Over the past few months in Prague I’ve come to the realization that I wish my life came with little labels like the ones on pre-packaged food. I think I would definitely appreciate a heads up every now and then about the effects certain phenomena might have on my body. Warning, peanuts: may contain nuts. Warning, Kafka: will consume your life. Honestly, is that so much to ask for? In that spirit, a nutrition label for everyone in the Czech Republic: when I’m sitting on a night tram reading “The Trial,” it should be fairly evident that I am not, in that moment, open to talking a stranger who may or may not be (but let’s be real, probably is) an agent of some conspiratorial government bureaucracy. I mean, duh.
I don’t know how to make it more obvious that if you’re wearing a suit or have glasses or a face, I can no longer trust you to be who you say you are. Sorry. I’m sure you’re very nice, but there’s nothing to be done. For you readers of Kafka, I know that you know what I mean (you know too much), but for anyone who hasn’t yet entered the world of doppelgangers, cyclical government bureaucracy, and people transforming into horse-simulacra seemingly out of the blue, just know that whatever security you think you feel is an illusion. Sorry to break it to you.
I know because if there’s a single religion in the ever-beautiful and rainy Prague, it’s Kafka. Not to say that everyone here reads his work or even likes the mythology that has built around him, but if you’re here and alive you’ve seen his face a million times on mugs, posters, coasters, you name it. And if you’re taking a Kafka survey class (i.e. moi) you’ve seen his face in your dreams (purists might say ‘nightmares’) and you worry every morning that you’re going to wake up a bug.
My intense (and unfortunately not that new) paranoia aside, the city is rich with places Kafka lived and wrote. It’s full of his novels, which you can find in as many languages as I knew existed in as many little book stores as a city can possibly contain, especially full of Kafka paraphernalia for purchase. The Kafka museum, though largely a tourist trap and containing relatively few things Kafka touched, sat on, or licked, is still worth a visit. I learned about the women in his life, almost puked in front of the film adaptation of “In the Penal Colony,” and walked through shiny, black paneled hallways reminiscent of the inner offices of communist Russia (yup that’s totally what I thought of first, *cough* not the ministry of magic).
Competing with Milan Kundera in recent years, Kafka is the single most famous writer to emerge from the Czech Republic and though there’s some debate as to whether he can truly be considered Czech there’s very little debate on what some might delicately call the ‘mind-blowing’ quality of his plotlines.
According to my Kafka professor, a very thin and pleasantly snarky man with hoop earrings and skinny jeans, “’What does it mean?’ is the wrong question.” He posed this philosophically in a long and beautiful speech about the labyrinthine and lasting quality of this illusive man’s work. And I sat and listened and desperately hoped that it meant he would never ask me.