Kafka connection

Kafka connection

Tanushree Podder explores the streets and corners of Prague that enabled writer Franz Kafka to reflect on reality and form his writing style, now popular as ‘Kafkaesque’

Prague and Kafka are inseparable. His footprints are scattered all around the city and they are well preserved by Czechs, who consider him as one of their heroes.
In Kafka City this autumn, I decided to follow the writer’s trail. Truth be told, I had not read all his works, but just before the Prague visit, I caught up on some short stories written by him. In his stories I found the reflections of a city besieged by political turmoil.

Traipsing through the city, I rediscovered the streets where the writer was born and lived during his early years. Franz Kafka had spent most of his life in and around the beautiful Old Town. The tiny house where he lived for a couple of years inspired his last novel, The Castle. House No 22, painted a lively indigo, sited in the Golden Lane, is now a shop selling, among other things, Kafka’s books. The Golden Lane snaking along the periphery walls of the Prague Castle has several brightly painted miniature houses. According to a legend, the lane got its name because of an alchemist living there. Within the Prague Castle premises stands the stunningly beautiful St Vitus Cathedral, where royal heads were crowned.

Towards the east of the Old Town lies the street called Ul Celetna, where the Kafka family lived during his early years. Just ahead, right at the corner of the street next to the Old Town Square, stands a Romanesque structure called the House of the Unicorn. Interestingly, this was the meeting place of learned men like Einstein and Kafka.

Panoramic spots

The Old Town has interesting spots where young Kafka moved around with his friends doing what boys of his age were doing. A walk around the Old Town with its cobblestone pathways, magnificent churches and beautiful architecture can inspire prose and poetry in any creative person. I was captivated by the Romanesque and Gothic structures, not to speak of the lively ambience in the Old Town Square with its umpteen cafes and shops. The Astronomical Clock with its hourly walk of the 12 apostles walking under the watchful eyes of Death.

The dominating Jan Hus statue stands at the centre of the square, a grim reminder of the preacher being burnt on the stake because of his reformist teachings. It is said that from his window, Kafka had a beautiful view of the spectacular St Nicholas Church.

Scattered around the Old Town Square are a few residences of the Kafka family. From the modest house where he was born to the slightly more comfortable one of his youth, they have become landmarks in Prague today. Not surprising that Kafka wrote — “Within this little circle, my whole life is contained.”

Kafka’s early schooling was at the Deutsche Knabenschule, the boys’ elementary school at a street now known as Masná Street, which was earlier a meat market. Retracing Kafka’s footsteps, we reach the Goltz Kinsky Palace, which housed the grammar school he had attended. His father had a shop in the ground floor of the same building. The palace has one of the finest Rococo façade in existence. Its claim to fame goes beyond Kafka, for it has also housed Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, after whom we have the Nobel Prize.

Struggles

Kafka’s family had to suffer many anti-Semitic moves that had a profound bearing on Franz Kafka’s thinking. It wouldn’t have been easy for the German-speaking-Jewish Kafka family to live during those difficult times in a predominately Czech Catholic environment. In fact, the family suffered as much for being Jewish as they suffered for being German-speaking.

Three of Kafka’s sisters died in Nazi concentration camps.
It is impossible to walk the Kafka route without visiting The Jewish Quarter, which lies right between Vltava and the Old Town Square. Within its cobbled lanes stand several synagogues. The Spanish Synagogue, with the famous Kafka statue outside, is so named because of its Moorish architectural elements. There is also the Maisel Synagogue, the High Synagogue, the Baroque Klausen Synagogue and the Pinkas Synagogue.

A grim reminder of holocaust is etched on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue. Inscribed on it are the 77,297 names of the Jews who died in the holocaust following the Nazi invasion.

Interestingly, the trio — Felix Weltsch, Max Brod and Franz Kafka together — formed a part of the close-knit circle known as Der Enge Prager Kreis (the close Prague circle). They were writers of German-Jewish descent. It is during these days that they haunted The Unicorn along with other young intellectuals. A commemorative plaque adorns the walls of the building.

Café Louvre and Café Savoy were the other favourites where Kafka spent time with his friends. By 1907, Hermann Kafka’s business looked up and the family moved to a top floor apartment on Niklasstrasse, with a lovely view of the Vltava river and the famous Charles Bridge. Walking across the bridge at sunset, I look out at the beautiful expanse of Prague before me. A stunning view of the Prague Castle in the background with its towers, spires, cupolas and turrets delight the eyes.

Beyond the darkness

There is so much beauty at Prague that it is impossible to imagine the Nazi pogrom or the ruthless Communist regime. The dark, Kafkaesque writing perhaps illustrates the difficulties of those years. With Gothic, Baroque and contemporary constructions juxtaposed against the skyline, it is a gorgeous city.

For a while Kafka worked as an insurance clerk with Assicurazioni Generalli, whose office building still stands, as does the National Theatre where he spent much of his spare time. It is said that he was totally frustrated with his job at the insurance company and sought the outlet of his frustration in creative writing.

Later, standing at the Jewish Cemetery where Kafka is interred, I mulled over the life of a talented man who was torn by depression and frustration, suffered terrible diseases and died at an early age of 41, away from home, in Vienna.

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