It was thirteen years ago this week that I journeyed for the first time to this magical city, where I pursued a steady diet of Czech vocabulary, long walks and the reading of an inordinate amount of literature. While the language never stuck, and I have gone so far as to claim that it seemed cacophonous, the city and its eternal magnificence have never left my purview. Prague marked the first of my many summers and years traveling on my own, an odd title since my family and I have been excessively nomadic, and it was in many ways the correct beginning. Prague remains a delicate combination of spiraling towers, narrow streets, decadent bridges and squares, and a balance that does not belie its location at the very center of Europe. You may gush in whatever platitudes you choose, but Prague is mysterious enough to attract the writer and the lover and tidy and precise enough for the politician and scientist. And pieces of all these personae are embedded in this book.
The presentation assumes the classic juxtaposition of the writer's present, the writer's past and the city's distant past – with, it should be said, no axis of continuity, a stratagem that turns out to be advantageous. We begin when our author first traveled to Prague, shortly after he had written a novel set in that city about a renowned astronomer, but still frozen in that frozen war that provided ample excuses for cruelty, excess, and tyrannical force. His mission? To contraband to the United States works by a famous Czech photographer. The recipient? The son of a Czech intellectual who is described most sumptuously thus:
He was a tall, spare man with pale, short hair brushed neatly across a narrow forehead, a Nordic type unexpected this far to the south and east. Impossible to tell his age; at first sight he might have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. He was handsome, with that unblemished surface and Scandinavian features, yet curiously self-effacing, somehow. Even as he stood before me I found it hard to get him properly into focus, as if a flaw had suddenly developed in the part of my consciousness that has the task of imprinting images upon the memory. I think it was that he had spent so many years trying not to be noticed – by the authorities, by the police, by spies and informers – that a layer of his surface reality had worn away. He had something of the blurred aspect of an actor who has just scrubbed off his make-up.
We may generalize this poor fellow into the typical Eastern Bloc sufferer, although Banville does indicate that many writers seem only to care in such situations about their counterparts ("Did [anyone] ... ever think to protest the imprisonment of a Russian street sweeper, or charlady, some poor nobody who had not even written a subversive poem but still ended up in prison?"). The Czech Professor mentioned above vanishes into Banville's recollection of some long and thirsty evenings with a few Czech students, and the strange and officious lies spread by young minds of various nationalities as to what precisely was going on in Eastern Europe. There persists a lamentable misunderstanding of politics among artists that is so pervasive that it must be based on an idealized concept of human nature. When Banville reports allegedly novel information an acquaintance has on the infamous Ceauşescu regime, he likens the despot's system to the mafia – which is akin to comparing a dragon to a large, winged fire-breathing reptile. Why do some writers completely misconstrue politics? Perhaps because politics, in its essence, is hideously banal since the only things that matter are power and money. Conscientious politicians try to utilize both assets to achieve peace and prosperity – and I don't think we need to review the anatomy of an unscrupulous politician. In any case, Banville does seem to have once belonged to that caste of writer who believed atrocities were for Hitlers and not for Eastern European rulers or even, for that matter, South East Asian or Central African rulers. What Banville doesn't, or perhaps didn't see at the time is that all evil empires, however miniature, will revolve around this power-and-money footrace, thinking it, for the connected and protected at least, a win-win situation.
Against this rich setting Banville juxtaposes his own, rather clownish attendance at a few literary conferences in the present time but devotes most of the remaining pages to a few luminous characters in Prague's past. While enumerating the regents of the period as required by the unstated laws of historical texts (one hopes that these laws will also become unused), Banville focuses his attention on two learned men, a "Great Dane" and a "little dog." The nicknames are self-inflicted and demonstrate modern thought's preoccupation with the competition of scientific minds as well as the fallacy that the existence of a rival propels the human imagination to greater heights. Brahe, being twenty-five years senior, will naturally be surpassed by his younger colleague, not only because science in its unending brilliance always progresses but also because Brahe is a noble and Kepler a commoner. Their relationship to Prague can be investigated by any mediocre student, and Banville's account is buttressed by a handful of textbooks; why he felt we needed such a recapitulation, however entertainingly told, is not ours to worry. Since I am not a Banville completist, I cannot comment on the overlap of his Kepler novel and the Kepler who aches to employ the highly advanced astronomical instruments Brahe hoards in some suburban estate. I suppose that they are both equally accurate and equally fictionalized – which may remind the careful reader of the city in which all this action takes place.
For all his style, Banville allows himself some regrettable comparisons ("As many have remarked, Catholicism and Communism have much in common"), and there prevails a certain disgust for religious traditions not nearly as evident in his other works. Still, Banville is not blasphemous. As he shapes a city that has endured an egregious amount of worship and suppression of faith, his tone in introducing a young lady or a building suggests a yearning for the years of beauty and enigma that each possesses. He is not a tourist, nor a fool surfing in the gaudiest nightclub or faddish locale, nor an expert on anything in Prague except the sites associated with Kepler – and we may wonder how nugatory such knowledge really is. Considering the distribution of his pages, one finds that Prague's past overshadows the present much like its most famous cathedral, and that the present is allotted so few entries in no small part because what Prague is today cannot be quantified in the riddles of yesteryear. Unless, of course, you truly believe that life will remain undreamed by everyone but you.