Franz Kafka sculpture by David Cerny

After All: Spooked by the Kafkaesque ‘technologies’ of Prague

Image credit: Alamy

We explore some lesser-known techno attractions of the Czech capital.

There’s something distinctly Kafkaesque about Prague – a fact I was able to reconfirm during my umpteenth brief visit to the Czech capital in March.

But what exactly is ‘Kafkaesque’? The dictionary defines this adjective as “...of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.”

In one respect Prague is indisputably Kafkaesque, for Kafka himself was born there in 1883. It was in Prague that he worked as an insurance clerk and wrote most of his stories, including the famous ‘Metamorphosis’, in which a man called Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a giant repulsive insect.

The memories of Kafka, who was snubbed as a writer during his lifetime and whose works were banned by the communist rulers in both Czechoslovakia and the USSR, are being carefully preserved in Prague. A visitor can go on a ‘Kafka’s Prague’ tour, the highlight of which is the Franz Kafka Museum, with a model of the horrific torture machine from his story ‘The Penal Colony’ among the exhibits. The museum’s courtyard contains David Cerny’s animatronic sculpture featuring two men (who, as some believe, represent Stalin and Hitler) urinating into a small pool in the shape of the Czech Republic.

More recently, Cerny created a kinetic statue of Kafka made of 42 chrome-plated layers of reflective stainless steel, 38 of which keep rotating constantly – both synchronically and in opposing directions, resulting in wild grimaces and sinister rictus-like grins on the writer’s uncomplaining face. Ironically, the sculpture is facing a city government building, as if making faces at the whole of global bureaucracy.

Cerny’s initial idea for a sculpture in that very spot was of a robot to commemorate the Czech writer Karel Capek, who coined the word in 1920 (‘robot’ means ‘worker’ in Czech), next to a golem – a much more ancient mythical ‘robot’, created, as the legend goes, by Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the 16th-century rabbi of Prague. He, allegedly, built the golem, an animated anthropomorphic being, out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life by inserting a ‘shtem’ – a capsule with a magic formula – into its mouth (an equivalent of a modern-day electronic card-key to your hotel room?). The golem had of course to be deactivated on Friday evenings by having the shtem removed, for no one was supposed to work or to function on the Sabbath. Once the rabbi forgot to remove the shtem – and disaster struck: the humanoid turned against its own creators.

Sipping an espresso in an al fresco cafe overlooking the Kafka sculpture, I was recalling my own encounters with Prague’s multiple ‘golems’ – the inescapable Kafkaesque manifestations, so ‘specialised’ and peculiar that I was tempted to refer to them as ‘technologies’.

A stone’s throw from the Kafka statue was another unusual – and rather Kafkaesque – techno attraction: the Film Special Effects Museum featuring the works of world-famous Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, noted for mixing live action and animation in titles such as ‘The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor’ and ‘Journey to the Beginning of Time’. The museum was hugely interactive: visitors were encouraged to experience Zeman’s at times spooky special-effects technologies using their own photo and video cameras. The museum’s Kafkaesque side could be summed up in Zeman’s own words: “Man has created a grandiose world of technology, of which dread and fear are often the result.”

Sad, but true. And the proof was not far away. In a nearby Russian bookshop I picked up the Czech edition of the Moscow tabloid Komsomol’skaya Pravda, the first page of which was dominated by the photos of the ‘Sarmat’ and ‘Kinzhal’ (Dagger) intercontinental ballistic and hypersonic missiles freshly unveiled by Putin. “Our ‘Dagger’ has been sharpened and made ready for battle. May our enemies all over the globe tremble!” screamed the headlines. In the small country only 50 years ago trampled by Soviet tanks, they did sound both “nightmarish” and “bizarre”.

Prague can safely claim another highly Kafkaesque ‘invention’ – defenestration, or throwing your opponents out of windows (from the Latin word for window,  fenestra).

My latest visit coincided with the 70th anniversary of the tragic death of Jan Masaryk, the former Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia and son of the country’s first democratically elected President Tomas Masaryk (1850-1937). I walked past the freshly and lavishly decorated monument to Jan Masaryk near the former Foreign Ministry building in the Castle area. His body was found in the Ministry’s courtyard, beneath an open window, on 10 March 1948. It was officially announced that he had killed himself by jumping to his death. Interestingly, the first doctor to arrive at the scene also committed suicide a fortnight later.

The death of Masaryk was the final episode in the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. Rather than a suicide, it was almost certainly the case of the centuries-old Czech political ‘technology’ of defenestration. The first – a collective one – happened in 1419 when several over-zealous Prague town councillors were hurled out of their office windows by a group of bullish religious reformers. Since then, there have been several more, the most famous of which, in 1618, helped trigger the Thirty Years War.

Who is going to be the victim of the next great defenestration of Prague? Only God and probably Kafka know. Yet one thing is certain: the Kafkaesque spirit is very much alive. And here’s another fresh proof: an entrepreneurial Prague businessman likes to invite the guests of his suburban villa to take a dip into a small private swimming pool, converted from one of the giant bronze ears of the dismantled statue of Stalin – the world’s highest statue of the dictator – that used to dominate Prague’s cityscape in the 1950s.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely wouldn’t venture to swim in Stalin’s ear, even if made of bronze, lest I should be mysteriously sucked into some dark inner depths of the dictator’s body. Kafka would have loved this, I am sure.

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