As writers go, Franz Kafka is Prague’s favorite native son. You can tell by the museum in Mala Strana (see picture), the gift shop and bronze plaque where he was born, the restaurant around the corner in Josefov, and the other gift shop on Old Town Square where Kafka’s father had his business. You can tell by all the postcards that say Kafka, or reproduce photos of him, or that show an illustrated profile of a thin man in a suit and hat taking long strides on a cobbled lane. You can tell from the statue that features Kafka as one of his own characters on the shoulders of another character, as portrayed in his only distinctly Prague-based story, “Description of a Struggle” (see picture).
He is buried in a cemetery just a few blocks from where I’m staying, but after two attempts I still haven’t found his grave. A Czech woman pointed me to Jan Palach’s grave, so I have pictures of the young man who set himself on fire to protest the 1968 Russian invasion. (His photo is on his tomb.) The woman also gestured much farther on when I asked about Kafka, but I didn’t realize how much farther she meant until I got trapped in the Russian cemetery (only one entrance!) on my next visit. And when I finally got to the Jewish cemetery, it was, in good Kafka form, just closed for the night.
He is evidently buried with his father and all the related ironies.
The Kafka Museum is a dark, watery labyrinth of reproductions of letters and photos and books. It’s informative and artistically apt with its black walls and black and white film clips of old Prague that bend and bleed as if under water. There are transparent walls with poster-sized photos and quotations, and near the end is a maze of office drawers, floor-to-ceiling, labeled with character names. They even turned some of Kafka’s simple but compelling drawings of stick figures into an animated video. But aside from a few first-edition books, there was, for me, too little of the “real.” Everything a facsimile, a copy, an artful and interpretive reproduction. Smoke, mirrors.
It turns out I like the real stuff. I wanted, as in Charles Dickens’ London house, to be able to walk on Kafka’s floor, see his desk and writing implements, touch his dining room table, view the same scene through a window, and walk the thresholds between rooms. At the Kafka museum I thought, Couldn’t they at least have gotten a jacket that he wore? A hat? A pen that he held? He hasn’t been dead that long.
But Kafka has not been Kafka for so very long, so his stuff was probably not preserved. Prague’s authorities (first fascists then communists) ignored him for most of the century. His stories, it seems, were too close for comfort. The Soviets loosened up a bit in general in the 60s, and they allowed Kafka to surface in as far as his works seemed to critique the Nazis, from whom the Soviets had “liberated” Prague.
But it is democracy and capitalism that has turned Kafka into Kafka. Which is Kafkaesque indeed.