Franz Kafka

The life of the writer

Once upon a time there was a Czech known as Franz Kafka. Born in Prague on 3 July 1883, during an era when the Czech Republic was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs.

Kafka was the eldest of six children, offspring of a middle-class Jewish couple (of German ascendancy). His parents were Hermann Kafka and Julie Löwy and a great part of their daily lives was spent away from home and their children, due to a family business. This separation, alongside some sort of authoritarianism, would eventually be decisive in Kafka’s life (and work).

His academic career did not have any hassles. He attended high school in what is now the Kinský Palace and, later, Law School. After finishing his degree, he had a few jobs to survive, but his unhappiness was too much to bear. Literature was his true passion.

In 1917 he contracted tuberculosis and had to stop working, forcing him to spend the rest of his life in sanatoriums and bathhouses. Kafka asked to have all of his writings burned to ashes, but his best friend published his work, after his death. And fortunately so… Otherwise we would never have the chance to read magnum opus like The Process.

Work

The writer did not have any acknowledgement during his life, having only published seven small books. Now is regarded as one of the most influent writers of the 20th century.

Kafka (and his work) is deeply associated with Prague. In addition to having been born there, spending most of his 41 years in the city, he loved it. He once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Prague doesn’t let go. Of either of us. This old crone has claws. One has to yield, or else. We would have to set fire to it on two sides, at the Vyšehrad and at the Hradčany; then it would be possible for us to get away.”

Everything he wrote is engulfed in Prague’s gothic, sombre and mysterious environment, having as well all the marks of his Slavic and German past. Thus, visiting the Czech capital is, somehow, to visit Kafka and feel the environment that surrounded him for many years, even though Prague has changed a bit and so did its ambience.

I only had the chance to read some of the numerous works by Kafka, and I deeply enjoy his unique and chaotic style. I must confess that my desire to visit Prague was also related to this writer. So while I was there I wanted to see a bit of the city where he lived in. It’s not hard to find Kafka in Prague, one just needs to know where to look at. But it should be emphasized that Kafka does not explicitly name the places of Prague, he rather mentions them through his own interpretation, his unique way. It’s the city’s metamorphosis…

Of all the places that I visited I have to make reference to three that were part of the author’s life and where interesting works were edified to honor him.

Three places to see Kafka in Prague

Statue of Kafka

The writer worked in several locations in Prague, one of them an insurance company in the New Town, where today is the Quadrio Shopping Center.

As a tribute to Kafka, in 2014, a giant sculpture named “K on Sun” was built right next to the shopping entrance. Seeing this rather original sculpture was something that I enjoyed immensely.

Finding it is not easy, I actually had to ask some people on the street and at the tourist office. I was left with the impression that not even the locals know about it… Kafka’s works were banned for many years in the country, and perhaps that may serve as a justification as to why the people of Prague are not that acquainted with him. The Metamorphosis, one of his most important works, was translated into Czech in the recent year of 1929.

The statue is an enormous bust (with 11 meters), mirrored with 42 independent layers in stainless steel (which rotate in any direction), weighing 45 tons and is always moving. The layers can rotate in any direction, therefore the bust can assume different shapes. Only for brief moments we can see the 42 layers fully aligned. And then we see the face of Kafka.

As I watched this piece moving for a while, I recalled the works I’ve read and the complex and chaotic personality that I imagine Kafka had, and the things that tormented him.

Statue of Kafka
Statue of Kafka

 Franz Kafka Museum

Kafka lived in several different houses, on both banks of the Vltava, the river that crosses through Prague. One of the locations where we lived was an apartment in Mala Strana, a building which is now occupied by the American Embassy.

About 700 meters from this apartment one can find the Franz Kafka Museum, located in an old brick factory, right next to the river. In my opinion this is a mandatory point of passage for those who want to have a better idea of the life and work of this famous writer. For me, it was particularly interesting having the chance to see Kafka’s handwriting and imagining him writing all those letters to friends and lovers, as well as those works I’ve read and enjoyed so much.

The exhibition that constitutes the museum was first located in Barcelona, then it was moved to New York and its arrival in Prague would only take place in 2005. It’s possible to divide it into two sections, the existential space and the imaginary topography. The 1st part explains how Prague influenced the life of the writer and the 2nd approaches the way he saw Prague and transformed it in his imagination.

A piece lies in the access to the museum, one that slightly resembles the head of Kafka, given that they both were outlined by the same artist. Both sculptures are formed by layers that move independently. The one found in the access to the museum is constituted by two men (2.10 meters tall each), facing each other, urinating on a part of the floor that has the shape of Czech Republic.

Both men move as they urinate, making the scene astonishingly real. At the time I wasn’t aware, but already after leaving Prague I found that is possible to send a message to the number displayed right beside the sculpture and then wait for the men to “write” in urine the message we have sent!

Statue next to the Franz Kafka Museum
Statue next to the Franz Kafka Museum

Statue of Franz Kafka

 Close to the area where Kafka’s father had his business one can find, since 2003, a bronze statue of a man riding on the back of an empty suit (without anyone to dress him). It has 3.75 meters and weighs 800 kg.

It is one of those things that probably no one will actually grasp what it really means, in the first glance at it. Only those who have read Description of a Struggle will understand what served as an inspiration for the statue, in what was one of the first stories of the writer.

As I walked through Prague I felt that Kafka and the city are closely related, meeting my expectations. Everything that the writer was and everything that he wrote is impregnated with all the mystery and mysticism which one can imagine that Prague had several years ago.

Statue of Franz Kafka
Statue of Franz Kafka

 

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