Make a home in Prague
Prague: belonging to the modern city. By Chad Bryant. Harvard University Press; 352 pages; $ 29.95 and £ 23.95
SIT WAS in many ways, a local par excellence. She had Czech friends, read Czech books, and ate that Bohemian staple, potatoes. But Duong Nguyen Jiraskova, a student who in 2008 started blogging about life in Prague, was also atypical. Raised in the Czech Republic by Vietnamese parents, she straddled two worlds. She celebrated Christmas and Tet. She used cutlery, but taught friends how to handle chopsticks. “Whenever someone asks me where I feel at home,” she wrote, “I never answer with a single word.”
The one-word answers are not in this subtle lyric book. Like residents of many other cities, the Praguers have juggled identities for centuries, even though they have only recently chronicled their efforts online. Chad Bryant focuses on five fascinating people, guiding readers through Czech history along the way.
It begins in the mid-19th century, when Prague was a city of the Habsburgs and high culture dominated by Germany. It was intolerable for Slavic patriots like Karel Zap, who saw Prague as a kind of Czech Rome; Zap advocated the use of the Czech language and highlighted the glories of Czech culture. He believed that only those who had “a strong sense of religiosity and a national feeling” should enter St. Vitus Cathedral, the last resting place of the kings of Bohemia.
Yet despite all his zeal, Zap sometimes wrote in German – and once passed through the Teutonic-sounding Karl Zapp. Mr. Bryant recounts such ironies throughout his book, describing people on the fringes of Prague society who have stumbled upon belonging. In the interwar period, as the city became completely Czech, Egon Kisch, a German-speaking Jewish journalist, explored soup kitchens and dive bars that recalled the cosmopolitan vibe of previous decades. Hana Frejkova found peace as an actor in theaters of Czechoslovakia after her father was convicted in a Stalinist trial.
Thumbnails evoke the evolution of the fortunes of the city. During Kisch’s day, Prague had official dog catchers, one of them boasting of an 18th-century proclamation from Empress Maria Theresa confirming her family’s hereditary profession. In the 1970s, Prague was a thriving socialist city, with towers and a new metro system. When the first line opened, officials hired female workers to help the Praguers navigate an unfamiliar technology: escalators.
As Mr Bryant makes clear, Prague has been a city in flux for centuries, with each new leader embedding their policies in their institutions and infrastructure. This could make it difficult for residents, marginalized or not, to keep pace. In his most moving chapter, Bryant tells the story of Vojtech Berger, carpenter and communist. His opinions were mistrusted between the wars; but after Czechoslovakia became a communist state in 1948, Berger seems to have been lost: “One wonders if, young man, this is what Berger had in mind.
By the end of the book, readers might conclude that standing outside or against the mainstream – as a Czech nationalist or a radical carpenter or a Vietnamese immigrant – is what gives characters like these their strength. Education that spans two communities is a lot, Ms. Nguyen Jiraskova noted, but never boring. As Bryant observes, cities around the world are helping people like his subjects find and build homes that are theirs. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Edition under the title “Czechs and Sales”