“Franz Kafka” the Brand, Alive and Well in Prague
The Kafkaesque Feeling of Seeing Kafka as a Tourist Attraction
On a crisp, spring afternoon in Prague, I stood in front of the massive, mirrored face of Franz Kafka. Every few seconds, the monument to my favorite author whirred and spun from top to bottom, peeling away strips of his head stacked like a Rubik’s Cube, until the distorted form settled into another coherent profile, its gaze no longer meeting mine. One of the kinetic sculpture’s layers lagged behind, out of sync, and every time Kafka became whole again, his nose was split in three directions, impossibly fractured. This mechanical hiccup felt appropriate for the author whose name is now synonymous with bureaucratic inefficiency and a deep sense of malaise. Something was broken, and no one seemed to care.
The shining monument, created by Czech sculptor David Černý and installed in 2016, was just one attraction on a long checklist that I had assembled for fully immersing myself in Kafka’s Prague. Earlier that day, I had visited the Franz Kafka Museum, snapped a photo of a different Kafka monument in the Old Jewish Quarter, thumbed through German, French, and Italian translations of his work at the Franz Kafka Library—maintained by the Franz Kafka Society—and taken the metro to New Jewish Cemetery, where Kafka is buried. Along the way, I walked past the Hotel Century Old Town, formerly an insurance building where Kafka once worked, the Cafe Louvre, where Kafka once sipped coffee with the Prague intellectual elite, and more than ten apartments where Kafka once resided.
Then there were the things that bore Kafka’s name but not his history. I passed Hostel Franz Kafka, Café Franz Kafka, and the World of Franz Kafka, a surreal art exhibit that, according to multiple reviews on Tripadvisor—“just a waste of money”—has nothing to do with Kafka. Inside every souvenir shop was the same selection of magnets, t-shirts, keychains, and mugs with a modern illustration depicting Kafka in silhouette. There were posters that punned Kafka’s name with clichéd coffee jokes, as in, “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my Kafka.” I purchased a couple coasters with Art Deco-style half-man, half-roach images printed on them, referencing The Metamorphosis; a magnet with a drawing of an uncharacteristically cheerful Kafka; and a map that charted the writer’s former homes, schools, and workplaces in Prague.The majority of Kafka’s writing spread across the world without the writer’s knowledge, spurring a legacy that was never meant to endure.
Though I had long dreamed of making a Kafka pilgrimage, part of me felt guilty for indulging in my literary vacation. Kafka never wanted to be a celebrated figure. While Kafka did voluntarily publish some of his short stories during his lifetime, including The Metamorphosis, all of his renowned novels—The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika—were published posthumously against his wishes. Dying from tuberculosis, Kafka asked his friend, fellow writer Max Brod, to burn all his unfinished manuscripts. Brod could not bear to destroy Kafka’s work. Instead, he published it, along with many of Kafka’s letters. The majority of Kafka’s writing spread across the world without the writer’s knowledge, spurring a legacy that was never meant to endure.
Prague’s warm embrace of Kafka isn’t unusual; many towns bolster their tourism by embracing literary heroes who lived within their limits. Dublin, for example, tops its celebration of James Joyce every June 16th with Bloomsday, a festival in which fans dress up in period costume and retrace paths taken by Ulysses’ protagonist Leopold Bloom. But it’s not often that the literary tourism industry builds up around someone who explicitly rejected fame. Similar to Kafka, Emily Dickinson requested her work to be burned after her death. In contrast to Prague’s sprawling commemorations to Kafka, Amherst, Massachusetts keeps their Dickinson landmarks modest and mostly confined to her former home (The Homestead), and the Evergreens, both of which now make up the Emily Dickinson Museum.
What might be setting Prague apart, though, is a desire to make up for lost time. Shortly after his posthumous publications, Kafka’s sharp, yet bleak, observations on the oppressive nature of bureaucracy were critically admired and resonated with a burgeoning white-collar workforce. But by 1939, the Nazis had seized control of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and banned the German-Jewish author’s work. After World War II, in the era of the Iron Curtain, Kafka’s work was back in circulation, but remained difficult to find in Prague bookstores. John Tagliabue, writing in 1989 for the New York Times, explained that Kafka’s stories made Communist leaders uneasy, “because the paranoia over faceless power and the atmosphere of emotional suffocation that suffused his works appeared to some to mirror conditions under Communism.”
Eventually, his work was blacklisted again because it was celebrated by proponents of the Prague Spring, a series of protests which sought to liberate Czechoslovakia—known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic at the time—from Soviet control. It would be another 20 years before the Berlin Wall came down and Prague could resume publishing its prodigal son.Maybe Kafka sensed that his writing would be spared from flames and he tried to warn us: “Prague doesn’t let go, either of you or me.”
Apart from his tombstone and the old stone buildings, every Kafka attraction I visited was built in the 21st century. Czechoslovakia’s uneasy leaders had tried to scrub Kafka from Prague’s history; now, the city welcomes his lucrative presence every day. It’s an unusual contrast to how Kafka wrote about his city, where the narrow streets and labyrinthian alleyways induce claustrophobia and anxiety. Kafka’s Prague was a place of alienation, where his religion and native language forced him into the margins. Without close reading, contemporary Prague looks like a place that has always celebrated Kafka, when in fact, Czech citizens barely knew of their most famous author’s existence for nearly 50 years.
Tourists like me, who recoil at the thought of Kafka as a brand, still come to Prague and look for ways to connect to the author. His commercialized omnipresence makes it easy to pick up on the threads that most resonate. For me, that meant learning more about Kafka’s conflicted relationship with Judaism, a religion he had no affinity for, but primarily defined and segregated him from the greater Czech community. In my own life, I too struggle with reconciling my Jewish identity with an aversion to spirituality. With the map I purchased, I could weave through the Jewish Quarter and look into the apartments where Kafka struggled with writer’s block, the cafés where Kafka enjoyed Yiddish theater, and the synagogues he rarely attended. I deeply wanted to discover that we were connected beyond our heritage and my appreciation for his writing.
I’m not sure what I had been looking for; something that could prove we were distantly related, that we took the same career paths, or that we suffered equally brutal heartbreaks? But there was nothing that signaled that my bond was more special than that of the average tourist. The next best thing to link myself to Kafka were tchotkes. At the Franz Kafka Museum, the coasters with the drawing of the cockroach, caught in mid-transformation, most spoke to our shared ambivalence towards our Jewish identity. I wanted a small reminder of our connection that could be digested when I didn’t have the time to reread Kafka’s stories.
Tourists’ desire to enforce their connections to Kafka is part of the reason why the Czech Republic’s Kafka cottage industry thrives despite its contradictions to the spirit of Kafka’s writing. And Prague, isolated from the rest of the world for more than half a century, embraces the opportunity to reach across its borders and refuse to be forgotten. Maybe Kafka sensed that his writing would be spared from flames and he tried to warn us: “Prague doesn’t let go, either of you or me. This little mother has claws. There is nothing for it but to give in.”