Trying to find the man in the hat: Elana’s Postcard from Prague

Prague, August 2010, in a park between the Spanish synagogue and the Church of the Holy Spirit, on the border of Old Town and Josefov—the Jewish Quarter.

Prague, August 2010, in a park between the Spanish synagogue and the Church of the Holy Spirit, on the border of Old Town and Josefov—the Jewish Quarter.

Why I Went… 

I was preparing a final assignment for a biography course, my subject: Franz Kafka. Walking the streets he’d walked, seeing the views he’d seen and entering the places he’d dwelled in, I thought, might admit me to his world, provide some finer insight into his writing. It’s the 20th century that’s claimed Kafka as one of its darkest/brightest modernist lights. And so he is. But his years were 1883-1924. He lived more than a third of his life in the 19th century and drew deeply from its naturalist masters—Grillparzer, Kleist, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens—even as he broke their modes.

What I got out of the experience…

I saw the commodification of Kafka—his grave face on every tourist trinket: Kafka on coffee mugs, on chocolates. Kafka’s birthplace on the edge of the old Jewish ghetto advertised in letters mimicking his signature. The Franz Kafka Café, the Kafka Museum Shop—where copies of The Metamorphosis are available in high-demand languages. It wouldn’t have been surprising to find in the hotel lobby a walking-tour map with lines connecting dots to all the Kafka spots in the city. My husband got a shot of me, my hand on the jacket of Jaroslav Róna’s sculpture representing Kafka’s early story “Description of a Struggle”—the dandy, hatted Kafka-character riding on the shoulders of a suit. Remarkable that a huge, heavy bronze work captures the streaming, dream quality of Kafka’s lifetime fight: the new man/nil man/nihil aesthete struggling from outside social coordinates and inside his mind not to be nil as an empty suit.

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