The Beauty Of Terror: A Visit To The Franz Kafka Musuem in Prague

The Beauty Of Terror: A Visit To The Franz Kafka Musuem in Prague

The first thing that many people will notice upon entering the courtyard of the Franz Kafka museum in the Malá Strana district of Prague is David Cêrný’s work entitled Proudy (Streams in English A.K.A. Piss). While I’ll admit that seeing some of Cêrný’s work was on my agenda when I visited the Czech Republic capital last summer – and a happy coincidence to find one without searching – I was in that courtyard to buy admission to view the famous collection and tribute to one of my favorite authors.

I fell in love with Kafka’s writing after reading The Metamorphosis several years ago. The claustrophobic and existential terror of Kafka’s work proved to me that literature could be both frightening and well-written (most of the horror novels I was reading at the time were poorly-conceived and seemed churned out in order to make a quick buck off fans). But Kafka was different. The writing was unique, the imagery both terrifying and beautiful, and the underlying themes both thoughtful and true to life, both then and now.

I’ll spare readers the details of Kafka’s short and difficult life (most would probably double-check Wikipedia to make sure I was right on my facts), as well as any kind of synopsis of Kafka’s body of work – read it for yourself if you haven’t already, you won’t be disappointed. Instead, I would like readers to know that in the magical city of Prague, with its castles, labyrinth-like streets, and beer and pork based cuisine, is a great collection of artifacts concerning one of the best writers to ever live.

Once I made my way past the small crowd surrounding the work of modern art in the courtyard, several on those ridiculous Segway contraptions, surrounding the work of modern art in the courtyard, I entered the gift shop to purchase my ticket (a postcard of Kafka’s oppressive father, Herman) to enter the collection. Going through the doors, I could already feel a subtle shift in atmosphere: the lighting was set low and it took a moment to adjust after coming out of the early morning Prague sunshine. After showing my entrance ticket to the ladies behind the counter, who informed me that guides in many different languages were at the beginning to the collection (though I saw people carrying them around, I never did find them), I attempted to enter the exhibit through two doors that marked the end of the tour. After being castigated by one of the elderly docents, who nearly led me by arm to the proper entrance, I ascended the stairs to begin the tour of the museum.

The lighting became dimmer as I entered the collection and I noticed the relatively eerie music, written especially for the museum, emanating from inside the rooms. Consisting of original letters from Kafka to the people in his life, newspapers and publications of the period, and photographs, the collection explores Kafka’s life and work and its relation to the city of Prague (the title of the collection the museum houses is The City of K). The items are enclosed in specially designed display cases (one room consisted of a wall of filling cabinets with the names of Kafka’s protagonists on the drawers) that provide translations in many languages and explanations of their significance. Another aspect of the collection, and a favorite of mine, was the collection of first editions of all of Kafka’s work in the original German. For someone who has spent the better part of his adult life studying literature, and a novice book collector, the first editions were something to gasp at in awe and to drool over.

However, the most interesting pieces in the exhibit are the visual instillations. I noticed one of these as soon as I entered the collection at the top of the stairs. To my left, there were several visitors sitting and watching images pass by on a large video screen. I did not take much time on this particular instillation, as there were several tourists surrounding it and a lack of viewing room; so, I made my way through the rest of the collection. The other, I walked by without realizing. While I was looking into one of the many display cases,  I inadvertently looked to my right and noticed another visitor coming out of what I first thought was an employee only part of the building. I walked back towards the area and saw a single folding chair facing what appeared to be a blank, white wall down a narrow corridor. I thought maybe it was just a place for visitors to rest for a moment, and then images started showing themselves on the wall. I honestly don’t recall any of the images that went before my eyes, they all seemed disconnected and the whole experience felt very surreal. Nevertheless, I sat there for several minutes, enthralled by what was appearing before me. At the end of the imagery, two sentences appeared on the screen separated by a pause: You are nothing. Unfortunately, you are something. After another brief pause, the presentation began again. I sat there for a few more minutes, going over in my head those last words, and then pulling out my small moleskin journal to write the phrase down.

For me, those words encompass what Kafka’s writing said about his time, and ours. The fear that we live in a world that we cannot understand and that will not only misunderstand us, but persecute us as well. Cheery thoughts for a vacation, I know. The words of the instillation stayed with me long after leaving the museum; they also necessitated me sitting in a café, drinking and smoking for the next hour before making my way to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral.

The Kafka Museum is not for everyone. I would suggest that only fans of Kafka’s writing visit the museum, as the esoteric items relating to his life and work will more than likely be a bore to those not familiar with Franz Kafka’s unique brand of terror. However, I would suggest anyone reading this that is not already familiar with Franz Kafka’s writing to explore his work and realize that the literature of terror does not end at Lovecraft and Poe. And then, after you become a fan of Franz Kafka – and I know that you will – I would urge you, should you ever find yourself in Prague (and why would you not?) to take a break from the bridges, cathedrals, castles, pilsner, and pork knuckles, to visit this amazing collection.


For more information on the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague, Czech Republic (and a few interior photos), please click here

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I am someone who was once one of you, but fell to the wayside. Now it's all French and Czech New Wave, Ingmar Bergman, and contemporary foreign cinema of all kinds. Needless to say, I am a subtitled film watching, wine drinking, New Yorker reading snob...but please don't hold that against me.

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