Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Kafka Museum

Kafka was from Prague. Less than a month after my son was born, I went with my new little family to Prague, and visited the Kafka Museum. The two events were not connected. Except, perhaps, in ontological retrospect.

Prague was once a trendy post-Soviet destination for US college graduates who thought it was a hip substitute for growing up. I learned this from the movie "Kicking and screaming", which is about US college graduates who don't even want to leave college. The exception is the protagonist's girlfriend, who departs after the graduation party at the beginning of the film, bound for Prague. He predicts that she will forget him and, even worse, become one of those unbearable Europeanised Americans who do "that whole `American coffee is bad' thing." She makes brief reappearances in answering machine messages throughout the film. The last message is, "By the way: American coffee is bad."

I also went to Prague thinking that I was still a student, and that even a baby was no reason to grow up. Part of the act was to shun such cluttered paraphernalia as a stroller. I carried the baby strapped to my body in a huge multicolored wrap. This not only had the wonderful attribute of shocking ignorant crusty old passers by who hissed horrified questions ("Can it breathe?") and dire pronouncements ("It'll never be able to walk") -- besides that number one selling point, it also provided me with a chest-level confidant as we navigated out of the train station in the middle of the night.

"What do you think, little guy? Should we take this street?"

He gurgled his assent.

"Do you think we should have brought a map or a phrase book?" I was sure he shook his head. "You're absolutely right. We can work it out."

Ah yes, this was exactly like being a backpacking student again.

Anyway, I was sure that the hideous ex-Communist monstrosity in the distance was our youth hostel. My confidence sunk a little when it seemed that we had to climb a steep bank up the side of a busy highway to get there. I looked down at my navigator for assistance. He had fallen asleep. That's right -- nothing to stress about!

When we finally reached the youth hostel we were met, as is customary at youth hostels across the world, by an Australian backpacker. I wasn't sure if he was drunk, or high, or just out of touch with the current intellectual pre-requisites for visiting Prague, but his first act was to point at my chest and ask in amazement, "Is that a real baby?" I opened the wrap and showed him. He was duly impressed. "Whoooaaaa!" he breathed, confirming in the process that he was both drunk and high.

The next day it was off to see the beautiful sights of the city. And, I'm afraid, the Kafka Museum.

What did I know already about Kafka? I knew that he was every self-absorbed clever teenager's literary hero. A miserable man who died young. A tortured genius. Strange stories full of alienation, both of people from each other and every individual from an impenetrably meaningless System. Plus, the clincher: a stifling antagonistic relationship with his bullying father. What more could you want? Kafka was probably the reason all those damn college students moved to Prague in the first place -- to get further away from their fathers, and closer to a man who would understand.

I could buy most of the legend. I had never liked the myth that you had to suffer to be a genius, and I liked worse the reality that you probably wouldn't be a genius even if you did suffer, and I was hardly afflicted with paternal conflict, but I still knew that Kafka was the ideal hero for a cool forever-young student like myself.

The Kafka Museum is unique. The interior is designed to feel like the inside of Kafka's mind. That means that it is also designed to make you want to get out. In order to get out, you have to go all the way through. It's much like an Ikea, except that afterwards your home remains unfurnished.

The inside of Kafka's mind, as represented by the inside of the Kafka Museum, was a place of anxiety, alienation, and frustration at his tyrannical father, who by all accounts, and certainly by Kafka's, was overbearing, self-satisfied, and unsophisticated. He was born poor, but worked hard to became a successful businessman. Kafka's issues with his father were so extensive that he required a 100-page letter to explain them, which his mother refused to pass on.

All of this must feed directly into the gripe mill of any budding repressed intellectual. I thought that was me, but I had the opposite reaction. Carrying around my one-month-old son, I was amazed to find that I was on the father's side. Ok, he was a bit of an oaf. But, unlike poor precious Franz, he had been around his son since the age of zero.

For all we know, the man crawled on the floor while his little baby gurgled and giggled after him, and thought proudly to himself, "Franz will not have to struggle like I did." While tiny Franz sat on his chest and blew raspberries, he thought, "He won't have to fight his way out of poverty to earn even a modicum of respect, and he won't have to make his wife work 12-hour days to keep the family afloat."

Then Franz got a few years older, and the situation looked even better: the boy was smart! He could be a doctor, or a lawyer, and at the age of four he could even be taught to explain these lofty aspirations. "Do you know what he just told me?" boasted Hermann to anyone who would listen. "Now he wants to be a chemical engineer. What boy of four even knows what a chemical engineer is? My boy, that's who!" What a proud father he might have been, through all those years that shaped his picture of his son -- the years that his son, conveniently, would not remember.

What happened? The little shit went all sensitive on him. Hermann couldn't understand. "If you yell at your teenager, he's supposed to yell back, and the next day you slap each other on the back and return to work." But this guy sulked off into his room and came back five years later to nervously hand a 100-page letter to his mother. He got a law degree, then a good job in an insurance company, and he shot up through the ranks -- but was he content and comfortable? No way: he was miserable that he didn't have more time to write stories about people so tortured by their fathers that they leaped off bridges or turned into bugs. What happened to that gurgling giggling baby with the happy future?

This was all getting too much for me, in the midst of the weird lighting and warped corridors and clicketty-clacketty postmodern music of Kafka's mind. My own son had just woken up, and seemed to think that the prospect of the tortured future that he saw all around him was hilarious. He poked his head out of the wrap and gave perhaps the only squeals of delight ever heard within the Kafka Museum. I looked down to my little helper and asked for advice.

"Should we get out of here?"

He squealed and bounced up and down. So off we went.

At the end of the museum there was of course a gift shop. That is the final proof that Kafka's novels were unfinished: their nightmare vision could not possibly be complete without a gift shop. I went out through the gift shop to the courtyard beyond.

Thankfully at least one person involved in the museum's design had some sympathy for the visitors. In a fountain in the middle of the courtyard they had constructed the perfect Kafka Museum Antidote statue. It was of two men urinating. Even better than that, the man were mechanical. Each pelvis slowly rotated from side to side, urinating a wide swath of the fountain. I walked over to it and my son and I laughed at it together.

Then I went to get a coffee.

NOTE: There will not be a post on Monday.

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