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Prague: Memories of a City

Alex McElroy

January 22, 2016

Prague

Prague, I See a City...

by Daniela Hodrová

Translated by David Short

Jantar Publishing, 2011

Let me start with a book, Daniela Hodrová’s Prague, I See a City…, a slim and disorienting text—maybe a novel, maybe a travel guide—in which Hodrová navigates the interdependence of Prague and her personal life. The book was originally commissioned as an alternative guidebook for French tourists after the fall of the Soviet Union. But as Hodrová completed the book, it evolved into an achronological menagerie comprising legends, memoir, literary criticism, and the occasional theater recommendation.

Paraphrasing the gospel of John, Hodrová opens the book, “In the beginning, the city was, to me, a word—Prague.” It was a sound she heard in her crib, it was the shredded headlights of passing trams striping her ceiling with light, it was “a beast of prey sleeping somewhere far away.” The city was watching and waiting. For what? she asks. “For me to come?”

What I knew about Prague, when I first read Prague, I See a City…, could be categorized as a series of verifiable facts. Years before reading her book I had spent three days in the city. I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, an incorrigible coward who signed up for tour after tour, never daring to explore alone. I walked in stride with the guides. I carried a journal and asked pertinent questions, filling my pages with facts. “Defenestration,” I wrote in my journal, “throwing someone from a window.”

Like Franz Kafka, my education had done me great harm. I was so very proud of myself for taking diligent notes. I asked my guides, “How many others take notes?” The guides, who lived off the tips and knew what I wanted to hear, answered, “Very few put in the effort.” I believed that I could experience Prague by memorizing its relevant dates. But what I experienced was the promise and pitfall of tourism: I saw what others already have. I learned what others already knew. The effect is deadening, it isolates, as I learned. After the tours ended I was often beset by incredible loneliness. I did not go out at night. When invited out I made up excuses: I needed to write in the morning and wanted to keep my head clear. Alone in the hostel, I ate mountains of chips and threw up. I returned to the states clutching a notebook loaded with fragmented, irrelevant facts:

“Don Giovanni written in honor of Czechs.”

“Zizka—general 15th century.”

“Scraffito—plaster, whitewashed, pattern scratched out.”

Prague, I See a City… chases what Hodrová cannot forget. It is a guide to Prague’s subconscious, to the network of feelings that arise between person and place—think Jane Jacobs tornadoed by chaos theory. Early on, Hodrová showcases this phenomenon through a series of tableaux vivants. The city, it turns out, is also a theater. She envisions scenes playing out in Wenceslas Square: The Slavs arrive in Bohemia; the Bohemian Princess Libussa prophesies a “great city, its glory touching the stars”; King Wenceslas, that apocryphally jolly old man, murdered on the steps of a church; Jan Palach’s self-immolation; Tycho Brahe’s courteous bladder. These scenes are unfettered, inviting, impactful. And through them we discover what guidebooks attempt to exclude, the guide’s subjective experience:

I am passing the asylum in St. Katherine’s Convent. Twenty years ago I would accompany my mother here every Sunday evening, she suffered from endogenous depression. Then from Monday to Friday she would look out of a window in the ward onto the hospital garden, onto which, from the other side, from Purkyne’s house, Albert Einstein would look and work out his theory of relativity. In the end, a tumor grew on my mother’s brain and they only discovered it when it was the size of an apple. To this day, they are looking at each other—the famous physicist and my insane mother, both long dead.

“Forgetfulness,” Paul Valéry writes, “is a godsend that history is always trying to corrupt.” Hodrová invites the corruption of history. For most of us, the past is a mutt locked in a cage, growling incessantly, placated with the occasional treat, but for Hodrová the past endlessly barrels through her apartment, peeing on carpets, chewing remotes, shedding all over the couch.

***

I returned to Prague shortly after reading Hodrová’s book. I was there on a fellowship for a writing conference. During the first few days of the conference, I told no one I had already been to Prague. I did not want to answer for my previous stay. The lie was part of a plan. This time I would be gregarious, friendly, and happy. This trip would be different, I hoped, secretly expecting it wouldn’t.

Out to dinner, I met Kyle: a former punk who still hadn’t shaken off the attire—I remember him only in black. He had angel food cheeks; his front teeth were squeezing a hunk of barbecued meat. Friendship, great friendship, necessitates a unique rhythm of language. Admittedly, I have never had many friends, but the few great friendships I’ve had have begun as mine did with Kyle: drunken flights of emotion, enthusiastic confessions, an authenticity unanticipated and inescapable.

Early into dinner, he asked, “Have you been to Prague?” Instinctively, I quoted one of my favorite movies, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, the famous line: “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.” In unison, Kyle and I finished the rest: “Well, I haven’t ‘been to Prague’ been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that, ‘Stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, fall in love with a sculptor, now I realize how bad American coffee is’ thing…”

For the rest of the night we exchanged stories of woe: I told the one about stealing a TV from my high school. Kyle told the one about his younger brother being arrested. My stepbrother had had his throat slit. Kyle’s dad often cried on the floor of his bedroom. My seventh-grade friends once sat me down and advised me to find other friends. It went on like this, each story a little bit sadder, but never painful to recall, far funnier than the original experience.

***

Prague is a city of layers. A palimpsest resting atop its earlier selves. Hodrová muddles these layers. Like a napoleon pastry pounded to slop, Prague, I See a City… is deliciously messy. She collapses Prague’s historical eras, unifying the commercialized Wenceslas Square with its revolutionary antecedents, H&M and T.G.I. Fridays superimposed over the Velvet Revolution’s jangling keys, the flames of Jan Palach’s self-immolation charring the walls of a McDonald’s.

A city is the collaboration of its dissonant parts. A person? Exactly the same. Hodrová not only captures manifold versions of Prague, but the flight of the mind as it tries to remember, as it tries to create a singular person out of the past. My memory of Prague has become a series of images, scenes experienced and imagined that I can reenter at will: Kyle and I eating the pages out of a book. A metronome, red as a big bloody finger, wags where a statue of Stalin once stood—a statue so dense it took two months to demolish. Kyle and I lounge at its foot, drinking shandies, as the metronome rustfully groans. Freud hangs in an alley. Little Franz Kafka, tall as a knee, ambles to school through Old Town Square, passing flaneurs walking their turtles.

On Kyle’s last day in Prague, we hung out in the train station’s Burger King. We discussed the woman he had fallen in love with at the conference, the woman he asked to move to Detroit. Appalled and confused, she declined. Two days earlier he had given me a book—Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee, a book that meant a lot to him—and now he asked what I thought of it. I hadn’t liked it, but I did, I told him, love the gesture, love the inscription he wrote inside the cover. Together we envisioned the book heavy with dust on a shelf, my shelf, twenty-five years in the future, a symbol of the start of our friendship. We laughed, sadly, then I got up and he got up, we hugged and we promised, so many promises, promised to write to each other, to talk every day, to visit, and anyone watching would have thought that we meant it—I did mean it, I think. But after he left and I left I thought about all the friends I had lost, the friends ghosted by distance, and I wondered, What chance did our friendship have outside of Prague? I feared finding out. On the walk back to my flat I stopped at the bookstore where Kyle had bought Eeeee Eee Eeee new and I sold it back for 50 Czech crowns, roughly two dollars, and used the money to buy an espresso.

—————

Alex McElroy's writing appears or is forthcoming in Electric Lit, Indiana Review, Tin House, The Offing, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review online, Black Warrior Review, and more work can be found at alexmcelroy.org. He currently lives in Bulgaria.