“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”
Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.
Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.
And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.
I’m currently reading Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, set almost entirely in Prague (though with excursions elsewhere). One character says that it is essentially a sad city, and what with persecutions, massacres, invasions and bombardments that’s not surprising, but there is something else, a somebody, here that leads to this melancholy state of affairs in the novel.
In recent weeks and months I’ve completed and reviewed at least two other novels with substantial episodes in the city. First there is Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which though set in an alternative world nevertheless has an urban centre which bears a marked resemblance to our own world’s Prague. Lyra’s dæmon Pantalaimon visits a philosopher in Staré Mesto, Prague’s Old Town, where later Lyra herself also comes across practioners of alchemy, a protoscience which has long been associated with the city.
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Pullman has co-opted Prague for his fiction: his Sally Lockhart novel The Tin Princess (1994) — which I really must reread — is set in the capital of a Mitteleuropa country, Razkavia, a city which I understand he based on this very capital of Bohemia. And of course Razkavia owes a debt to Anthony Hope’s country of Ruritania in The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) which also seems to fill the space occupied by Bohemia; it was, I notice, published exactly a century before The Tin Princess.
Then there’s Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, a novel which concerns a Meissen collector who lives in Prague during the period when Czechoslovakia is under Communist rule. Chatwin incorporates the legend of the golem, an anthropomorphic creature formed from clay which is likened to the porcelain figures which Utz treasures. The most famous golem narrative features a 16th-century rabbi from Prague.
Ever since I read Frances Yates’ study The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972) back in the seventies I knew that the city had several occult associations, so these three novels met my expectations for uncanny storylines. What I didn’t know was that a sequel to a comic masterpiece would also feature Prague. Though I regret to say I’ve not read Three Men in a Boat (not yet, at any rate) I do have a copy of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel (1900) which, I’m delighted to say, includes passages on Prague as the chums go on a cycling tour of Mitteleuropa.
More sombre are the novels of Prague native Franz Kafka. I’ve read some of the short stories as well as The Trial (1925) though I seem to have disposed of my copies some time ago; I have a notion I must revisit his surreal dystopian worlds soon, in which we must surely discern an alternate Prague.
Of tangential relevance are Ursula Le Guin’s two volumes set in Orsinia, a nation which derives its name from a root (meaning ‘bear’) also found in the author’s forename. Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) are focused on a tiny nation in Mitteleuropa, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which derives some of its aspects from Czechoslavakia but which isn’t however identical with Bohemia, Moravia or Silesia, provinces of the modern Czech Republic. Orsinian Tales is on my list of short story rereads for the Library of Brief Narratives.
There are other authors who feature in lists of Prague-related fiction (such as that on Goodreads) but I rather fancy two in particular: Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (2011) and John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy (1986). There are so many others worthy of my attention; I think Prague may well continue to feature in my reading, much as the river (which I know as the subject of Smetana’s symphonic movement Vltava or Die Moldau) winds through the city.
What about you? Have you read any of these? Are there Prague-set novels you have enjoyed?