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Amber Paulen

Christmas and Kundera in Prague

Karluv most, by Simon Griffee

I reread The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera to prepare for my Christmas trip to Prague. Even as I settled into the book I realized that something had changed, and since the pages were the same as Kundera wrote them, I figured that the change must have happened to me.

On this reading I found too much of Kundera telling me what to think about his characters and not enough of them being characters with a life on the page. One of the graces of the novel is the novelist’s nonjudgemental hand, his almost absence. While Kundera never says, “Tereza is this and Tomas is that,” he does say, “The metaphor of Tereza is like this and the metaphor of Tomas is like that.” It felt like Kundera was constantly slipping the rug of my own interpretation out from under me.

But reading Kundera in Prague made a good primer on the city’s (and country’s) recent history (and sometimes made me wonder when I looked at the Czechs, if they weren’t as promiscuous as Tomas). It made me remember that the fall of totalitarian Communism happened in my lifetime, and that Communism and Fascism, opposites in Italy, are almost exactly the same. Or rather, all ideologies are similar when taken to the extreme. Some older people seemed stuck in a fog while the younger were buzzing around Wenceslas Square, where most of the demonstrations took place, shopping and drinking coffee at Starbucks. That’s certainly a change!

In late December the city is mostly sunless. The baroque buildings try to add a lightness while the gothic insist in the heaviness of stone and its shadows. The city center seemed more home to Kafka’s imagination rather than to Kundera’s analogies, which I associate with those clean Communist facades. The streets wove around tightly, like Rome, and broke out occasionally on the banks of the Vltava. We crossed the Charles Bridge in biting wind and rain. And once arrived, we took our reward of more hot wine and grilled sausages.

Hot wine, grilled sausages, fried potatoes and cabbages. The Christmas Market boils with hot foodstuffs, and every time your temperature drops you can refill and rewarm. Walking around would have been impossible otherwise, and walking is what we did for our Christmas in Prague. Over the bridge, up the hill, to Petrin Park (where I imagined Tereza’s dream with the colored benches and the firing squad), the Castle, back down, back up, across the bridge to Kafka’s house, the old zodiac clock, Wenceslas Square and back to the hotel.


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