Oct/Nov 2008 Travel

Kafka on Everything

by Tony O'Brien

I looked for Franz when the train wheezed into the station at Prague. Prague is Kafka, I'd heard; Franz is everywhere. I had an image, a silhouette, of a gaunt Kafka with raised cheekbones and deep eyes, skin as white as white, everything else as black as black. It was the sort of image you'd see in a pattern of cloud, staring up at you from the pavement in the shape of a puddle, or as a face in the crowd glimpsed through the window of the train. But all I could see were souvenir touts, dreadlocked backpackers, and an unshaved, mournful fellow selling newspapers. I paid two euros to a man who carried the heaviest of my bags and showed me to a taxi. The driver told me he'd been a boxer, but now he was married and had a wife to think of, and soon there'd be a baby, so no more boxing. He laughed when he said this, and his laugh made a whistling noise through missing teeth.

"Kafka Hotel I know," he said. "In Zizhkov. I know it."

I'd agreed the price, so I gave up checking the map and instead pressed my face to the window, treating every building, every construction site, every shop, every street sign or group of locals as a Site of Interest.

The Kafka Hotel is on a narrow, sloping street. It's crowded with shabby apartments from Kafka's century, plaster flaking off to reveal brick, statues of saints recessed into the walls, window boxes of geraniums like daubs of colour from a child's paintbox. The hotel is spread over two premises. The first is the main building, a grand name for a dowdy, roughcast affair, with the words "Kafka Hotel" inscribed in a black gothic script over the entranceway. Minivans full of backpackers crawled into an inner courtyard ringed by seats made of cheap timber curled from the sun, straining the nails until it looked as though a decent kick would see them shudder and break apart, leaving only a pile of firewood.

In the lobby a large woman worked the till, stumbling over my name, just as I stumbled over words like prosim and dobry den. The woman frowned at my booking confirmation and called upon a young man in an ill-fitting suit to explain that I was not staying in the main building but in an apartment over the road. I was given a key that opened the front door and the door to my room. I would attend breakfast by nine a.m. I would hand the key in when I went out. I would collect it when I returned. I would return by midnight or face a fine for lateness.

Any qualms I had about the key arrangement and about having to cross the road for breakfast were eased when I found the apartment apparently little changed since having been converted to tourist accommodation. It offered an opportunity to live as decades of inhabitants had lived, heaving their bags up the winding stone staircase, gripping the wrought iron railing and peering into its descending spiral, hearing footsteps and laughter echoing through the whitewashed hallways before disappearing behind the click of a heavy wooden door. The hotel management had stretched a wire across the windows and hung a rectangle of tulle across each one. The slightest breeze threw the curtain out, revealing a glimpse of the building opposite, an apartment like my own, only with signs of habitation rather than merely occupation. Every other window was hung with washing or adorned with a flower box. People leaned out, either gazing up Cimburkova Street to where it met Seifertova, or down, to Propokova, where cars with foreign plates parked outside the four star establishment that could afford a uniformed attendant on the door and air-conditioning inside.

Cimburkova Street was a restless, noisy place. Street workers stopped their trucks, unloaded tools, then stood on the footpath drinking beer from the Tabak. They called to the women leaning out of the windows where the geraniums competed for space with mens' shirts, a tablecloth, a child's dress or a woman's blouse. I am in the Kafka Hotel, I thought, and this is Prague. The guidebook told me where to find the monument to Franz, his childhood home in Praha 1, the stairs that led to the cottage where he wrote, the new Jewish cemetery where Franz is buried. I slept with the window open to the sounds of Cimburkova Street. It was evening by the time I awoke.

I hired a Skoda, a 1962 model driven by an out of work jazz musician, and threaded my way through the shops and cafes, past groups of tourists sipping beer. At Stare Mesto I took a photo of the sign that said Franze Kafky and bought The Country Doctor at the Kafka Bookshop. By the time I crossed the river, the sun was low, lending an orange glow to the city. Even the shadows held a tinge of light. The day cooled, and a hush settled over everything, as if the dying sun had taken the sounds of the city with it. I had dinner at a café near the Kafka exhibition, then asked the driver to take me to the castle.

The castle is almost deserted after dark. It gazes over the city, listening to the footsteps that ricochet off its stone slabs and steel gates, footsteps that die, then sink into the Vltava and are washed away. I asked the driver to park the Skoda in the square, and for a while I sat in the car listening to the voices that carried on the night air. That was what I noticed the most: how still the air was, and how clearly sounds carried.

I watched the changing of the guard. Young men in pale blue suits, shoulders squared, shiny rifles nestling against their epaulettes, trouser creases sharp enough to cut, boots clattering over the cobbles before they took their positions outside the sentry boxes. They stood, erect and unflinching, as tourists shuffled to their side, then gave a nervous smile for the camera, unsure if the rifle was loaded or if a stray movement might bring the guard to life, his rifle cocked, the barrel pointing an accusing finger that might see them marched off to an interrogation room that had lain dormant since the Cold War.

I crossed the castle courtyard and made for the west side where Franz had lived, where Ottla brought his supper, where he stoked the fire with old manuscripts and wrote his reports to the academy. When I reached the entrance to Golden Lane, I was turned back by steel gates. Through the bars I could see number 22, the blue cottage huddled between its neighbours. Franz's house seemed impossibly small, its tiny windows set back from the wall, the doorway just large enough to allow a small man to enter.

For the next few days I took the tram to Praha 1, wandered through the streets, and drank wine at the cafés. Every time I turned a corner, I saw another Kafka poster advertising the exhibition. When I left the hotel in the morning, I handed in my key; when I returned at night, I collected it again from the woman in the office. By the third day she remembered my name and even managed a smile. At nights I sank into the cumulus pillows and dreamed of Prague.

It was on the last night that I saw Franz on the stairs. He was breathless from having walked two flights and hot from the weight of the frock coat that flapped about his knees. He held a hat in both hands, across his chest, as if concealing a missing button or a soup stain. He paused when he saw me, then continued to the next floor, where he knocked on a door and was greeted by someone I didn't see. I heard voices speaking Czech or German, I couldn't tell which, then Franz was ushered inside, and the last I saw was a pale, thin face that peered up and down the hall before the door closed.

The next morning I had breakfast at the Kafka Café. It seemed only right to pay a last homage to Franz. I crossed the Charles Bridge, made the ascent to the castle, and found the last table. In the Kafka Café they have Kafka's face on the cups. They sell Kafka tee shirts, Kafka posters, Kafka cups and pens and matchbooks. I ordered coffee, black, double shot. I took extra sugar sachets from the bowl on the counter, and when the coffee arrived, I noticed the sugar, too, showed the face of Franz. I tipped Kafka sugar into Kafka coffee, a cascade of white crystals dissolving into black. I stirred. There was Franz, swirling around in my cup, round and round, white into black, white into black.


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