Archives For Milan Kundera

The theme of this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge at Word Press is SILHOUETTE. So here goes. My silhouette photo has three stories, probably more.

The first is the historical story:

This is a statue in Prague of Jan Žižka — One-Eyed John — who, in 1420, led the Hussites (who preceded the Protestants of the Reformation) in a significant and successful battle against the Hungarian king who was supported by the Pope. (Blah, blah, blah, read more here.)

Five hundred years later, in the wake of WWI and the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, this statue was erected at the site of the battle, Vítkov Hill, as part of a larger monument to celebrate Czech nationalism. But before the monument was completed, Czechoslovakia began decades of occupation by the Germans and Russians, and their cute little national history was either ignored or altered.

For example, here are some additions made to the site by the Soviets who had their own story to tell:

The second story is literary:

In my (er, unpublished) novel set in Prague, my protagonist is taken to this site by her tour guide and romantic interest. He explains the significance of the various statues and signs, but he ultimately tells her more about the history of Prague than about himself. At this monument, she has an epiphany of sorts. But it’s relatively early in the plot, so of course she’s wrong.

The third story is personal (but it overlaps with the literary and the historical):

I first visited this site in 2005 as part of Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program. The professor of my Czech literature course took us there and that’s where I really fell in love with Prague and its sad statues and monuments that try to mean something but get changed, through history and its power struggles, into meaning something else – or nothing at all.

We walked around to the other side of the monument where there were two Socialist Realist statues, one of which was a model proletarian family: father, mother, baby; healthy and muscular; farmers prepared to reap the harvest. That statue, which was already outdated and a relic of a previous regime, became the foundation of my character’s epiphany mentioned above. And it repeats as a motif for the rest of the novel.

I was in Prague again this summer, and I finally made it back to this site, which factors so significantly in my novel and in my mind. It’s kind of out of the way and up a steep hill, and I got lost trying to get there, and I was thirsty and hungry and my feet hurt, but I made it! And at long last, the site has achieved its original intent: it is a National Monument, celebrating Czech history. I took the pictures of Žižka that I’ve posted here, and I wandered around to the other side to see the statue family that I’d written so much about.

But it was gone:

The missing statue.

It freaked me out. How could it be gone when it was so present in my mind and in my novel? Had it ever been there? Had I imagined the whole thing?

It also thrilled me. I was experiencing first-hand the problems of memory and monuments that are so important to any history. It’s just like Milan Kundera’s Milek says in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Just before this quote, in the opening chapter, Kundera describes a 1948 photograph of communist leader Klement Gottwald in Prague’s Old Town Square. He was cold, so his comrade Clementis gave his fur cap to Gottwald to wear on his head. A photograph was taken of Gottwald in the hat, with Clementis in the background. But Clementis did not stay in the background. As Kundera says:

Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and, of course, from all photographs.

Visual aid:

And history – or at least this blog post – comes full circle, for it is here at the Vitkov National Museum that Klement Gottwald’s dead body was kept on display for NINE YEARS, with multiple doctors working day and night to keep his body presentable to the public. Why? So people would not forget him. (Read the rest of that creepy-awesome story here.)

But a body is not a statue, and it cannot be kept forever. Just like a statue is not a body that lives and breathes. And a silhouette is not a statue or a body, just a shape, a suggestion of what is – or is not – there.