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Literary itinerary among the thousand souls of a city told by great writers, but with a charm that remains, however, unspeakable

What is a city? It certainly is not merely a large inhabited centre made of buildings, streets, squares and public services necessary for the social life of its inhabitants. It is a real “living” organism, an element that is a coherent unitary whole, and in continuous transformation. Each has its own history, and past and therefore, a memory that necessarily distinguishes it and defines its character in a certain sense. There is also however, another specific aspect of cities, and of some in particular more than others, which is their imaginary aspect, the ideal dimension made up of legends, myths and tales, patrimony of that area suspended between the ideal and the real which is the purely literary dimension. And it is precisely towards literature that we must look, therefore, if we want to get to grasp the elusive essence of a city, its most intimate individuality, its soul suspended between reality and imagination.

In this sense we ask what is the soul of Prague? To find out it is necessary to look not only at its narrow streets and evocative alleyways, which, among other things, made today difficult by the swarms of distracted tourists who travel along them, in hidden and rarely-frequented corners, in historic breweries or in the elegant and extraordinary architecture of Czech capital. Above all, it is necessary to research in the libraries, in the books on the shelves of antique dealers, in the pages of fragrant paper that testify to the immense charm that this city has exercised for millennia on writers, artists and all those who contemplate it. It is there that we must look to try to understand its soul.

And it is a complex soul, elusive, ambiguous, it is a soul, we could describe as “golden and black”, to use the words of Peter Demetz.
A lot has been written and continues to be written about the black soul of Prague, perhaps too much. From the alchemists of the Emperor Rudolf II and the Golem, to the ghosts, Faust, up to Meyrink and the occultists of the early twentieth century, the city is a melting pot of esotericisms and magic synthesized in the famous rumours of the magic triangle of which the Czech capital supposedly occupies one of the vertices. Many writers have suffered this spell of the arcane. Great contemporary writers have surrendered to its black charm, such as Jorge Luis Borges who sees the city “full of dreams lost in other dreams” and believes that in it “everything is very special, or, if you want, nothing is particular. Anything can happen”. Or the poet Nazim Hikmet who perceives the statues of the Charles Bridge as “birds coming from a dead planet” and the snow that falls on the city as “liquid and leaden” while “whitening the dawn”. These dark shades of the City of a hundred towers can be read in countless writings. “Whoever once looked at Prague in the deep, anxious and mysterious eyes, remains the submissive whole life of the enchantress”, Oskar Wiener wrote, and Claudio Magris adds that Prague is “the city par excellence of disorientation, uprooting, loss”. Ripellino tried to convey this dark side of the Prague soul, saturated with suggestion, so as not to allow those who relate to it to metabolize them completely. And his famous essay “Praga Magica” represents this attempt to understand and communicate this perfect storm of emotions. “If I look for another word to say arcane, I only find the word Prague”, writes the Slavist and Italian poet, according to whom this city “creeps slyly in the soul with witches and enigmas, of which only it has the key. Prague does not abandon any of those it has captured”. A concept that takes up the most famous one expressed many years before by Kafka, when in a 1902 letter to his friend and art historian Oskar Pollak he says, referring to his city that does not leave him free: “this stepmother has claws”. Furthermore, Kafka’s relationship with Prague is much more complex than it appears to be. The city that serves as the background to the “Trial” – and to the life of the Jewish Prague novelist – is never mentioned in the writer’s masterpiece.

Then there are those who have captured other aspects of the soul of Prague, such as Jan Neruda, one of the creators of the poetic image of the city. In “Tales of Malá Strana”, the narrator’s masterpiece, Neruda describes the bourgeois reality of a neighborhood that has always represented the heart of Prague, highlighting, through its inhabitants, the feelings of joy and sadness, melancholy and irony. And irony is one of the main characteristics of the Prague spirit, omnipresent in Czech literary culture. That irony and black mood with which Jiří Weil depicts the Prague of the Nazi occupation, when an SS officer is asked to get on the roof of the Music Academy to remove the statue of Mendelssohn, but he can’t recognize it among the many present. And then there is Bohumil Hrabal and his Prague with a grotesque and sometimes surreal flavor. In the pages of Hrabal, the sense of Czech and Prague humour in particular, a humour also belonging to Jaroslav Hašek, is completely evident. Hrabal loves his city, the “U zlatého tygra” (At the Golden tiger) brewery where he met friends and intellectuals, but in particular he loves his suburb that instilled a sense of marvel within him: “I was walking at night and I could not absorb enough of the poetry of that area where the sphere-shaped gasometer stood in Palmovka”. An approach to the city certainly different from, for example, that of František Langer who saw Vodník everywhere, or of Leo Perutz, who was also fascinated by the Rudolfine Prague who fed on alchemists and philosopher stones… But at the same time, and in his way, Hrabal’s approach was always magical. And then there is the Prague of Kundera, the Prague seen through the eyes of intellectuals, resting on the city immersed in the light of Spring and the shadow of the Soviet invasion; a city that offers an appearance consisting of lightness and tragedy.

In this absolutely arbitrary and random choice of voices, testimonies on the manifested and hidden aspects of Prague, we would like to add another one, that of Vittorio Sermonti, also bewitched by this city, and perhaps among the foreign authors who have got closest to the style of the Czechs when trying talk about their city. In “The Time between dog and wolf”, Sermonti also tells us about a Prague suspended between what it was, what it is and what it may be. A Prague made up of single existences and, at the same time, all the unique expression of its unconscious and collective conscious.

But after all, the soul of this city, if you look closely, is not just gold or black, and like all things, perhaps it doesn’t even have a well-defined essence. That is probably why each writer saw and sees inside what he is capable of seeing, what he brings inside himself. In the end, therefore, Prague is perhaps only a metaphor, a mirror of what we are, a Rorschach test table, without a precise universally valid content and therefore, suspended forever between the ideal and the real.

by Mauro Ruggiero