After I went to Prague last month, I began writing prose poems like crazy, inspired by some intangible element I encountered there. But I wanted to write a blog post too.
“I want to write a blog post about our trip to Prague,” I said to my friend from the Slovenian Literary Council as we sat in the sun last week by the Ljubljanica River, drinking pivo.
Pivo means beer in both Slovene and Czech and the Slovenian Literary Council and I had one as soon as we crossed the border from Austria into the Czech Republic last month. My fellow travelers did not speak Czech, but were able to work within the two Slavic languages to come to common understandings. I felt lucky to have been scooped up into their little troupe and enjoyed not standing out with my blaring English. We discussed our itinerary together and I began to feel there was something mission-like about our trip, as though we were a team of excavators, tunneling for esoteric and poetic treasures.
“Prague is the most mystical city in Europe,” one of the poets had said. At first I wondered what he meant, but as we ventured out of our dorm rooms and onto the streets of Prague the next morning, I began to have my own feeling for something unseen. It wasn’t something in the cathedrals or the synagogues. It was something that existed down corridors of narrow streets where cobblestones felt more deeply worn than the ones in Ljubljana.
There is a lightness and there is a heaviness–or so the story goes–and since I’d read Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which begins in 1968 Prague, I always wondered whether I, myself, was light or heavy–a case could be made for both. But on the streets of Prague, I had the feeling of being pushed down by the history and pushed down by the restraint of the culture and yet lifted at the same time–like when you jump on a trampoline with someone else and they send you flying.
“I want my blog piece to refer to that esoteric quality of Prague, but all I can come up with are images, not words.”
“Keep writing poems,” my friend from the Literary Council said.
“Okay, but I really want to write a blog post. I want to write about how I’m desperately trying to understand the difference between the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia and here in the former Yugoslavia–how I want to understand something from the inside out and not from just a Western perspective.
And in my blog post I also want to write about how I went to the Czech opera ‘Katja Kabonova’ by Leoš Janáček here in Ljubljana a week after we got back from Prague. At one point in the story, the dominating mother-in-law told her son’s wife that she had not sobbed sufficiently enough when her husband left town for a trip. It reminded me of a line in Philip Roth’s third book, The Prague Orgy, from his trilogy Zuckerman Bound–he talked about characters in plays having to sob enough to ‘please Stalin’–what is all that sobbing as ‘show’ about?”
“Well, Janáček’s operas are full of Czech folk traditions. Sobbing for loss was part of the tradition in rural villages of Central and Eastern Europe. It was called naricamje. Women were often hired to perform sobbing at funerals so that the dead would feel that they were properly mourned. These women were called naricalka, professional sobbers.”
“See. I have to put that in my blog post too.”
My friend and I ordered another pivo as we sat in the noon-day sun of Ljubljana. Drinking beer in Ljubljana feels like a choice you have (a good one, Slovenia!) when you sit in cafés and discuss poems and blog posts, but in Prague, drinking beer felt like a necessity. The Czech Republic has been deemed the number one beer-drinking nation in the world. And I understand why. Pilsner, Prazdroj, Krušovice, Kozel…..different kinds of nectar you can have at any time of day. But the best by far was the pivo from the Strahov Monastic Brewery–dark and homemade.
“Your blog post seems to want to incorporate a lot into it.”
“Yes, and I mean, I also have to talk about descending into the deepest subways I’d ever encountered and the romantic tram rides through the city and how smoking is allowed in restaurants and, it seemed, in all public places. Oh, and I have to write about how I read half of Kafka’s The Trial and half of The Castle pre-departure, based on the Literary Council’s recommendation, and my reaction to the themes of the stories in relationship to actually being in the city. And the amazing literary events you all included me in…..”
“And don’t forget how you have been obsessively watching documentaries about Prague Spring and asked me to please show you the main square where the Russian tanks first entered the city in 1968.”
I took a sip of my beer.
“I don’t think I can write a blog post about Prague. There’s too much.”
“It’s a book you have to write, not a blog post,” my Slovenian friend from the Literary Council said with a smile.
“I think you’re right.”
here’s where I bought the Philip Roth book, as well as another Kundera, Slowness
what I imagine 1968 looked like
Depiction of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, the most translated Czech novel
I do not have the artist’s name for this, I’m sorry, but installation outside Museum of Modern Art: http://www.museumkampa.cz/
painting by Czech artist, František Kupka
At the Slovenian Embassy with Ambassador, Marc Leon, and two members of the Slovenian Literary Council
Strahov Monastic Brewery, homemade pivo