Sunday, September 13, 2009

Meet Frank

Walking near the Philosophy Faculty building in Prague 1, I overheard an American girl with a group of friends telling them,

“So I was like, ‘I’m just going to call you Frank, because that’s easier for me.’”

“Frank” was probably Franz. I pictured her slipping into an anachronistic scene with Franz Kafka, telling him that his name was impossible, that she would have to call him by an Americanized version. Frank Kafka sounded like someone who fixed televisions, not a world-famous author whose stories inspired imitators and fans across the world.

In my notebook, next to Kafka’s name, I wrote “Southern Bohemian butcher.” Frank Kafka might fit that role better than Franz. I think the note may have referred to his father. Taking notes and following Petr Bilek through the winding streets of Prague was no easy task.

Petr Bilek, professor of Czech Literature at Charles University, led two literary walking tours of Prague during my month. He also gave a lecture on feminine archetypes in Czech literature in which I learned the origin of Premysl’s name (he’d mentioned on the train that it was linked to the history of Prague, though it wasn’t a commonly used name like “Jacob”). A side-note on this before we join Petr on a tour of Kafka’s Prague.

Princess Libussa was the mythical founder of Prague who fell in love with a shepherd Přemysl leading to the Přemyslid dynasty. She prophesied a large city that would “reach the heavens.” Her union with Přemysl ultimately brought Prague into being. Hearing Přemysl’s name in Petr’s lecture reminded me that I had his number in my wallet and should call at the very least to thank him for his help in navigating Prague’s central station.

Back to Frank.

The tour of Kafka’s Prague began at "Franze Kafky" square where at one time, in another shorter building on the same spot, Kafka lived with his family before the advent of plumbing technology. It took him nine years to leave home after graduating from the law faculty at age 24. I pictured his parents nudging him towards the door. Time to branch out, Frank….

A sculpture of Kafka looked out from the square, both gargoyle and icon facing the street and passing cars.

Kafka would not have liked being a statue. As someone who moved frequently, staying still would have been abhorrent. He lived in forty different apartments over the course of his life. One of them was in this gray building down a side street in the Jewish quarter.

We passed a Hebrew clock going backwards, more fitting for Kafka than his own face in statue form.

To get to his writing studio, he had to cross over the river Vltava: a literal passage that represented leaving the mundane world and entering the world of the imagination. In that world, clocks can move backwards and airplanes can sprout from stone.

The only thing “Kafka-esque” in his life was the political system that clamped down on individual freedoms. When he was alive, he didn’t stagger around Prague, wrapped in black, muttering incoherent aphorisms as the tourism bureau would have you believe. He liked cruising around on a borrowed motorbike, going to trashy B movies, and indulging in the pop culture of his time. He wasn’t alone in his room, Emily Dickinson-style, grasping for the perfect line or word.

Tourism bureaus don’t like contradictions. Perpetuating the myth of the insane, solitary genius explains the genesis of stories like “The Metamorphosis” better than picturing a thrill-seeking hedonist careening around on his motorcycle and occasionally writing about men who turn into bugs. Kafka’s adventures were more likely to land him in a stretcher than a padded room

but the myths persist. Would the flocks of tourists who snap photos on every corner be deterred by the truth about Kafka?

The tourism bureau won’t take the chance.

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