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Authors: John Banville

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Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City

BOOK: Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City

Prague Pictures


Long Lankin



Doctor Copernicus


The Newton Letter


The Book of Evidence



The Untouchable



Prague Pictures

Portraits of a City

John Banville


Excerpts from
Magic Prague
reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

Quotations from
The Trial
reprinted by permission of Penguin Books. Copyright © Idris Parry, 1994.

Excerpts from
by Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo reprinted by permission of Clarkson Potter
Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.
Copyright ©1986 by Sonja Bullaty.

The extracts from Samuel Beckett's translation of
by Apollinaire on page 34 are reprinted by kind permission of Calder Publications.

The Joseph Brodsky quotation on pages 107-8 is from
Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians
by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
Copyright © 2003 by Tatyana Tolstaya. English translation
copyright © 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998,
2000 by Jamey Gambrell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Miffin Company. All rights reserved.

The lines from 'The Four Quartets' on page 230 are taken from
Collected Poems 1909-1952
by T. S. Eliot. Reproduced by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd and Harcourt Inc.

Copyright © 2003 by John Banville

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Bloomsbury, 175 Fifth Avenue,
New York, NY 10010.

Published by Bloomsbury, New York and London
Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for.

eISBN: 978-1-59691-713-2

First U.S. Edition 2004

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Typeset by Hewer Text Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc


Prague Pictures

Caveat Emptor











To Ola Dunham

So much I loved you, though with words alone, my lovely city, when your cloak was thrown
wide open to reveal your lilac charms;
much more was said by those who carried arms.

To Prague', Jaroslav Seifert,
translated by Ewald Osers

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?

-'Questions of Travel', Elizabeth Bishop

Caveat Emptor

This is not a guidebook, nor was meant to be. As to what it is, that is harder to say. A handful of recollections, variations on a theme. An effort to conjure a place by a mingled effort of memory and imagination. A sad song of love to a beloved that can never reciprocate . . . Cities exert a strong, strange fascination, and none is stranger or stronger than the pull of Prague upon the heart of the homesick traveller - sick that is not for his native place, but for the city on the Vltava that he has left behind. Returning there, he feels he has never been away, and yet feels guilty, too, of forgetfulness, neglect, infidelity. Perhaps that is what this is, then, a peace token, a placatory gift tentatively proffered, or just a faithless lover's letter of apology.


It was winter the first time I saw Prague, the city blanketed with snow and glistening in the sunlight of an unseasonably bright late January. Perhaps it is the snow that intensifies the silence of the city in these, my earliest memories of it. Prague's silence is more a presence than an absence. The sounds of the traffic, the voices in the streets, the tolling of bells and the chiming of innumerable public clocks, all resonate against the background hush as if against a high, clear pane of glass. There is too in my recollections a sense somehow of incipient flight, of everything in that sparkling scene being poised to slip its tethers and rise up into the dome of brilliant blue: poised, but never to break free. At that time, in the early 1980s, the Cold War was going through one of its decidedly warmer phases, although it was, did we but know it, already beginning to end. I had come to Czechoslovakia in the expectation that all my received ideas of what life was like in Eastern Europe would be overturned. I was to be disappointed - most of the cliches about communist rule would prove dispiritingly accurate - but also strangely exhilarated. Elsewhere is always a surprise.

We had agreed to meet up, J. and G. and I, in Trieste, that melancholy, pearl-grey port where the two women were spending a couple of waterlogged days - Prague's snow was Trieste's slush. The women were eager to get away, and we left on the evening of my arrival, taking the Budapest train and changing at midnight in Ljubljana to the sleeper for Prague. That word, 'sleeper', proved to be a misnomer, for in our carriage of couchettes no one slept, except a large fat man in a shiny pinstriped suit, who snored. At every unpronounceable station along the way the train had to stop and catch its breath, standing in the dark and wheezing like a sick horse. Did we pass through Vienna or did I dream it in a doze? At the Czech border two greatcoated guards with automatic rifles got on board and examined our passports with sceptical frowns, thumbing doggedly back and forth through the pages, searching for something they seemed aggrieved not to find. Their guns looked altogether too square and stubby and ill-designed to be effective, and might have been made of cardboard, but still were frightening. The fat man was hard to wake; at last he sat up blearily and began patting his pockets; producing his papers, he muttered something that made the waiting guards glance at each other briefly and laugh. I rubbed a clear patch on the window and looked out on a bleak expanse of no man's land the size of a football pitch, with ghostly patches of glittering ice, and a watchtower on stilts, starkly lit, and lamps glowing in the frozen mist like giant dandelion heads, and dim, bundled figures moving spectrally over the countless criss-crossing lines of dully gleaming rail. As I was turning from the window I noticed that someone had blown his nose on the tied-back oatmeal-coloured curtain beside me. The guard who had been inspecting my passport handed it back and in a guttural accent straight out of an old war movie bade me welcome to Czechoslovakia.

Our hotel, the name of which refuses to be recalled, was a large, gaunt cube of concrete and dusty glass on a nondescript street which in subsequent sojourns in the city I have been consistently unable to re-find. It was somewhere not far from Wenceslas Square. The hotel was one of a not extensive list of such establishments officially approved to accommodate tourists from the West, all of whom, we had been warned, were regarded by the authorities as part-time spies, by illegal money-changers as a costive but surely inexhaustible source of precious dollars, and by the young as spoilt playboys and playgirls who, despite their fabulous and ostentatious wealth, might be persuaded to take their jeans off in the street and sell them for handfuls of next to worthless Czech koruny. And indeed, we had hardly stepped into the hotel lobby when we were approached by a broadly smiling young man, hands jauntily hitched in the high pockets of his tight leather jacket, who in a curious, crooning English offered to convert our money at what he assured us would be 'top-dollar rates, the highest in town'. In demonstration of the weight of this offer he quickly flashed a brick-sized block of koruny - because of that currency's unsayable abbreviation,
we were to give it the nickname
- and as quickly palmed it again into his pocket. He was the first of many of his kind that we were to encounter, not dangerous, not seriously criminal, even, just would-be entrepreneurs, immediately recognisable by that professional smile, meant to display innocence and winning candour, behind which there lurked a beseeching something that the smile itself could not keep from admitting had small hope of being assuaged. And, to his unsurprised regret, we did decline his services, and passed on with vague apology, feeling uneasily that we might have failed to answer the first distress call directed at us by this bludgeoned, impoverished city. In an alcove, sitting over cold coffee cups at a table under a plastic palm, two achingly beautiful girls in poor imitations of last year's Paris or New York fashions, slim-wristed, pale, with bruise-brown shadows under huge eyes, looked me up and down, flaring their nostrils. Another offer, another regretful no.

For me, bad traveller that I am, there is always a moment of mild panic that comes immediately after the hotel porter has set down my bags, accepted his tip and softly exited from what is suddenly, dismayingly,
my room.
This is the enigma of arrival. How resentful of one's presence this unhumanly neat box seems, the bed hermetically sealed under its mighty bedspread, the chair that no one has ever sat in at the writing table where no one has ever written, that room service menu in its plastic-covered folder, slightly and appetite-killingly tacky to the touch. And how shabby one's poor old suitcase looks, how shamefaced, standing there on the no-colour carpet. Light-headed after that sleepless train journey and buzzing still with travel fever I clambered on to the bed and lay with hands folded on my breast, staring up desperately at the dim ceiling with its sprinkler vents and its miniature, fake chandelier. There was what looked like a wad of chewing gum stuck up there, the legacy of what must have been a prodigiously powerful spitter. Now would be a suitable moment to contemplate a brief history of Prague. Instead, I get up and go down the corridor to talk to J. and G.

Because they are two, they have been allotted a bigger room than mine, a room so vast, indeed, that a thin, chill mist seems to hang in the farther reaches of it. Intimidated by the scale and mortuary stillness of the place, they have not yet unpacked, and J. has not even taken off her coat. We speculate on the possibility of breakfast. The women recount with a shudder an experience at an early-morning buffet in the Gellert in Budapest, when they lifted the lid of a nickel receptacle, unencouragingly suggestive of a kidney-dish, and were confronted with a bloated,grey,semicircular sausage floating in an inch of warm, greasy water. We wonder if we might go out and look for a cafe. We are thinking of somewhere small and cosy, as unlike this terrible room as possible, a local place, where locals go,with fogged windows and a copper coffee machine and newspapers on sticks, the kind of place, we know very well, that is never to be found in the vicinity of a hotel such as this one. We have hours to kill before noon, when the Professor is to come and meet us. Despite their hunger pangs the women decide on sleep. I fetch my guidebook and go in search of the river.

I had something more than a visitor's curiosity. ome years previously I had written a novel partly set in Prague at the turn of the seventeenth century. When I was working on the book I did not regard the inventing of a city I had never seen as any more of a challenge than, for example, having to re-create the early 1600s - all fiction is invention, and all novels are historical novels but I was interested to know what level of verisimilitude, or at least of convincingness, I had achieved. Many readers had complimented me on the accuracy with which my book had 'caught the period', to which I was too grateful and too polite to respond by asking how they could possibly know; I understood that what they were praising was the imaginative feat they felt I had performed in persuading them that this was just how it had been then. But fancy does sometimes summon up the concrete, as anyone who has had prophetic dream will know. There have been a number of eerie instances when this or that character or happening that I thought entirely my invention subsequently turned out to be historically real. In another novel, set long ago in what is now Poland, I had fashioned - forged, perhaps, would be the better word - a minor character, a soldier, whose presence the plot had demanded, but whose real existence I learned of when, after the book had been published, I received a biographical sketch of him from a helpful Polish historian. The making of fiction is a funny business.

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