Photo by Matthew Chabin
The Giant Rolling Head of Joseph Stalin
It may be cliché, but it is impossible for a writer to go to Prague and not write about Franz Kafka. Christopher Hitchens tried it once, and he was arrested at the airport on unspecified charges. True story!
For Americans, especially, Kafka has supplied the official literature of Absurdistan, of the soul-killing, self-cannibalizing bureaucracy embodied so savagely by the Nazis and raised to high art by the Bolsheviks, of that long, dark night of the European soul that we flatter ourselves not to understand. And Prague, with its imposing grandeur, its clocks and cobblestones, blind alleys and bizarre public works, lives in our minds as the symbolic capital of that fallen Europe, the epicenter of history’s implosion and revenge on those who tried to escape it. What can one say of a place where the President lives in a medieval fortress?
Anyway, to one who reckons thus, it comes as something of a shock to learn that few Czechs have actually read their most outstanding author, or care that anyone else has. He may have been born in Prague, lived and died there, and consecrated his work to its living zeitgeist, but history, language and politics are a three-headed kurva, and the fact remains that the poor man wrote in German. So while they freely exploit him as a tourist attraction, a way of selling T-shirts to dizzy Americans (who as a rule haven’t read him either), he remains a foreigner to them, writing in a foreign language for the entertainment of foreigners. One word of token recognition has found its way into the Czech vernacular--kafkarna—something Kafkaesque.
When I first got to Prague, middle of September, I bought a volume containing his three unfinished novels and dug in. I felt pretty cool—reading about the alienating adventures of Herr K., Assessor, at the airport, in the subway tunnels, in the cafes, on a park bench near a Marion column from the plague years. I chattered glibly about it on Facebook. After reading in my ‘Guide to the Czechs’ that the locals weren’t that into Kafka, I started feeling self-consciously stupid, toting that book around with the big, blotted ‘K’ on the cover, like the kind of asshole goes around reading Kafka in Prague. Finally I just lost all shame, as I was already into the book.
One day my peripatetic reading took me to Old Town Square. It was around noon, a warm September day, and I was tired from walking, hungry and thirsty as well. I followed the smell of cooking meat, and ended up with a length of smoking, bloody sausage, a slice of bread, and a tall glass of beer. I stood at a high wooden table and pried the book open with my left hand and pinned it with my forearm. I carelessly squirted ketchup all over the sausage, like opening an artery, then wrapped it in the bread and went at it with a plastic fork and knife. A middle-aged German couple stood across from me with their own plates, placidly sawing at their food.
The Czech animosity for their German/Austrian neighbors goes back at least as far as the Hapsburgs, those imperial masters to whom the city owes so much of its skyline and general mystique. It was Emperor Rudolph II who made Prague Castel a temple to alchemy and science, and the reformers of the Catholic League who filled the city with its grand old churches, now largely shunned by the atheistic populace. In 1621 they executed 27 Protestant leaders right here in this square where I was eating. An illustration (perhaps apocryphal), shows a raised platform in the square, surrounded by soldiers and onlookers. A blindfolded man is on his knees before a crucifix, and the executioner is in the act of swinging an enormous sword.
This display of brutality, following as it did the disastrous battle at White Mountain, pierced something vital in the psyche and soul of the Czechs. It seems the Emperor had killed all the right people. The ones who survived where the ones who could adapt, collaborate, show up to the right church on Sunday, and keep an eye on their neighbors. And this stigma would echo down the generations. Their famous cleverness and knack for survival, their skepticism, their ambiguous relationship to courage and the sacred, all owe something to the memory of that adolescent, Freudian nightmare. And like the worst nightmares, it keeps recurring.
At some point I became aware of another man standing at the table, but I was reading about K.’s problems with Fraulien Burstner, and I paid him no mind. Then it seemed that the Germans were shooing him. He stepped over to me and I looked up. He stood there, his aged face crusted with grime and maybe blood as well. In fact he looked disturbingly like the sausage lunch that was going down under my knife. He made no sound, just looked at the food. I felt a surge of irritation; I was too tired and hungry for this shit. “Go on,” I said. “Get outta here.” He cast another look at the food and shuffled off. What did he want—to eat off my plate? Unbelievable.
I downed my beer (In a European welfare state no less!) and started walking, thinking I might run into some people at The Globe or one of the other expat hangouts. As I walked I noticed more beggars, these ones on their knees with their faces lowered all the way to the cobblestones, holding their hats out for coins. In an effort to feel less shitty I dug in my pockets and watered them with Korunas, maybe a hundred in all. I thought their attitude lent them dignity, like mendicant friars, or obliging dissidents offering their heads.
Naturally, the problem of Kafka’s German heritage crosses that of his Jewishness.
For hundreds of years the Jews of Prague lived between periods of persecution and strained tolerance, but they enjoyed a rare period of flourishing under the capacious, mystical indifference of Rudolph II. In the centuries to follow they would continue to gravitate into the German/Austrian culture zone (which is how Kafka came to speak German). Unfortunately the “Sudetenland Germans” to whom they’d become acculturated were among the many good volksdeutschen that the Third Reich sought to repatriate, along with their lands—Hitler’s first real bite out of greater Europe.
The Czechoslovakians, incidentally, were ready to put up a fight. Their border was well fortified and the Soviets had signaled their support, but an attempt to hold the German war machine would require the backing of France and England. France and England had other ideas. They caved to Hitler at Munich, ransoming their own illusory peace with other peoples’ land. Once the Nazis were over the border there was no stopping them from taking the rest of the country.
And so there began another long season of surreal horror: Reinhardt Heydrich living in Prague Castle like some kind of storybook monster, people disappearing into night and fog (Nazi code for abductions) or else congenially taken into protective custody in front of their coworkers only to be executed on their knees a few hours later. Heydrich was adept at playing on the Czech culture-complex, cultivating some, bullying the rest, making them drink to their own defeat. Privately he boasted that he would “Germanize the Czech vermin,” a garbled prophecy of the day when the Czechs would verminize the Czech Germans.
But the real reason Heydrich had been sent to Prague was to go hard on the Jews, and to this end he was also terribly effective. Only about a third of the 92,000 living in the city would ultimately survive the war years. The neighborhood of Josefov, with its historic cemetery and synagogue, was spared destruction, for the reason that Hitler wanted to leave a monument to the race he was planning to eradicate. In Poland, by contrast, the gravestones were ripped up for construction material, and in Ostrava they were thrown into a ditch and covered over like so many more bodies.
I’d started out (I thought) following the same road I’d taken from Wenceslas Square but somehow I’d gone astray, and now I was lost. I tried to navigate by the skyline, but the ornate rooftops and spires were too numerous to be of much help. Down a broad thoroughfare I could see a high hill, maybe half a mile distant, with a giant, red antenna wagging in the bright blue air. That was the Prague Metronome. I decided to head for it, as I didn’t have anywhere else to be, and from there I could figure out this crazy city and find my way home.
The Metronome is a fairly recent addition, built in 1991 for a national fair. Its wonky, clockwork aesthetic would seem a natural fit for Prague. In Europe, though, there’s always a zero floor, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes, an unremarked “‘ground’ of tradition.” Everything is built on the ruins of something older, and so it is with the metronome. The enormous concrete plinth that supports this marvel of superfluity belongs to another era, and was built to support an altogether different monster: a colossal, 50 ft. statue of Joseph Stalin. Giant Joe went up in 1955. The sculptor, a Czech whose previous works had been destroyed by the Nazis and then by the Bolsheviks, committed suicide before the unveiling, a man utterly chewed up by power.
Less than eight years later, with the real Stalin dead of an apparent stroke (possibly poisoned), and Khrushchev eager to get out from under his personality cult, the order was given to demolish the statue. When the engineers blew it up, the massive, stone head got away from them and rolled down the hillside, crashing through the trees to land--sploosh!—in the Vltava. They fished it out with a giant crane, trucked it away, and buried it in a deep, undisclosed hole somewhere. So, sic semper tyrannus: Stalin got the pubic execution in effigy that he’d managed to forestall in the flesh.
You see what I mean about the Bolsheviks? Comedy is a higher art than tragedy, and despite being superior thugs, and despite the occasional ironic jab (Arbeit macht frei), the Nazis were amateurs by comparison. Any goose-stepping geek in boots can burn a book because it was written by a Jew; it takes a master clown in a monkey suit to ban a writer like Kafka on the grounds that he was a decadent. Take it from me, an actual decadent, okay, Kafka was nothing of the sort. He was, by all accounts, a thin, self-chastising, politically nervous socialist who lived a short life, suffered much in his mind, and succumbed to a combination of tuberculosis and associated starvation. Hunger, shame, and alienation were his ruling planets. His work could be surprisingly lively, but it seemed to drink its life directly from his veins.
I’ll give you an example of one of the more entertaining scenes.
I had passed over the river, climbed a winding, stepped path and arrived in a light sweat below the metronome. The long red needle looked a lot bigger up close, its full 23 meters, and it made a weary, mechanical groan as it tilted one way and then the other. It seemed like an excellent way to kill some tourists, but people were sprawled about on the old Stalin block, heedless of the pendulum shadow. I climbed up, found a spot on the rightward wing with a view of the city, took out my book.
This reading began a chapter called The Whipper. The scene unfolds when K., alerted by strange sounds coming from a store room, walks in on a full-on, BDSM-style flogging of two corrupt warders (whom K. had reported for stealing his laundry) by an officially appointed “whipper.” The warders protest to K.: until this point their careers had been advancing without a hitch; they are crestfallen at this blot on their records, to say nothing of the pain and humiliation; had K. not complained about them to the court, they insist, they undoubtedly would have gone on to become whippers themselves!
As I read this beneath the tipping tower of the metronome, the scene grew on me until I was laughing and had to close the book. It was like a myth. I felt that Kafka wasn’t writing as a Jew, or a Sudeten German, or a tortured man wrestling with his ambiguous libido, or rather you could say that he was writing as all of these things and more, for he clearly had many dimensions. But the mythic dimension of his writing explodes all of these in telling the essential tale of modernity, of the sordid, compromising discipline of the soul we all endure under the weight of law, and history, and conscience. This, while at the very same time giving the lie to the inflated pseudo-myths of Bolshevism and National Socialism. That’s rather impressive.
And that’s why neither one of those opposing machines could tolerate or co-opt him—if they ever cared to think it through, which of course they did not—because in a none-too-private back room of the imagination, this sly little Jew from Prague, from beyond the grave, was whipping Stalin and Hitler over a barrel like the corrupt, craven warders they were. This is the gift of shame at work in the world, and a powerful thing. Such power sent that giant head rolling down the mountain.
I looked around. Local teenagers were lazily sucking face, riding skateboards, smoking pot. Two American girls—California types—were comparing their love-lives in great detail, point for point, and I had a premonition of them ending up in bed together, which pulled me back into the world. Far below the Vltava shone black and gold, and a round little hot-air balloon floated dreamily over Charles Bridge, like some fairytale wizard’s conveyance. There’d been stories lately of riots in some of the poorer, northern towns—gangs of nationalist thugs going after the Gypsies, shouting “back to the gas-chambers.” But here in the capital all was splendid and serene.
I stowed my book away and hopped down from the platform, got a good bead on Charles Bridge and set off to find my way back. I cast a final look back at the metronome, thinking I should write something about all this before I forgot. The past is constantly slipping away from us with all its richness and all its horror. There’s letting go, remembering, and forgetting.
These days there’s talk of replacing the metronome with a shark tank.
About the author:
Matthew Chabin is an emerging writer from Portland, Oregon. He served in the U.S. Navy from 2001 to 2005, working as a journalist for the Northwest Navigator, among other jobs. He studied literature and philosophy at Southern Oregon University, graduating in 2010. Since then he has worked as an English teacher in The Czech Republic, India, and now Japan, where he lives and will be married this December. 'The Giant Rolling Head of Joseph Stalin' is excerpted from his memoir, Equaling Heaven, which he hopes to see published in the coming years.