The Agora

A rally of ideas.

Reading the Literary Map of Prague

By Ivan Ang


This piece was originally a conference paper presented at the University of New Hampshire, English Graduate Organization Conference: The Art of Reading, Theory, Practice and Pedagogy on April 13, 2013 at the Memorial Union Building.


The first lesson taught to us in the MFA Program was that we must first be readers before we can become writers. I am a reader, but also a Traveler and finally a writer. But reading like a writer is different from reading like a scholar. In the words of Lily Hoang, writers read to steal. I would modify that position to say that writers read to learn. Through reading, we familiarize ourselves with the usage and arrangement of words to not only to convey emotions, but also to evoke them.

I went to Prague last year in search of a story to write. Sounds simple enough. But I am not Samantha Brown where I waltz to Prague on red heels, live in a fancy 5-Star hotel, eat Czech strudel and buy crystal glasses and wooden marionettes and convince myself, that yes, I know Prague, because I just bought a trunk load of souvenirs, half of which were made in China.

I have no wish to write about the many touristic appeals of Prague, much of which can be found over numerous websites on the Internet. You see, before I can write about Prague I need to know the real Prague. I need to understand what kind of a place is Prague. Novelist Dorothy Allison has this to say about the function of place in a story:

She tells us that the first thing we notice when we enter a story is the place, the visual detail and the context. She says, “place is not a list of flowers and street names. Place is where emotions are invested, articulated with deliberate purpose. In a story, Place is door. Place is where you walk in it, just so you can get out.”

My wish to depict Prague in all its magical, mythical and the fantastic depth put me on a quest to discover the real Prague. I soon realize that the real Prague couldn’t be found in a colored travel guide or online reviews. The real Prague and what it means to the Czech people, writers, thinkers and artists rest in the works of literature about this most beautiful city in all of Europe.

This is not a new concept. Long before the Internet and the myriad forms of social media, literature had always been the source from which people read to discover and re-discover places. I am reminded of course of the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing when she described how a South Indian woman learned about Russia through reading Anna Karenina. Consider also Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Joyce famously said, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book”. Consider the portrayal of Casablanca in Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. Perhaps St. Petersburg in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? How about the portrayal of Israel in stories of Etgar Keret?

The concept of finding the real city within the pages of a work of literature is incredibly pertinent when one considers the importance of literature in Czech culture. During the communist occupation in the 1950s, the communist party was known to conscript poets to write propaganda poetry praising the communist party. The poets later committed suicide for being forced to write poems that betrayed their artistic integrity. The Czech Republic is also the only country to elect a writer to be the President. Václav Havel was a playwright and a poet before he became President of the Czech Republic in 1993. How many countries do you know would elect a writer to be the President of the country?

With the advent of travel guides and Trip Advisor reviews, people are turning less and less to uncover the real city presented in a work of literature. Travel guides or Trip Advisor are useful tools, I am not denying that. What I am suggesting is that once we get the basic idea of what to do in a foreign country, we should allow ourselves to return to the reading of literature and allow ourselves to see the real city as seen through the eyes of great writers.

To illustrate my point, I will read selections from Frommer’s travel guide and an excerpt from a short story written by a Czech writer. In Prague, the most famous of bridges is the Charles Bridge or Karlúv Most. Frommer’s Travel Guide has this to say about the Charles Bridge.

Charles BridgeImage of Charles Bridge. Taken by Jenni Douglas (Creative Commons Free Cultural Works License)

 I quote, “Charles Bridge is arguably Prague’s most stunning architectural attraction. The bridge was first built in the 14Century and it was considered one of the wonders of the known world. It was commissioned by Charles the Fourth and laid out by Peter Parler, one of the original architects of the St. Vitus Cathedral.”

This is all very informative. But there is this journalistic distance disturbs me. Now, hear what Czech writer, František Langer has to say about the Charles Bridge. Langer writes, “The most beautiful of Prague’s seven bridges – the most beautiful bridge in the world is the Charles Bridge. Each passing century has endowed it with something of beauty. One century gave it a double fortified gate on the Malá Strana side, standing like a shield to defend the heart of Prague. During another century, it was given an ornamental tower at the Old Town end, a tower decked with stone tracery and tassels and fringes, like a baldachin over the entrance to a ceremonial hall. Every age endowed it as well with a piece of history, a story or a legend, so that as you walk across the bridge, it speaks to you like a chronicle in stone and the sound of each footfall is like a line from that history. The most famous tale of all is the one about the miraculous sword. That sword as the story goes, is immured in the bridge, though no one knows where…”

When you compare the writing in Frommer’s travel guide and the writing of František Langer, it becomes clear which writing gives a more vivid picture of this magnificent bridge. The writing in the Frommer’s travel guide delivers information in a clear straightforward and efficient style. I question though, what do I do with the information? It was built by Charles the Fourth, hence the name Charles Bridge. All right. It was laid out by Peter Parler, OK, who built the stunning St. Vitus Cathedral. And yes, it is a beautiful cathedral. You see, travel guides are small and there really isn’t a lot of space to do a lot of explaining. Restricted by their size and need to be brief and informative, travel guides don’t really help us in fully understand what kind of a place is Prague or what the Charles Bridge even means to the Czechs.

Langer’s description of the bridge on the other hand, is also informative, but driven by a deep passion and familiarity of the Charles Bridge. Like how the centuries had layered beauty on the bridge over time, where we are invited to see the layers of meaning and significance, both cultural and mythical. This bridge is more than a wonder of the world, as Langer says, “it speaks to you like a chronicle in stone and the sound of each footfall is like a line from that history.”

Unfortunately, Charles Bridge is no longer what Langer had described, as an icon of Prague, it is usually filled with people and there would be musicians playing, there would be make-shift stalls all over the place selling all kinds of souvenirs to tourists who would be crawling all over the bridge. Now this is where good travel journalism comes in to save the day. I read an article by Evan Rail, an American-turned-Czech journalist who wrote an amazing piece on Prague for the New York Times Travel section. He writes that the best time to experience Prague is at 5am in the morning. At that time, no tourist would be up as none of the shops would be open. The only people awake at the time are the hardworking Czechs up early and on their way to work. Rail writes, “At 5 in the morning, take a stroll through the old city, you’ll never see the city in a purer and more revelatory state.”

Prague at 5 in the morning, was caught in the interstitial space of dusk and dawn. I should mention that I got up at 4:30 am just so I could experience what Rail described. Did I mention that I lived in an apartment in the residential area? I live across on an old woman whose bathroom, due to an architectural flaw, was located right across my bedroom window. I am embarrassed to say this, but every time I see her, I knew that she was going. That morning, at 4:30am in a cold November morning was the first time our glances met. Me, just out of bed, her, just about to sit on the toilet. In an odd and perverse way, I found myself knowing more about the bathroom habits of very old Czech women, more than I care to tell.

But back to Evan Rail.

Rail suggests walking around the Prague at 11pm, which I also did. He writes, “At 11pm, walk onto a silent lane of Koliny Svelte and try to come up with a theory of how the city’s architecture influenced – no, created! – the great literature that was produced here. And when you are done, it should be about 2 in the morning. The pubs of Prague should be about to close, but no one is leaving. Follow the locals to the next pub, if you dare.”

I wrote an email to Rail, thanking him for his piece and told him how much it had helped me develop and angle for my story. He had written back. He is a nice, humble person and most importantly, passionate. Passionate about what he does and passionate about Prague. And I think that every person who intends to go to Prague, should read his article and then write to him, share your observations and emotions and read his responses to you. Rail tells me that the next time I visit Prague I should look for the tombstone of Vladmir Nobokov’s mother who is buried somewhere in the New Jewish cemetery. He said it would be a fun challenge looking for it. His clue? If you can find Kafka’s tombstone, you will be able to find Vladamir Nobokov’s mother’s.

I hope by now, some of your interest is piqued about Prague. For those in the audience who are undergrads, and intend to major in Literature or Creative Writing, do consider applying to the Prague Summer Program. Scholarships are available and all you need is to submit a decent manuscript to be considered. You will be in Prague for a full month, reading and writing in Prague. I personally cannot think of a better way to spend a summer. But this is not a talk on study abroad opportunities do check out for more information.

I would like end with a quote from Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. He says, “There’s no better reading experience than going to the place where a text was written.” Oe highlights the importance of reading but also traveling to the place where the work was written. If there is one book you need to read while IN Prague, it’s Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents. I bought my copy from the Globe bookstore, one of the two English language bookstores in Prague. The storeowner tells me everyone in Prague reads it. The book won the Czech Republic’s Magnesia Litera, the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize, in 2003.

If I can leave you with anything, is that I wish to remind all of us here today that literature is both a window and door. It is a window into who we are and how we relate to the world. But it is also a door, and it my case, a doorway into a new world that I am so desperate to know more about. Reading literature takes time. But truly good things take time. Taking a good picture takes time. Like the pictures of Prague taken with an Olympus Micro 4/3 camera.

The question that comes to mind, naturally, is why do I need an Olmypus Micro 4/3 camera when I can take a picture via Instagram? It would be hard to deny that pictures look gorgeous with the Instagram filters. However, the beauty of an Instagram picture is limited by the tiny screen of an electronic device – its essence loses all appeal when one zooms in and stares at the blotches of insolent pixels. The travel guide suffers from the same problem. Stare at it hard enough and its shallowness shows. Literature defies that. The more you zoom into it, the more you get out of it. The depth of the medium resists instant gratification; its wealth, the slow drip of concentrated coffee intended to jolt you with an awakening you never knew you were capable of.

I would like finally, to leave you with a quote from Kafka. He says, “Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws.”Prague certainly never did let me go, not a day pass that I yearn to read about it, write about and most of all return once more to this most beautiful city in all of Europe.


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This entry was posted on April 25, 2013 by in Culture, Featured, Home, Travel.
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