A wild slim alien

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Secret miracles

‘Prague seemed—it still seems, after many rival cities—not only one of the most beautiful places in the world, but one of the strangest. Fear, piety, zeal, strife and pride, tempered in the end by the milder impulses of munificence and learning and douceur de vivre, had flung up an unusual array of grand and unenigmatic monuments. The city, however, was scattered with darker, more reticent, less easily decipherable clues. There were moments when every detail seemed the tip of a phalanx of inexplicable phantoms.’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts

The taxi driver’s English isn’t sophisticated, but he has sufficient patter to give us a blow-by-blow guided tour over the course of the journey from the airport to the heart of Prague. He points out a large social housing complex where, he says, many Ukrainian women live; they come to work in the city as cleaners. Conversely he tells me about the cube-shaped private hospital we are passing, and how ‘many, many women’ from the United States go there for cheaper plastic surgery than is available in their own country. Captive in the front seat, I do my best to engage, until the prejudice that seems to inform a not-insignificant percentage of taxi drivers the world over shows itself in disparaging remarks about gypsies. These are the very people whose hospitality and friendliness is lauded by Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor in the books recounting his legendary walk across Europe, the first volume of which is – in part – the reason I am here: the picture that he retrospectively paints of Prague under snow in A Time of Gifts is a typically rich blend of youthful exuberance and mature reflection.

My own journey to Prague was set in motion via travel bookshop Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, which was my frequent lunchtime haunt when I used to work around the corner from it. Inside its long, galleried, skylit main room – originally built for antiquarian booksellers Francis Edwards in 1910 – I discovered Leigh Fermor’s books. Reading revealed them to be intricate works of crystalline lucidity with a breadth that echoed the place in which I had found them, where books are still arranged principally by country, whether fiction or non-fiction, biography, history, or guide.

Besides being an impossibly handsome and charismatic adventurer with a linguistic and expressive facility that allowed him to communicate across every conceivable divide, Leigh Fermor later went on to be a war hero. Dirk Bogarde played him in Ill Met by Moonlight, the film which dramatised his daring kidnappng of a German general behind enemy lines in Crete. It begins to seem unfair to ordinary mortals that he should also subsequently turn out to be such a gifted and perceptive writer – a hoarding of the talents of several human beings within just the one.

Leigh Fermor set off on his epic walk in 1933, the year Hitler invested himself with supreme power. Before reaching Prague, he passed through Germany, and while the wandering scholar found himself on the receiving end of many instances of kindness and generosity, the ideological conviction of the Nazi propagandists he encountered chilled him. Written decades later, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water offer an elegiac picture of a lost world, before Europe was ravaged by the Second World War and the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany, and perhaps that is why it is magical; because it can only be rescued from the past by an act of the imagination which involves simultaneously giving yourself to the writing, and recovering the cities, towns and countryside it describes from the worst stain with which they have been marked by history.

‘Memory encircles [Prague] with a wreath, a smoke-ring and the paper lattice of a valentine. I might have been shot out of a gun through all three of them and landed on one of its ancient squares fluttering with the scissor-work and the vapour and the foliage that would have followed me in the slipstream.’

Today Prague is under sun rather than snow. These must be the first properly warm days of spring here, the ones which set light to what Dylan Thomas calls ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. The trees are in bloom, with the leaves following on behind. Under the blossom and in the sunshine, the city’s inhabitants have cast aside their winter coats to rub shoulders with the Easter influx of tourists, many of whom have bared their arms and legs, the better to bask in the unexpected warmth.

Like any sizeable place, Prague works and acts upon you on many different levels. It is the city of a thousand statues and a hundred spires; the spotlessly clean town of bubble-shaping street entertainers and stalls selling caramelised chimney-cakes; the historic site of defenestrations, spring awakenings and velvet revolutions. It is also the literary home of Kafka and Kundera, of Holub and Havel, and of their descendants, names as yet unknown to me. Simultaneously, it is a city of the past and of the present; the past inside the present, the present in the past. The future, it is true, is harder to detect, but it is there too, behind the health and safety hoardings guarding building sites, and in the eyes or the sure-footed pacing of the younger generation.

Soon we are making the first of many crossings and recrossings of the Charles Bridge, watched over by its succession of holy personages, their statuesque robes and faces blackened with centuries of grime; a state which enhances their outlines in any photos you take of them. Wenceslas, Vitus, John Nepomuk, Ludmilla, Christopher, Francis of Assisi and Augustine are all here, a panoply of saints venerated both locally and across the Catholic world.

We are not alone, of course. The bridge is teeming both with other tourists and with locals making their way between Old Town on the right bank of the Vltava and the Little Quarter on its left. You have to stay up late or rise early to have the bridge even somewhat to yourself; we manage it only once. The crowds gather round busking bands, creating bottlenecks, but we are in no hurry and idle past one playing a Czech version of motorik krautrock on steel drums, and later a string quartet supplemented with an additional pair of hands drumming out rhythms on a cajón as they reinvent songs such as Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’.

Beyond the other end of the bridge stands the complex of baroque buildings known as the Clementinum. Within, there is not only an astronomy tower from which – being right in among its spires – you can take in some of the best views of the city, but also one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Images of its interior show it well-lit, but we are only permitted to see the library from its threshold with the blinds drawn and under dim electric lights, which enhances the sense of it having been untouched since the eighteenth century, but frustrates the urge to look at everything close up. The air about the books is deliberately chilled and rarefied, the hush almost visible. Is this all strictly necessary from a conservation point of view, or is it a piece of theatre designed to give the library an air of untouchable mystery? There’s also the question of what a library is for, if one can tread upon its floor and take its books down only in exceptional circumstances. It seems the space cannot be both a working library and a tourist attraction, and so the Czech National Library has chosen to preserve this particular treasure in both aspic and darkness. But then, only academic specialists might really need to consult one of its twenty thousand predominantly theological volumes, so perhaps it is not unreasonable to allow greasy-pawed tourists like us merely a glimpse of such wonders.

In his short story ‘The Secret Miracle’, Jorge Luis Borges has ‘Jaromir Hladik, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies’ dream that he has hidden himself from the Gestapo in the Clementinum’s library. “A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter. I’ve gone blind looking for it.” At that moment Hladik is handed an atlas by another reader. Randomly opening it to a map of India, he instinctively touches one of the tiniest letters on the page and hears a divine voice tell him that the time he needs to complete The Enemies has been granted. Such a moment of divine revelation seems frustratingly out of reach, here on the threshold of the Clementinum.

I suspect that Leigh Fermor also found his way into this enclave of a library. No doubt he used his scholarly enthusiasm and considerable charm to cross the threshold; or perhaps there was always an unofficial way to see what you wanted to see in the days before mass tourism:

‘Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-line Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades. Along the shallow vaulting of these chambers, plasterwork interlocks triangular tongues of frosty bracken with classical and allegorical scenes. Ascanius pursues his stag, Dido laments the flight of Aeneas, Numa slumbers in the cave of Egeria and all over the ceiling draped sky-figures fall back in a swoon from a succession of unclouding wonders.’

Franz Kafka also haunts a Prague where it is always winter, and never spring, let alone summer. The long, low expanse of the Castle – the complex owing that name more to its hilltop position than to any especially imposing fortifications – dominates the skyline to the north-west, especially at night, when (in this day and age, as opposed to Kafka’s) it is lit up with a creamy golden glow, while the spires of the cathedral of St. Vitus, which lies within its precinct, rise as silhouettes of contrasting blackness. It is not necessarily the bureaucratic presence that specifically inspired Kafka’s unfinished novel (which he began in the mountain resort of Spindlermühle), but I imagine he must also have had Prague’s seat of government in mind as he wrote it.

The Kafka Museum shares a courtyard with a riverbank restaurant and a sculpture of two male figures pissing into a Czech Republic-shaped pond. Their watery urine spells out literary quotes, but whether any of Kafka’s are among them is unclear. In contrast to the brightness of the day, the museum is darkly lit and somewhat disorienting. Glass cases contain photos, letters, and first editions, while a watery, rippling dream of a film projects images of Prague from the early twentieth century. Like Fernando Pessoa, whose ghost similarly frequents Lisbon, Kafka never married. As affecting as the photos of three women with whom he had significant relationships – his fiancée Felice Bauer, the journalist and translator Milena Jesenská, and the teacher Dora Diamant – and the letters to his employers – pleading for a raise or time off for ill-health – are, perhaps the time might have been better spent revisiting “The Metamorphosis” or a chapter from The Trial. But then this sentence on one of the information boards would not have struck me, partway through a discussion of how the myths about the city and the writer feed off each other (one suggested derivation of the Czech name for Prague being práh, or threshold): “The threshold is a deferred place, a postponed end, an unfinished work.” A secret miracle.

One of at least two statues of Kafka in Prague stands in the Jewish quarter, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was inspired by a scene in his first novel, Amerika, in which a politician is carried on the shoulders of a giant. Kafka himself has assumed that position, becoming the great upon whose shoulders we now stand. The brass of both of his shoes has been worn shiny with rubs for luck.

Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery; no-one who died later than 1786 is to be found in the older one. But in the Pinkas synagogue adjoining it, the names of the 77,297 Czechoslovak citizens who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and subsequently killed in various Nazi extermination camps are written in careful red and black script upon the walls. The scale of the loss is overwhelming. I try to focus on just one or two names and curtailed lives. Rudolf Buchbinder, 1913-42. Ludvik Buchler, 1936-42. Upstairs, the exhibition of children’s pictures rescued from the concentration camp is unbearable to look at; again, I focus on just one of them, ‘A boat in turbulent seas’, drawn by Jindrich Triescheř, 1932-44. It is as bleak a rendering of a boat at sea as you can imagine.

This city of statues and spires and bubbles and chimney cakes is also a city of death.

Outside, in the old cemetery that Leigh Fermor rated as ‘one of the most remarkable places in the city’, a single magpie emits a harsh cackle; but then there is also the sweet birdsong of two great tits foraging in the earth at the foot of some ivy. It’s said that owing to the yard’s confined space, the dead here are buried 12 feet deep. Beneath the leafing elder trees, gravestones are arrayed at every angle besides the perpendicular, some leaning on others for support. The script upon them is in Hebrew, so we cannot tell for how long these ancestors of the generations who died in the Holocaust lived, nor whether or not their lives ended in relative peace. There are little notes among the graves, lodged in crevices or weighed down with stones, upon which prayers or wishes (or perhaps even secret miracles) have been consigned, feeding upon the legend of the Golem. Its creator, Judah Löw ben Bezalel, a late sixteenth century rabbi who lies buried in this graveyard, gave the Golem life by inserting slips of paper inscribed with incantations into its mouth, in an effort to defend his people from the anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms that Leigh Fermor reminds us long preceded the atrocities of Nazi Germany:

‘The russet-coloured synagogue, with its steep and curiously dentated gables, was one of the oldest in Europe; yet it was built on the site of a still older fane which was burnt down in a riot, in which three thousand Jews were massacred, on Easter Sunday, 1389. (The proximity of the Christian festival to the Feast of the Passover, coupled with the myth of ritual murder, made Easter week a dangerous time.)’

Chilled to the bone by the cemetery and synagogue, we thaw out on the terrace of the Času Dost (Time Enough) café, pivoting away from the horrors of the past into the benign pleasures of the present, and counting our blessings.

The following day is another of brilliant sunshine. We enter the castle complex in order to visit the cathedral, but although it is only mid-morning, it is already swamped with others doing likewise. We content ourselves with gazing up at its exterior, seeing how it shapes itself against the sky, just as Leigh Fermor himself had done:

‘From the massed upward thrust of its buttresses to the stickle-back ridge of its high-pitched roof it was spiked with a forest of perpendiculars. Up the corner of the transepts, stairs in fretted polygonal cylinders spiralled and counter-spiralled, and flying buttresses enmeshed the whole fabric in a radiating web of slants. Borne up in its flight by a row of cusped and trefoiled half-arches, each of them carried a steep procession of pinnacles and every moulding was a ledge for snow, as though the masonry were perpetually unloosing volleys of snow-feathered shafts among the rooks and the bruise-coloured and quicksilver clouds.’

Prague is so filled with historical wonders that inevitably we miss out on all too many of them, like the colourful artisan cottages of Golden Lane, once the haunt of both goldsmiths and Kafka, and the Old Royal Palace, within which the Riders’ Staircase leads up to Vladislav Hall, big enough for indoor jousting tournaments. Both staircase and hall are hymned in A Time of Gifts, in which Leigh Fermor imagines ‘lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostrich-plumes under the freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep the bright paint that spiralled them unchipped.’

A final crossing of the Charles Bridge at sunset is marked by a brilliant fanfare played from the steps – the threshold – of the Church of St. Francis by two men in black cassocks, heralding not a service, but a concert taking place there that evening. As with Golden Lane, the Riders’ Staircase, and who knows how many other miracles of history returned today to secrecy only through efforts of the imagination, we will have to take up the invitation on another occasion.

Clementinum photo: ccmailb. All other photos by awildslimalien.