Locus Online



16 March 2009

Prague: City of Fantasy

by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

"If you look at Prague from up here, as her lights flicker on one by one, you feel you would gladly plunge headlong into an unreal lake in which you had seen an enchanted castle with a hundred towers [as] the evening chimes on that black lake of starry roofs."
— Vítezslav Nezval, co-founder of the surrealist movement in the Czech Republic

To us, there may be no more fantastical city than Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, situated on the banks of the Vltava River. Its roots in fantasy go much deeper than Franz Kafka, who once lived in a room in the city's walls. They also go deeper than the tale of the Golem, one of Prague's most famous fictitious exports.

A penchant for the fantastical seems to come naturally to Czechs, perhaps nowhere more in evidence than Jaroslav Hasek's tales of the good soldier Svejk. In these absurd stories, Svejk's fabrications become ever more bizarre and grandiose, and yet fool everyone with the sincerity and detail of their telling. In one particular tale, Svejk claims to have discovered such oddities as the Sulphur-Bellied Whale, the Edible Ox, and Sepia Infusorium, a kind of sewer rat.

Indeed, Frank Blei, a member of Franz Kafka's writing circle, must have been taken by the spirit of Prague when he was moved to describe his colleague as part of an imaginary bestiary: "The Kafka. The Kafka is a magnificent and very rarely seen moon-blue mouse, which eats no flesh, but feeds on bitter herbs. It is a bewitching sight, for it has human eyes."

Prague has always been a haven for creative people — it had a Cubist art scene second only to Paris in the 1920s — and remains the home of many fine artists and filmmakers, including the animator Jan Svankmajer, whose Alice tells a decidedly macabre version of the classic by Lewis Carroll. Svankmajer was heavily influenced in his choice of career by receiving a toy puppet theater as a Christmas gift in 1942. His Gamba Gallery sits on a cozy street just north of the castle that overlooks the city. A humble white-washed exterior with iron-barred windows hides rooms full of wonders, as most of Prague's more surreal creators have exhibited there.

It was the streets around the Gamba Gallery that we made us realize that some of the more fantastical paintings of Hawk Alfredson were based on reality. On the streets around the gallery, you will find houses with inward curving walls, delicate slanted ceilings, and tiny doors that look like they came from faeryland.

In addition, one of the earliest influences on Alfredson's oil paintings was Prague writer Gustav Meyrink's The Golem. Another painting echoes the texture of Wallenstein Palace's Grotesquery in Prague, a strange "forgery" of the walls of a limestone cave, complete with stalactites.

Walking anywhere in Prague's Old Town, we came across the work of hundreds of artists in galleries and sidewalk displays, including the steampunkish renderings of Vladimir Kasim, whose balloon-filled skies often aren't as fanciful as they might seem at first glance. Kasim loves to wed his own sense of play to "Old Prague and [the] mystery of its crooked streets... a whimsical labyrinth."

Much of Prague's playfulness also has an edge to it. For example, with the fall of communism Prague was left with a few ugly reminders of that repressive era — like the local television station. Looking a little like a steel cactus, this grim structure fulfilled all of the unimaginative requirements of the Soviet era. But, rather than tear it down, the Czechs commissioned a sculptor to create large "space babies," which were then attached to the sides of the building. This solution is fun but also offers a mocking comment on the prior regime.

The television station is one of the few instances of Czechs having to beautify an ugly structure. According to the highly recommended The Rough Guide to Prague, the city represents "some six hundred years of architecture almost untouched by natural disaster or war... the city retains much of its medieval layout and the street facades remain smothered in a rich mantle of Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau." We couldn't go anywhere in the Old Town section of Prague without encountering seemingly magical buildings with flying buttresses, ramparts, and clock towers. Some of the modern structures also seemed not of this world, including the famous Dancing House, also known as "Fred and Ginger." Doors are also a highlight of Prague, which boasts entrances that can rival or surpass such fictional marvels as the Mines of Moria door in the Two Towers Lord of the Rings movie.

Modern Prague continues to exhibit this sense of sly playfulness, as evidenced by a major gallery exhibit at the Kampa Museum of Modern Art consisting of huge plastic bears and rabbits, along with a huge wicker chair by the river, suitable for a giant. Not to mention a fine memorial to John Lennon opposite the Old Town, where thousands of people a year come to pay tribute.

As a modern, thriving metropolis, Prague by day or by night contains so many imaginative surprises that even cynical travelers can be amazed by it. Walking around a corner in the evening, with the old town area lit up like some fairy tale setting, we have stumbled across impromptu concerts, street theater, puppetry, and stunning exhibits of international photography.

But one discovery exemplified for us the magical nature of Prague. Walking through the gardens overlooking city, we heard faint music coming from a high hedge. We soon found a narrow break in the shrubbery that led to a little beer bar with a radio and seats made from tree stumps with green felt as upholstery. Although it was the summer, holiday lights had been woven through the gnarled trees. In the back lay a delicate gazebo set amidst a forest of vines and strange metal sculptures.

It's hard indeed to top the reality of Prague, in any art form. This might be why the best history of Prague is Magic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino. He captures the city by combining fiction and nonfiction. His account begins, "To this day, every evening at five, Franz Kafka returns home to Celetna Street (Zeltnergasse) wearing a bowler hat and black suit." Throughout, he interweaves characters and situations from novels with the actual events that have defined the city's rich life. As Ripellino writes near the end of his account: "The fascination of Prague, the life of Prague has no end. Its gravediggers will vanish into the abyss."

Anyone who loves the fantastical will find Prague — its arts, its history, and its tall tales — a delight. It may come as no surprise, then, that when Czechs voted, along with other European Union members, on a famous person to best represent their country, their selection was a little different. Every other country chose a real person. Czechs chose a fictional character featured in a series of well-known national plays.

© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.