Ahoj! Here I am back from Prague, where esoteric author Cyril Simsa arranged for me to bring The Gaia Chronicles to the Renaissance bower of the Anglo-American University, and troubadours John McKeown and Lucien Zell invited me to read poetry at Pracovna, an ultra-chic café and ‘co-working space’ built from repurposed factory palettes and hub caps. There’s no pic of me and Cyril sadly (our conversations were far too occult for digital snaps) but I look pretty happy with the poets in Zizkov, and really it’s true, I had a radiant time.
It was my first visit to Prague, but as I wrote before I left, thanks to a childhood friendship my imagination owes a debt to Czech SF and I was keen to research the history of the genre in the city. My first purchase was a slim book of tales of the Golem, that lumbering husk of a man created, as the myth has it, by the 16th century Rabbi Loew to serve his household and, when occasion demanded, protect the often scapegoated Jewish community. Though animated from clay in an occult ceremony, the Golem is a proto-SF figure, an acknowledged influence on the major Czech writer Karel Čapek, whose classic play R.U.R. gave us the word “robot” (suggested by his brother, from the Old Church Slavonic robota, or “forced labour”). Though it’s now accepted that the tale came to Prague in the 18th century, in the U Golema restaurant (how could I not!) I found a laminated article from The Fortean Times arguing that the myth was possibly grafted on to a historical figure, a man with learning disabilities or epilepsy, taken in by the Rabbi, whose violent death was hushed up. Speculative, but interesting to contemplate in relation to the hidden history of disabled people: someone perhaps remembered negatively as frightening and monstrous, yet who was also cared for and later became a symbol of the power and vulnerability of his entire community.
Prague means Kafka of course, and I loved the new multimedia museum exploring the writer’s relationship to the city, a long phantasmagorical attic filled with music, shadows, a mirrored cinema and black shiny filing cabinets. ‘Prague won’t let you go: the little mother has claws,’ Kafka wrote, and after reading his painful Letter to Father (seventy pages of complaint his father never read), I thought perhaps for some writers cities make better parents than people do.
Personally, I fell headlong into Prague’s clutches. Lucien’s poetry revealed that the name means “threshold”, and for me even the tourist trap Old Town seemed a liminal metropolis, a dream city forged by mystics and revolutionaries as much as monarchs, tanks and neoliberal agendas. Sure, hordes of pleasure seekers brandishing selfie sticks can make Gothic towers, ravishing Art Nouveau buildings and Soviet era blocks seem little more than the set of a Eurotrash theme park, but for me the influx of Easyjet setters could not ruin Prague’s essential mystery; if anything they intensified its strong absurdist streak. Anywhere else I would have found helmeted tourists beetling around on Segways vulgar intrusions; in Prague they seemed anarchic harbingers of the future metamorphosis of urban transportation. It must be said though, that the discovery the castle had over the centuries housed fortune tellers including “Madame de Thebes”, had perhaps overly tinted my vision . . .
I began constructing a tower of my own, its foundation being Cross Roads, a collection of Karel Čapek’s metaphysical short fiction from the enterprising Catbird Press, who have made most of the author’s work available in English. Cyril kindly gave me a copy of In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman, the inventive but a little dated SF stories of late Czech psychotherapist Josef Nesvadba, and also some of his own translations of Czech SF and decadent literature – my favourite being an extraordinary story by Jan Weiss, ‘The Apostle’, a haunting cross between Bladerunner and The Gulag Archipelago. I was also grateful to Cyril for an essay on Weiss and a pamphlet of short writings by the feminist critic and former SF author Eva Hauserová, whose thoughts on cultural biodiversity seemed to mesh with her current enthusiasm for permaculture gardening. I also came home with Lucien Zell’s beguiling collection In Body’s Bright Garden, and the refreshingly acerbic A Guided Tour Through The Museum of Communism by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, a series of political fables set in various ex-Soviet bloc countries, all narrated by animals, beginning with a Czech mouse reflecting on the Prague Spring. Perhaps I’d only built the steps to the doorway of Prague literature, but it felt like a start.
The poetry night was memorable for the blend of piano, percussive guitar and four very different voices – taut McKeown, “mythistoric” Zell, meditative Rumbler and footloose Foyle. On the SFF front, the AAU night generated so many questions that I wound up being interviewed for their online journal At the Lennon Wall by the Russian cultural studies major Anastasiya Shishkina. Anastasiya said I was the first female writer she had ever met – which did seem to justify the carbon footprint of my flight! Finally, to top off this spring frenzy, I returned home to the publication of my interview on ‘FEM SF’ in Writers’ Forum – I’ve got PDFs, but as I’d like to end with a few more Prague snaps, I’ll post them next time. In the interview, though, I mention Mary Shelley as the first SF writer, though I now think that proto-SF, including the Golem and the Arabian Nights, deserves special mention. There is no evidence, by the way, that Shelley was influenced by tales of the Prague Golem, but if anyone uncovers any please let me know – Cyril will owe me a drink!
(An version of this post appeared on the JFB blog today too.)
A glorious photograph of you Naomi and a glorious description of a city I’ve never visited. You’ve made me fall in love with Prague, with the people you met and the books you discovered. By the way, I’ve heard of another contender for the title of first science fiction writer – Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle apparently wrote a novel in the 17trh century about a futuristic feminist society. I know no more about her and I forget where I read it.
Wow what a trip! I love Slavenka Drakulic – she is wonderful & hilarious.
Thank you, Bridget, and I hope you make it to Prague yourself one day – though I am warned that in the high summer you will need specialised insurance against Segway accidents 😉 Thanks also for the Margaret Cavendish tip – I wasn’t aware of her, but she turns out to be a phenomenonal figure. Initial enquiries reveal the book is called The Blazing World, and has been referenced by Alan Moore, China Mieville and Siri Hustvedt. I must get hold of it!
Isn’t she! I am going to read all her books now; when I don’t know – but I will!
Thanks for taking me into another world Naomi. Intrigued. Fascinated. As far removed from me as Sci Fi! I’ve found I have a fat book (ie: loads of stories!) on my shelves: Great Works of Jewish Fantasy compiled by Joachim Neugroschel. With forty odd pages on The Golem – I will make my weekend reading . . . if you don’t know it, it’s here for you to dip in next time you visit.
My pleasure, Monica, and marvellous to hear about the Neugroschel anthology – maybe you’ll be blogging on the Golem next . . . One of these fine weeks I will definitely have to leave the laptop behind and come to the cabin for a Reading Retreat!