A sense of gloom hung over the lanes merging into Prague’s Old Town Square. The late afternoon sky was unusually dark and heavy. The nippy, autumn breeze blew across from river Vltava, making eerie sounds as it funnelled through the alleys flanked by tall, ancient stone buildings, which seemed to close in on those walking by. The Square’s perimeter was packed with buildings, each more impressive than the other. And yet, even the wide open space couldn’t dispel the mild melancholy in the air. Franz Kafka’s city epitomised the adjective that has become synonymous with his name.
The 20th century German-speaking Bohemian novelist was born in Prague, the city that has had tremendous influence on his writing, and created his distinctive style that is at once disorienting, surreal and has a menacing complexity. Kafka is Prague’s most loved son, and so, going anywhere in the city without encountering him was difficult — statues, sculptures, fridge magnets, postcards, coffee mugs, tea towels, etc. I wondered how the absurdity of it all would have sat with Kafka himself. Absurd on another level, too, since Kafka never directly referred to Prague in any of his writings, but the surrounding political turmoil, the totalitarian bureaucracy and its effect on the individual, couldn’t escape his imagination. Seeing the city through his perspective would, thus, be interesting.
Kafka moved houses over two dozen times in his lifetime, changed schools, frequented cafés and restaurants. Just across the Old Town Square was a school that he attended, and at least a couple of the houses that he lived in were in close proximity. I even stumbled upon the house of a former socialite where Kafka used to hang out with Albert Einstein no less.
On the west of the Square towards the river was the Jewish Quarter, where Kafka was born. Nothing much remains of the house except for a doorway and the little sign that says: “Franz Kafka was born here”. The Jewish Museum, comprising six main sites — the Klaus Synagogue, the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Pinkas Synagogue, the Ceremonial Hall, the Maisel Synagogue, and the Spanish Synagogue — boasted of a rich treasure trove of artefacts. Though not part of this conglomeration, the Old New Synagogue with its Gothic façade and dramatic exterior drew me — it was here that Kafka’s bar mitzvah was held.
Equally arresting was the Prague Castle, spread over a staggering 70,000 sq.m, with an assortment of churches, halls, towers, palaces and other buildings in a variety of architectural styles, including Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. Even in the bright early-morning light, it had a strange brooding quality to it, made more intense by the dungeons where instruments of torture were on display. It could have very well inspired the setting for the eponymous building in Kafka’s unfinished but famous book The Castle (1926) — a place that was mysterious, ominous and unfriendly, though Kafka never referenced it.
Outside was a whole lot less morbid. Round the building, a little alley sloped down along the northern wall of the castle. It was narrow, cobbled and flanked by tiny colourful cottages, clearly built in the 16th century for the castle guard, but inhabited by goldsmiths a century later, lending the name Golden Lane to the alley. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the houses were occupied by artists. Of these, House No. 22 had a very famous occupant: Kafka stayed there with his sister during 1916-17.
The house was rather tiny and seemed cramped. In a way it was not difficult to imagine that the physically constraining space could have influenced his writing. Apparently, Kafka hated the place initially but it began to grow on him gradually and he even wrote to his fiancée about how he came to love it. At present, most of the houses have been turned into stores selling art, crafts and souvenirs.
Golden Lane rolled down to the river and to Prague’s other most popular destination, Charles Bridge with its 16 arches, three bridge towers and 30 statues. But I was more interested in a building near the bridge which housed the Kafka Museum. Housing an extensive collection of exhibits, most of them appropriately dark, considering the protagonist, the visit nevertheless served to provide a more rounded image of the author. There were first editions of books, original manuscripts, letters, photographs and much more. But what added value and provided an exceptional dimension were 3D exhibits and audiovisual pieces.
While the museum certainly gives a great insight into the writer, I was still looking for something more tangible. Random street corners, courtyards and squares bore sculptures either of him or related to his works, like the ones by Czech sculptor David Cerny, Metamorphosis and Piss, or Jaroslav Róna’s memorial to Kafka, a headless man carrying another on his shoulder, is aptly bizarre. But none brought alive the writer.
Tired and a bit resigned, I headed to Café Louvre on Narodni Trida in the Old Town. Over a century old, the café had been refurbished, retaining much of its ambience. A muted buzz filled the air as I caught snatches of vigorous conversations. This was where Kafka hung out with Einstein and others of his ilk, to sip on coffee, discuss literature and more. It felt alive and invigorating, to be sitting at the same place and sipping on cappuccino. To me, that was rather fulfilling.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based writer.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘To Tread Where Kafka Walked’