The Other City by Michal Ajvaz; The Return of Kral Majales; and the Prague of My Imagination

[posted by Alice]

In November of 1993 Greg and I arrived in Prague for the first time. As Louis Armand tells us in his introduction to the anthology The Return of Kral Majales, by that point Prague was home to a lively community of English-speaking writers and had already been proclaimed the “Left Bank of the nineties.”  Also in 1993, Michal Ajvaz published The Other City in Czech.

Flash forward from November of 1993 to November of 2010: Although an English translation of Ajvaz’ exceptional novel has been available since 2009, it wasn’t until this month that I actually read it. I also just finished reading Greg’s essay about the Kral Majales anthology, a volume that contains work by many writers who lived in Prague between 1990 and 2010 (including Greg and me). I decided to write a post about these readings and the memories they evoked.

[To be honest, I wasn’t thinking very clearly on my first trip to Prague because of jet lag and fatigue, and we were only in the Czech Republic for six weeks and in Prague for two before we had to leave because of my father’s illness, and it took a lot of energy just to make ourselves understood because we possessed maybe 200 words of Czech between us, and when we were hungry we found our way through crumbling cobblestone streets and down into musty basements of stone buildings to eat pizza with catsup and drink muddy coffee and breathe vast amounts of cigarette smoke, and when we emerged and had walked through streets filled with slushy snow till we were exhausted, we would find our way back in the coal-scented darkness to accommodations that were sometimes stiflingly warm, and I lay in bed and read Kafka’s collected stories and thought them brilliant and wanted to write fiction but wasn’t at all convinced that Prague was the place to do that. In the meantime, Greg found enough that was attractive and intriguing to convince him that he would return.]

In The Other City Ajvaz says, “… the snow lying everywhere is almost already the beginning of the unreal. It too urges us to leave: we are bound to find in it footprints of chimerical beings, footsteps that will lead us to secret lairs in the depths of the city.” (page 13) And of course when we returned to Prague in January of 1995 there was again snow on the ground, and Greg was ready to teach English and to become a translator and to engage in a richly complex writing project. Less engaged, less convinced, I focused on imagination.

[As Greg describes in more detail in his essay, we began to go to movies in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, to go to galleries to see whimsical and sometimes fiercely original art, to look at old buildings with distinct personas (though these buildings still exist, they are now renovated, sandblasted, painted and plastered into pretentious monuments that remind me of Disneyland), and we explored a city with so many hidden corners that it seemed to disassemble and reassemble itself before our eyes to defy being known, and in public places we found a deep chill that the coal-fired heat couldn’t touch (though the apartment in which we stayed was cozy warm), and I learned the complex route from the tram stop to our place (past the brewery, over the tracks, up the hill, up the steep steps, up another hill, around the bend, past the barking dogs, and so on), and I learned to speak a little Czech; to find vegetarian possibilities in a pork-and-dumpling land; and to miss my home as a special and idealized place I rarely appreciated when I was in it.]

We returned to Prague each year after that and stayed as long as we could. We encountered many of the spaces Armand describes as meeting places for expats: Beef Stew readings at Radost, Alchemy, The Globe Bookstore. But the strangeness of the city was what seeped into my bones and the Czech imagination influenced me more than the English speakers around me ever really did. It was while we were in Prague in 1997 that we first came up with the idea of publishing an online journal that would feature a hard-to-define type of writing, which we call irrealism. We sometimes refer to it as Kafkan (we used to call it Kafkaesque as John Gardner does, but we learned that people associate the term Kafkaesque with faceless bureaucracy and dehumanizing police states, and though such things can be found in irreal literature, it’s not inevitable), and we spent many hours trying to see Kafka’s city as he once did.

We were also very influenced by Czech literature, which is filled with whimsy and absurdism and fantasy, and that brings me to the fact that The Other City by Michal Ajvaz is a very irreal novel. The main reason I say this is that the meanings contained in the work point in many, often irreconcilable directions (in Shimon Sandbank’s parlance, they are “so many pointers to an unknown meaning”).  The Other City begins like an allegory: the velvet-bound book with its secret alphabet opens the way to a world of the imagination that includes lectures at 2:00 a.m. and underground churches. But the references also point to notions of death, the unconscious mind, the mysteries of life and sexuality, and the search for meaning and patterns that might result in art. This novel is a feast for the imagination, alternating as it does between a moderately straightforward (though always irreal) narrative style and stream-of-consciousness, surreal, automatic-writing sorts of monologues, the first of which is delivered by a black fish.  And yet there is a way in which the green marble streetcars and combination skyscraper-cruise ship on the Vltava found in this novel call to mind the real city, the Prague I knew back in the 1990s, a place of such intense complex imagination that anything seemed possible.

[In the summer of 2009 when I was last in Prague, there was no snow in which to find the footprints of chimerical beings, of course, but we lived near Petrin Hill, which features prominently in The Other City, and it’s still a microcosm of those hidden corners and magic moments we once seemed to find everywhere, and I walked up that hill almost every day because I wanted to see the birds and trees, but I also was reminded that Prague is still full of the unexpected – on Petrin there’s a gallery of imaginative art and an underground exhibit, and a number of small and unusual buildings (a wooden church, a pink chapel, and at the top a replica of the Eiffel Tower — and when I walked up Petrin I felt secure in the company of the remarkable number of statues to be found there (though I also enjoyed the Japanese and Italian tourists, the students, the staid ladies with their little dogs), and the night we went up to the astronomical observatory at the top of the hill and then rode slowly back down in the funicular railway gazing at the lights of the city below us that looked so lovely and yet promised something more than an ordinary city should, I renewed my connection with the other city, and I think it would be a very good idea to read Ajvaz’ book again next time I’m in Prague.]

Some News from Prague

[posted by Greg]

Last week I had the good fortune to attend and read at one of the two book launch parties for the monumental anthology The Return Of Kral Majales: Prague’s Inter­national Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 (ed., Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010), whose 960 pages detail and present the literary and artistic activities of the English-language community in Prague — perhaps the most coherent, successful, and self-aware English-language expatriate community of the last fifty years. Both Alice and I have pieces in the anthology, and there are several translations originally published in The Cafe Irreal that are also included. In fact, the whole thing got me thinking about Prague, its influence on us, and our irreal project, and so that is something I will be writing on soon, and at length.

And, speaking of Prague and at least one of its influences on The Cafe Irreal, Franz Kafka, I finally made it to the Divadlo Komedie’s presentation of a stage version (in Czech) of The Trial. This play, which has been running since 2007 and won awards that year for best staging and best actor, made me think of something John Updike wrote some years ago when he first saw the film version of his novel Rabbit Run. He recalled how impressed he was with the quality of the film but he said that, even as he was watching it, he wondered why the filmmakers didn’t just drop the pretense of making a film from his book and make their own original film; it was obvious to him that having to fit the film into the strictures of his book had hurt the film, while at the same time the film completely failed to capture any particular aspect of his novel.

In the same way I was left wondering why the producers and director of Proces didn’t just write their own play about a guilt-ridden and socially estranged guy having to deal with an arbitrary process of judgment. If they had, I wouldn’t have entered the theater with expectations based on having read Kafka’s work and so wouldn’t have been so disappointed by what they had made of his novel; I might have even praised the play for having had a rather Kafkan theme. But of course they didn’t write their own play, they chose to essentially rewrite Kafka and then go out and print up a bunch of flyers that boasted about it being “The Trial by Franz Kafka.” And so I wasn’t expecting, as such devices were very much eschewed in Kafka’s work, the play’s use of the classic song “Stand by Me” to emphasize the loneliness of the characters (talk about giving us something we can comfortably anchor ourselves to!), the emotional outbursts of the tormented, and ultimately suicidal, Joseph K. (also called, in the play, “Mr. K”), or a periodic personal, first person narrative delivered by him (so much for the narrative distancing of the original).

And this brings up another point: if you add a lot of your own material, dialogue, and so on, as they did here, can you really put forth the play as being “by” Franz Kafka (even beyond the fact that Kafka wrote a novel, and not a play, called The Trial)?

A little while ago I wrote in a post that when we watch these various remakes of original material, we need to set aside our expectations of the original and just focus on the new version, rather as if it had sprung up out of nowhere. But quite frankly I’m getting tired of having to do this; perhaps the people doing these remakes should save us this trouble by eliminating the middle man. They’d have more artistic license and give us something new. And this, I would argue, is especially true for remakes of works that have strong irreal elements, as those elements are easily washed out once more standard dramatic devices are introduced.