Literary Adventures in Prague

Literary Tourist in Prague

We experimented with Airbnb in Prague, for the first time. It was an unmitigated success. A beautiful apartment, high ceilinged, modern fixtures, clean, close to two bookstores, across the road from a crazy restaurant/hotel,

around the corner from this wonderfully warped whatever

And here I thought Austin was weird.

One of the shops, The Globe Bookshop and Cafe, sells English books. In fact it’s the largest of its kind in town.

It was here that I first met Stephan Delbos, an American poet who teaches at Charles University, is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology, and founding editor of the online international literary journal B O D Y. I later joined him at his apartment to interview him for my podcast on books, passing this incomprehensible sign along the way,

and this monster church

Here’s our Biblio File podcast conversation.

Among other things we talked about the great poets in From a Terrace in Prague and it functioning as a literary guide to the city; prolific surrealist poet Czech Vítězslav Nezval; the importance of reading and translation to the Czechs and Europeans, and famed Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. After the interview we made for Stephan’s local, and a couple of quick cold Pilsner Urquells, passing this statue of Czech poet Svatopluk Čech in the dark along the way.

Not surprisingly, Prague is shrouded in the Kafkaesque, filled with fascinating,

mysterious,

disturbing statues.

There’s the Kafka Museum situated upstairs, dark and mysterious, under a stooped roof, with its piss artists

complete with people picking coins out of its waters,

another English language bookstore close by, Shakespeare & Co. – not to be confused with its more illustrious Parisian namesake; the Mucha Museum, with the famed Czech Art Noveau artist’s Sarah Bernhardt theatre posters (yes, he also illustrated books) and, although I missed it, the not to be missed

Library at Strahov Monastery.

My other big Prague adventure involved tracking down a legend. A last minute decision to email his agent put me in touch with Ivan Klima’s son Michel who set up the meeting. Now, all I had to do was to get a hold of his memoir, My Crazy Century. Since it was too late to get anything from the publishers, and not stocked by any independent bookshops I’d visited, my last shot was to scour some second hand shops in Oxford, where we’d stopped prior to travelling to the Czech Republic. At the very ‘Last Bookshop’

I chanced upon it, yes: another biblio-coincidence. Downstairs in the biography section it was. Every book in this extraordinary shop was priced at three pounds. My lucky day.

Klima’s house is located on the outskirts of Prague, right across from a little forest, copse really. After getting off the tram, hiking up a winding road for about 10 minutes and asking several people for directions, I finally found the house. It had these plaques on it

Ivan’s wife greeted me at the door and led me upstairs to where I found Michel and his wife, and Ivan himself. The three of us then started to talk. Here’s the conversation:

Love and Garbage is Klima’s ‘best,’ and most popular novel. It probes the waste, dishonesty and hypocrisy found in authoritarian regimes, and examines the challenges that those inside experience trying to ‘live in truth’ and freedom. Other important authors connected with Prague include, Kafka, of course, who imposed his dark, tortured world-view on the city with depictions of helplessness in the face of aggressive, incomprehensible bureaucracy; Jan Neruda, whose Prague Tales (1877) about the tumultuous, loving lives of ordinary citizens, was very influential (he’s been called the Charles Dickens of Prague; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda adopted his name); Jaroslav Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk (1923), a satire flagging the futility of war and stupidity of military authority; Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.

For more visitor information on Prague, click here.

Photo of David Cerny’s Mimina Babies by Caroline Liguori Beale.

The next time you happen to be in Asia…

The next time you happen to be in Asia you won’t want to miss the Zhongshuge Bookstores in China. Some have called them the most beautiful in the world.

Owner/publisher Jin Hao quit his teaching job more than 20 years ago to open his first bricks-and-mortar bookshop. Today there are four. Designed by Shanghai-based architect Li Xiang of X+Living the stores are at once coldly futuristic and warmly inviting. The location I visited, on 1601 Nanjing W Road, JingAnSi, Jingan Qu, in Shanghai’s Reel shopping centre, is furnished with mirrored ceilings which give the impression of more space and more books.

 

While there aren’t as many curves here as in some of his other stores, many of the shelves at least are rounded at the row ends. I saw some interesting authors translated into Chinese, included Duchamp and Walter Benjamin. Unfortunately I’m not familiar with many Chinese authors, so I really have little idea of the breadth of subject matter covered by the selection.  One thing I can say however, is that although there are a ton of titles (including Bob Dylan’s Lyrics! ) you wont find Animal Farm or 1984 among them. They cut too close to the bone, so the Chinese government has banned them.

***

Moving along to Seoul, it’s worth visiting the huge Kyobo Bookstore at 1, Jong-ro, Jongno-gu located under a tall office building. We were here during lunch hour. Every seat was taken up by a serious looking

Korean reader…

although I did see a few asleep.

I saw a sign outside the store that spoke of a book design festival…turns out this was an ad for a sale they were having on books about design. The store has a decent foreign/English language section. At the time of my visit there were tables featuring Ishiguro and Julian Barnes.

Apparently the surrounding neighbourhood is famous for its “delicious food”. We walked through a passageway lined with small vendors. Had a pretty good dish of clam-infested noodles for $6 and later an icecream cone for a mere $2.

The Chungjin-dong haejang-guk (broth to relieve hangover) street and the Mukyo-dong octopus restaurants nearby are also famous. The Kyobo bookstore in an easy walk away from Buchon Village, the old town of Seoul, where you’ll see a lot of young ladies getting their photographs taken in traditional dress, like this

Apparently you can rent them for about $10. I demurred.