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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Accelerating Away: Prague

At either end of Prague's King Charles bridge, two clock-towers mark the hour, in synchrony and at the correct moment as they have done for the five hundred years since their construction. But in the centre of the span, below the eyes of a statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, court priest of Wenceslas IV, time is speeding up. Here, set into the stone, is a square brass plaque with the relief image of a man being thrown off the bridge - the fate that met the unfortunate aforementioned Saint. Age-brown apart from a small circle of shiny, golden flesh, it is at this point that a signifier, a hand, of momentum is moving too fast.

Daily and for centuries, this bridge has carried feet across the river, and on each of those journeys, this otherwise easily-missed engraving has been a focal point for local fingers. Before passing onwards, the soldier marching west to the Hradcany castle and cathedral district, the farmer heading for the old town market or the theatre-goer returning from a show under the flickering light of gas lamps, have paused on their hurried way to touch the outer brass and made a brief wish in the hope of some miracle being returned, leaving as they did so a cell-small record of their journey on its skin, whilst taking with them on theirs a microscopic reminder of the metal. And the result of these millions of crossings with their millions of ritual moments is that, like rings on a tree, a scientist today would be able to read the gradual removal of each onion layer of brass and count the years, and the fingers, and the journeys that, imperceptibly over time, have eroded its surface.

Photograph of a winding street with red roofs
Hradcany District
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Still today, locals pause to touch the area, apparently unconscious of the mimicry that will go on behind their route. Any tourist watching will smile, wonder what it's all about, then inquisitively do the same; soon it becomes impossible to reach as queues of visitors form, waiting perhaps for some miraculous show (which never happens) to be performed as soon as they engage in this authentic, local, cultural act. So today flakes of brass are peeling off, faster than ever before, and soon the lump of solid metal itself will be eroded, turned to a concave distortion of the original. Here then, at this symbolic marker of time, is an archaeological indication of the contemporary dilemma faced by this city, of the sudden increase in population caused by the invention of cheap flights, and the Czech Republic's political move Westwards into the European Union: how will its quiet character be preserved under the pressures of tourism?

This unprecedented, accelerating business is at opposition with the slow source of Prague's elegance and charm. Its beauty is understated, a quiet culmination of many small moments - like the one on the bridge -, incidents, and architectural features, which build to a whole only when one walks slowly from one side of the old town to the other. From the statue of Saint John, it is impossible to see the full magnitude of the cathedral and castle, and instead ones' eye is drawn to the rusting (but still used) barges which lie in the river at the one end, and to the odd, colourful slugs of the pedalos spinning in the water, and to the lines of houses along the bank. Although Prague's King Charles bridge is, perhaps, its iconic structure, when one stands on the bridge most of the other images associated with the city disappear - St. Vitus's cathedral, Prague castle, the astronomical clock; the place wears its history hidden, subdued and its great buildings never strike out huge, tall in the eyes with vertical silhouettes, like the skyscrapers of New York, or the minarets of Istanbul, or the Eiffel tower of Paris.

Photograph of a religious statue set into an alcove in a green wall
Statue in an alcove
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Whilst other cities reach up in an attempt to claim their status, Prague keeps a low profile, only rising naturally by the steep hill upon which its west side is built. The streets consist of simple, low slung buildings, just two or three storeys high, as repetitive in their symmetrical lines as those of a coal town in the north of England, only these are much cleaner, and distinguished by windows. Every old street is paved with vertical roads of glass, as if each pane eyes across to admire the reflection of its face in the identical building opposite. Even the few concrete blocks from the Communist era fit unobtrusively into the template of brick and lots of glass, except that these latter do not have the array of artistic adornments which characterise the older constructions: the statues above the door, engravings, the fresco paintings (many recently re-painted) on the walls. These small but unobtrusive architectural feats of self-admiration, even self-indulgent pride, are everywhere and give the impression that Prague is a kind of secret art gallery, whose exhibits must be teased out by the visitor.

Photograph of a man painting a self-portrait using a mirror
Creativity on the street
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Although the tourists pour in, driven by this tidal wave of human holiday migration is something more permanent: an intense belief in the validity of Prague as a cultural capital to rival Vienna or London. The fly posters which are plastered on almost every un-owned inch of concrete wall can be read as statements of pride as, like paper onions, each old layer gradually peels away to reveal the different kind of event being advertised incongruously behind it: adverts for classical violin concerts cover the face of John McCartney and his latest gig; some heavy-metal-band of mega-extreme-death has been occluded in patches by the opening evening at a new art gallery. This diverse palimpsest says things are happening here culturally and artistically, with an enterprising range which embraces modernity - this city has been home to Milan Kundera and Kafka (one of the bookshops in the square happily bears his name on a handwritten banner, with large, clumsy, colourful letters, above its door) - whilst determined not to see its older sons - Dvorjak, Smetana - have their greatest performances anywhere other than in the home of the Prague Symphony Orchestra.

However, as it heads forwards, the city is still running away from the traumas of the past. Walking through Wenceslas Square, superimposed against the bustle of shoppers, the eye cannot help but visualise the negatives from the end of the Prague Spring in August 1968, the tanks trundling through and Jan Palach, the young student, setting himself on fire in protest. The camera of the twentieth century, following political events around the world, has burned icons into the retinas of all twentieth century tourists: to see the New York skyline is always to visualise also the ghost of an airliner sliding above it; the student still stands still, still defiant, in Tiananmen; every day, alongside the traffic, a parade of Nazi and American flags marches under L'Arche de Triomphe; and, in spite of the sandblasting, the blood can never quite come off the cobbles of this public space in the Czech Republic.

Not that this country will, or should ever try to, forget its history of resistance. At the end of Vitenza stands a monument by Olbram Zubrek commemorating those Czechs who died in under Communist occupation. It is a magnificent piece, provocative and slightly terrifying. Six figures stand on the steps leading up the hill. The figure in front is whole, although made of skinny iron with peculiarly large hands. The next figure patterns the first, only a chunk of his body is removed, so that we can see the path and the figure behind, who has been torn even more. This continues up the hill until the sixth figure at the highest point barely stands, ripped apart by the flame of the sculptor. It seems wrong, like writing the alphabet backwards, that to moving higher achieves a gradual desecration of the human body, a kind of counter-evolution such that the taller man stands, the less wholly man he is. It feels as if it should be the other way round. But this is precisely the provocative point: to move up the hill at the bottom of which the sculpture stands, to walk up the winding path that leads steeply up the hill, to the highest point of this city - the top of a viewing tower - from where the democratic, modern Prague can be reflected upon, one must first walk back past the haunting, darkest processes of the autocratic systems which pre-existed this new state. Later I discovered that this piece had been commissioned to replace one (which was apparently not particularly inspiring) which had stood in Wenceslas Square in honour of Jan Palach; again, this implies that the recollection of the events of the last fifty years is carried out by very conscious imaginations, with very contemporary feelings of respect for those who resisted, even though from this point Prague is moving forwards so quickly.

For the countries locked together, by a fate of geography, with the U.S.S.R., the Soviet era was their World War Two, a war which never ended in 1945 but which was continued in a distorted form up until 1991, and which was fought through silent objection and stoical resistance. Not like the generation of British grandparents for whom V.E. day really did mean Victory, here the veterans are the businessmen working for global banks, or the mothers whose task will be to remind their children that the events existed in a physical reality, not just on the pages of a textbook.

Photograph of a man dressed in brown knocking at a brown door
One of the old guard?
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The memories of Communism are more raw and, because they are alive in the present generation, more on the surface but, because more on the surface, they are also - in the other sense of that word - more superficial. After the "velvet revolution" of 1989, when the Communist body fled, this left behind a vacuum of political power, one which has not yet been successfully and democratically filled, with some of the corruption endemic in the former times still riddling politics; indeed, there is a growing sense that a remarketed 'Communism' might be a valid left-wing option to take the country forward. However, Communism did not drill so deeply into other areas of life. Culturally, nationalistically and socially there were no new waves of change which came sweeping in to fill the void. Rather, insistently and inevitably, feelings of identity which had always been present, which had been scrubbed to a new hardness by centuries of invasions and turbulence, and which had simply lain dormant just beneath the surface, rather than being eradicated by aggressive cultural indoctrination, bubbled back into place to form a solid sense of nationhood, a patriotism which has caused Prague now to promote itself so spectacularly. As Vaclav Havel wrote presciently, in a letter to the president Gustav Husak, for which he was arrested, "A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy crust of inertia, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it." So, the secret streamlet is now a vocal river of international tourists.

Still, though, this return to the past, driven by thinking through the future, is not complete. Walking through the city at night, one notices that, whilst all the shops have bright, glassy fronts at ground level, above them the upper storeys are dark and empty, grey lace curtains pressed against greasy windows. It is as if Prague is rebuilding itself Lazarus-like from the ground up, growing to reclaim its history from the foundations. In ten or twenty years' time, will the regeneration be complete, the upper floors lighted and occupied by trendy businessmen sitting on leather sofas, working families, gymnasiums, hair salons?

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Will, also, the acceleration of time caused by tourism mean that the unique character of this city, which is based on the accumulation of small architectural stories and myths like that on King Charles' Bridge, is drowned out in a chatter of guide groups and the flash of cameras?

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This page was published on September 20, 2005 | Keywords: Prague, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe, travel journal

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