. Or such as the scams starring the Prague mice, famous for their sharp intelligence (they deceived humans by selling them second-hand wagons at the price of new ones in reaction to the traps put down to catch them).

Capek was the first to note that St. Vitus Cathedral was moving from its original place at a rate of three meters per year. (Nobody knows yet where it is going.) He also discovered that the subsoil of Prague was full of secret tunnels that ran from the Castle to various strategic points in the city, such as the jewelry shops and the vaults of most banks, whose owners discovered in this way the reason for the impossibility of balancing the books.

Capek also refers to the case (convincingly narrated by the inmates of the lunatic asylum located on the outskirts of Prague) of the so-called “Troublemaker Ice-Cream Cart”. As its name suggests, it was an ice cream cart fond of creating problems of a geostrategic nature, having become the main object of concern of Franz Joseph I and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That apparently insignificant cart had the unusual ability to throw gigantic balls of ice cream at incredible distances and with millimeter precision. Its main target were the members of the house of Habsburg residents in Vienna, who had to endure that, at the most unexpected moment, an ice cream ball the size of a horse-drawn carriage would fall on them.

The inmates of the lunatic asylum used to narrate the anecdote starring the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his betrothed, when the two of them strolled down a Viennese avenue in a luxurious open carriage and passed by an ice-cream stand. The lady had the whim to enjoy a strawberry ice cream and the archduke rushed to please her by requesting “der größte Eisball der Welt!” (the biggest ice cream ball in the world!). And as if all this had been planned by a sinister hand, just at that moment one of the gigantic ice cream projectiles thrown by the “Troublemaker Ice-Cream Cart” fell on the carriage, crushing the archduke and his betrothed.

Another of Capek’s surprising discoveries had a personal name: Emmanuel Cerny, aka “the laughing one”, aka “the weeping one”. This singular individual spent the day walking the streets of Prague but always showing off a different emotion. Sometimes he was crying like a bathtub overflowing. Other times, he almost could not keep his balance because of the jolts caused by laughter. His fellow citizens believed that his emotions were genuine and that the poor man must be subject, as never before had anyone been so, to the vagaries of chance: one minute life brought him a misfortune, the next a supreme bliss. “Poor thing”, they said to themselves, “life doesn’t give him a break.” Well, Capek discovered that, behind such demonstrations of sadness and joy, there was nothing at all to justify them. It turned out that Emmanuel Cerny’s life was most anodyne, nothing ever happened to him, neither good nor bad. His vehement displays of pain or joy were nothing but reflex actions arisen from a disturbed mind.

Another of the curious characters of Prague in Kafka’s time lacked a well-known name but people called him “the crab”. His singularity was to always walk backwards without ever turning his head and, however, never crashing or stumbling. Those who wanted to laugh at his expense by standing in his way, were disappointed because he always avoided them, as if he had eyes in the back of his head. When asked the cause of his strange behavior, he would go into a rage and say that it was the others who behaved like fools when they walked forward. “Man was made to walk backward!”, he used to say. “You dumb are subverting the natural order of things by walking forward. God will punish you!”.

To be sure, in the course of his long walks through Prague, Kafka had cross paths with these endearing characters. Given his bachelorhood, the one that certainly would not have escaped his attention was Olga Novotny, a beautiful woman known as “the Pied Piper of Hamelin” because all the marriageable men of Prague went after her, bewitched by her strange beauty. They went after her literally, following her in a single line, without her paying any attention to them. At the end of her long walks, the queue of her followers sometimes amounted to more than a hundred! Capek himself, who was not married at the time, was not immune to the spell of this mysterious woman, and every time he crossed paths with her, he could not help but stand in the line.

Kafka, on the other hand, never succumbed to the charms of this woman according to his friend and biographer Max Brod. He succumbed, however, to the charm of another woman: Milena, with whom he maintained a passionate correspondence even after his death. Milena had written him a letter asking for permission to translate one of his works from German to Czech, promising that she would then translate it back immediately to German before anyone noticed. It was the beginning of a passionate romance that lasted several years and that had its climax the day they both saw each other (from afar) for the first and last time, through binoculars.

But the love affairs of Kafka do not interest us because they are not essentially different from those of the next fellow. We are interested above all in his interior life, which, judging by the protagonists of his novels, must have been that of a man deeply tormented. And not precisely because of the incrustation of a pebble in the shoe (as some narrow-minded literary critics have suggested). The extreme situations in which he placed his characters denote a vital anguish characteristic of the man painted by Edvard Munch in “The Scream”. Other critics have pointed to his Jewish heritage of centuries of marginalization and persecution to explain that deep anguish that, despite the apparent placidity of his life, Kafka carried around in the depths of his soul. Or perhaps it was the city of Prague itself, so punished by historical events, that transmitted its anguish to that hypersensitive child, who could not bear to see the fall of the leaves in autumn without climbing to the trees to glue them again.

This is a non-profit blog whose purpose is to raise funds for children in need. So if you want to make a donation in exchange for this story, click on this link to UNICEF. I really appreciate it!

Prague’s Old Town Square

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