After All: Tower babies, brew kettles and a glass of Semtex

We continue to explore some of the darkly symbolic structures and ‘technologies’ of Prague

Encouraged by the enthusiastic feedback to my previous column, ‘Spooked by the Kafkaesque ‘technologies’ of Prague’, I will carry on exploring the Czech capital’s Kafka-related techno attractions.

The moment I entered my warm and cosy room in the Domus Henrici boutique hotel near Prague Castle, I felt an urge to rub my eyes or to pinch myself, or both: its windows were overlooking ... the Eiffel Tower! Could it be that I boarded the wrong plane at Stansted?

Taking a better look, however, I calmed down: despite a certain similarity of the cross-beams at the foundation, the Prague Tower, unlike its Parisian ‘sister’, had an octagonal, as opposed to a square, cross-section. It also didn’t rest on the four familiar lattice steel columns and looked much smaller than the iconic creation of engineer Gustave Eiffel.   

I soon found out that the 63m-tall Petrin Lookout Tower of Prague behind my window was indeed inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Built in 1891 (two years after the latter), it had a TV broadcasting antenna installed in 1953 and remained the city’s main radio and television tower until the opening of the much taller and much, much uglier Zhizhkov TV Tower at the opposite end of Prague. It is here that the inescapable Franz Kafka associations kick in... 

The Zhizhkov Tower, with its 216m-tall antenna spire, was built between 1985 and 1992 by the structural engineer Jiri Kozak. Nicknamed ‘Jakes Finger’ – after Milos Jakes, the country’s last communist leader – this brilliant example of the megalomaniac communist-style architecture has become known for two main reasons. Firstly, in 2009, an Australian website named it the world’s second ugliest building (they know better Down Under). Secondly, in 2000, David Cerny, a maverick Czech artist, mentioned in my previous column as the creator of the peculiar stainless-steel statue of Kafka, sculpted ten fibreglass babies crawling up and down the tower’s pillars. 

Why babies? In an interview, Cerny explained that an old Jewish cemetery was destroyed during the construction of the Zhizhkov Tower and the exhumed remains (which, some believe, included those of the writer Franz Kafka, also buried there) were relocated to the New Jewish Cemetery on the outskirts of Prague. For the sculptor, the babies symbolised a commemoration of the dead as well as the continuation of life above the ruins. 

To me, they carried another connotation – reminding me of Kafka’s short story ‘Unhappiness’, in which the author is visited during the night by an apparition of a small child. From the subsequent conversation, it transpires that the child had come to represent the writer’s loneliness and alienation not just from the outside world, but also from himself. 

A rather sad story – one of the countless Kafkaesque tales of Prague, where arts and technology often go hand-in-hand with the Kafka-style dark symbolism, which I was able to feel as far back as 20 years ago while researching my book ‘Borders Up!’ there. 

Already a devoted Kafka fan, even then I couldn’t help noticing the city’s never-ending Kafkaesque landmarks such as the memorial plate to student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire and died on 16 January 1969 protesting against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I could not ignore the sad Kafkaesque irony in the fact that ‘palach’ was Czech for ‘flame’.

A living illustration for Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, the chief brewer of the famous Staropramen brewery, which I visited as part of my research, was an exact look-alike of Lenin, complete with the late Soviet dictator’s regulation polka-dot tie and the pseudo-intellectual ‘social-democratic’ goatee, which trembled nervously as he spoke. I half expected the respected engineer to raise his hand and cry out suddenly in a high-pitched voice: “Comgades! The ggeat ghevolution has happened! Hoogay!!” (Lenin could not pronounce ‘r’ and said it as ‘g’).  

Instead, he showed me four “unique and precious” conical copper tanks, the so-called brew kettles, which had to be hidden by being buried (Kafka again!) in the brewery’s courtyard during the Nazi occupation of Prague.  

Yet the truly cathartic experience was spotting a 30m-high statue of the ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson towering above the Vltava River, at the very spot where the giant statue of Stalin used to stand – the same statue whose huge bronze ear, as described in my previous column, is now being used as a swimming pool by a Prague businessman. Initially, I thought that the latter had miraculously reappeared in Prague nearly a decade after the collapse of communism – a thought that gave me the creeps. 

I soon realised that it was not Stalin’s but Michael Jackson’s inflatable statue that he used to carry with him on international tours. 

On the same day I nearly fell victim to Jacko-mania, when one of the singer’s hand-written ‘I-love-you’ notes, thrown down from the balcony of his Inter-Continental hotel, under which I was inadvertently passing, briefly pirouetted in the air and landed on my head. In a split second, a roaring mob of Jackson’s teenage fans dashed at me like the proverbial seventh wave at a flimsy boat, their hands stretching towards my head (or, rather, towards the note). They would have definitely torn me into thousands of tiny Vitalis, had I not taken to my heels and run away for all I was worth, my footsteps echoing in the narrow streets of Kafka’s Old Town.

Sweating and breathing heavily, I came to a stop at a drinks kiosk in Argentinska Street. I was dying of thirst, but the brightly lit sign in the kiosk nearly made me take to my heels again: ‘TIME FOR ENERGY DRINK. SEMTEX FORTE.’ 

Having just visited the Synthesia factory in the nearby Czech city of Pardubice that used to produce the infamous terrorist-friendly explosive Semtex, a piece of which the size of a fist, according to experts, could blow a hole in the side of an aircraft, I was not at all tempted to test its explosive power internally. 

It was, of course, just an ad for the eponymous fizzy drink Semtex, popular in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, as an avid reader of Kafka, I wasn’t taking any chances. Would you?

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