* The Franz Kafka Museum (Lesser Town) is where I started my journey into Kafka
* Kafka lived in numerous houses in Prague. The house where he was born (next to St Nicholas Church in Old Town) was later rebuilt but the original door preserved
* Understanding Kafka through his books may not be easy but getting to know Prague through his eyes is definitely a traveller’s delight
A winter break in Europe seemed incomplete without a visit to Prague. A four-hour train ride from Vienna, through snow-draped scenery, gave me enough time to gear up for the city that had been on my to-do list for a while. But more than its pretty Christmas markets and festive lighting, it was Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the Czech writer, I was interested in.
Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 defined the country’s history for decades, till January 1, 1993 — the day the country was divided into Czech Republic and Slovakia. Remnants of the Hitler invasions are strewn around Czech Republic. And any discussion on the Jews of the country — down to only a few thousands from being over one-fourth of the population of Czechoslovakia before Hitler — is incomplete without a mention of the illustrious Kafka. One of the most famous Jews of Prague, he looms large over the city he lived in.
As you explore Prague, you’ll find yourself in the company of Kafka.
The Franz Kafka Museum (Lesser Town) is where I started my journey into Kafka. Crossing the Vltava River below the Charles Bridge to Cihelna, I was surprised to find the museum a small, quaint residence-like structure, with the statues of two life-size men urinating into a small waterbody at the entrance. This work of art, however, has no connection to Kafka. Once inside the building, through letters to friends, publishers and lovers as well as diaries and manuscripts, I got to know more about his early years in Prague and how his writings developed over the years. I learned that though Kafka hated his day job at the insurance institute, he took pride in his work.
Kafka lived in numerous houses in Prague. The house where he was born (next to St Nicholas Church in Old Town) was later rebuilt but the original door preserved. I stopped by at 16 Dlouhá in Old Town, the house he lived in from 1915 to 1917. Living in a tiny room on the fifth floor of this noisy building wasn’t at all pleasant for Kafka, though he’s said to have written most of his novel, The Trial, here. His stay in his sister’s house — at 22 Golden Lane (named after the goldsmiths who lived there in the 17th century) — helped him write The Castle, another novel, in peace. Today, this house is a souvenir shop with green doors.
Prague has embraced Kafka wholeheartedly and celebrates the literary hero in every way possible — streets, cafes, souvenirs, hotels and more — proudly bear his name. Though Czechs love their meat, The Metamorphosis author was a lacto vegetarian because of poor digestion. Thankfully, Czech food has enough vegetarian dishes to satisfy the non-meat eater: It includes Kulajda (soup with mushroom and potato), bramboráky (potato pancakes), smažený sýr (fried cheese coated with breadcrumbs), trdelnik (chimney cake), ovocné knedlíky (fruit dumplings topped with cream cheese/ butter) and kuba (mushroom and barley dish).
The December chill made me seek a hot beverage every now and then during the day. In fact, some of the cafés that Kafka frequented are still in business. Prague’s café culture is a compelling rival to the one I experienced in Vienna. Stepping into the marble-walled Cafe Louvre at Národní one afternoon, I ordered a Maria Theresa (espresso with orange liqueur and whipped cream) and a Czech caramel profiterole. History is a side dish at this café where Kafka spent many hours in the company of other intellectuals.
Another important address in Kafka’s life was The Grand Hotel Evropa (formerly Hotel Erzherzog Stefan) at Wenceslas Square (New Town). Built in 1889, the hotel has been featured in Hollywood films such as Titanic and Mission Impossible. Kafka, who held a book reading of The Judgement at the hotel in 1912, was often spotted across the road at Lucerna Arcade, a cultural centre where performances, exhibitions and film screenings are held till date.
Despite his presence all over Prague, Kafka hardly ever mentioned the city in his writings. In fact, he had a rather difficult relationship with it and liked to stay away from the limelight. It was only after his death that Prague seemed to wake up to his worth. Understanding Kafka through his books may not be easy but getting to know Prague through his eyes is definitely a traveller’s delight.
Latha Srinivasan is a journalist based in Chennai