July 7th, 2022 AAAA
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The Absent City

(Sentimental improvisations)
by Jan Štolba

Once during the totalitarian regime a friend and I organised a cycle race around Prague for a group of kindred spirits. In this race it wasn't a matter of winning. We just wanted to spend time together, be outside, see unknown places and follow the preselected route. The marking of the route was far more dramatic than the race itself. My friend and I spent several adventurous weeks looking for the most interesting route on the little roads, tracks and paths leading through the suburban woodlands, fields, fringe areas, remnants of the working-class periphery and even wild ravines that nobody would expect close to the city. We left the city itself somewhere far away, lost down in the Vltava basin, vanishing completely in the centre of the circle we wound around it.

For us, all that remained of the city were fleeting hints. Remains of peripheral paving overgrown by grass; corners where the village green infiltrated among the last blocks of the city that engulfed it; forgotten walls and chimneys of factories that had ceased producing anything long ago; overgrown buildings the city had rejected; jungle-like forests that had grown up around them; hedges and fences once delimiting land, but now jutting without reason into space. We didn't need the city itself for our great race - for us it remained as an invisible centre to which we paid homage - but at the same time we carelessly left it to its own devices.

In any case we weren't the only ones who left the ghetto then without permission. This is how the poet Andrej Stankovič describes his excursions with friends in Osvobozený Babylon (Liberated Babylon): "We end up at Lojza's, at Vrchota, in the Cowshed - / ... / Down into the city, although it's so close, / we don't go all week." Our secret race around Prague was one of those perfectly innocent actions, which at the same time, if the regime of the time had so wished, could easily have turned into something subversive, dangerous and forbidden. On looking back it really seems that there was nonetheless a certain symbolism, a latent proclamation, ironic, ridiculous, proud. Keep your centre; we don't need it, we won't share in it. With the route of the race we also marked out land that was ours alone, the area of the free and uncontrolled fringe. 
Nevertheless we too wanted somehow to belong to the centre of events. The dull regime prevented us from doing this; it childishly kept the centre for itself. Why was this? From a distance of almost twenty years it's becoming less and less clear to us. We only remember that those of the participants in the race who managed at the last moment to become translators, art historians, critics, journalists or painters lived at that time in various peripheral boiler houses, gatehouses, filling stations or cleaner's cupboards. Why, is more and more hidden in the mists, but we still clearly remember the requisites of our sweet outbreak. Spades, furnaces, iron doors, the windows of gatehouses, the steps of caravans, hard beds. These requisites created a second city, invisibly spreading within the first, characteristic and unreal in its banality and triviality, and at the same time more than real for the very same reason: for the everyday definitiveness of its banality, the endless pathos of its triviality, its given nature, but also inflexibility, its determination to continue on the fringe, to endure longer and more than the centre endures.

Pathos: with my friend (the same one we planned the big race with) we were then often amazed at the sign with the inscription TESCO, which we saw every day from the scaffolding depot where we took turns as watchmen. The sign floated above a tangle of wooden roofs and fences with a single meaningfully omitted phoneme. We stared at this shabby board as at a hallucination. As the poet Stankovič said: "Only a mirage leaps further". Today I no longer yearn like this over the TESCO signs. And triviality? One day another of my colleagues in the boiler-room of the Umprum Museum was despairing somewhat of his exhausting substitute work until his boss, the museum caretaker and not one to mince words, snapped at him: No work is inferior and pointless, understand!? Never say that again!" But we then stubbornly wanted to get to the centre of things and events, without suspecting what real intentions the centre might have for us.
But even the centre was not, in the end, what it pretended to be. The streets of the Old Town were half empty and sombre, facades crumbling, ditches everywhere, scaffolding, planks and timbering, faded hanging signs. Real deterioration, but also concealed, indicated general internal decrepitude. The towers of the monumental Týn Church in the historical centre were surrounded by scaffolding for perhaps fifteen years before they were forced to take it down again, perhaps, according to legend, which may well be true, the time limit for its safety had expired. In the course of the years we climbed both towers of the Týn under various circumstances; the highest platform on the scaffolding teetered even higher than the very top and down in the depths the town crouched like scattered blocks, the famous centre, while clouds threatened low in the sky. I felt like the king of the edge, I looked from above at the top of the Týn tower and was afraid even to stand up on the last wooden boards. And it seemed to me that I could not do more to rid the centre of its self-centredness. "The centre is the most eccentric place", wrote the poet Petr Kabeš at the time, perhaps even below the walls of the church in his emergency flat in Celetná Street, in his miraculous Těžítka (Paperweights), and I confirmed this above the towers of the Týn.

With a colleague from the jazz orchestra in which I played at the time, together with my activity as a watchman and stoker, we used to walk home after rehearsals across Charles Bridge. Sometimes it was completely empty, perhaps apart from naïve little groups crowded around two gypsies playing guitars. Someone carried a half-empty bottle of Prague Selection wine. Around us in the dark the stiff statues of missionaries and saints leant down, watching us with blank faces, almost bending to finally tell how everything would be and what we should do. Nevertheless they were embarrassed to disturb their accustomed years of stillness. "Go, statue, / Come alive..." whispers Jan Suk in his Spojené kameny (Linked Stones). But the statues did not go, they did not leave their standpoints on the stone balustrade or the façade of St Salvatore, and nobody guessed in what form, if at all, they would return.

Even the innocent little group, strumming and drinking in the middle of the bridge, which we regularly joined, could become, from one minute to the next, a dangerous subversive group disturbing the night peace and the general political development in the country. Between gulps of wine they all looked around to see if a police patrol was approaching and then immediately winked at one another shyly like conspirators; we are here, together, at least for a while... It was clear: the centre was empty and alone.
Today crowds cross the same bridge day and night. Then some people walked across the bridge to work; now they prefer to detour across the next bridge to get there at all. With my friend the trumpeter we used to dream on the completely empty bridge about what it would be like if the police patrols didn't have us under their thumb in the city and in the whole country. Today on the same bridge someone is unblushingly selling Russian military caps, proudly upright, once literally the symbol of our subjugation. All this to the sounds of the hurdy gurdy, traditional jazz and an advertising samba from loudspeakers. While we rub our eyes and nod: well, of course, as if we didn't know it all in advance.

And we forbid ourselves to complain and grumble. After all, so much has changed. The streets have filled, the gloom has vanished, the facades are like sugar candy and so many new signs have appeared, some of them very cogent: ALCOHOL BAR. CLUB CLUB. The beggar by the wall rocks to and fro, a black man in a Mozartian wig beneath the Powder Tower drums up custom for a concert, and in the background there passes, like an endlessly long lollipop, a white limousine with the inscription DARLING. In the pedestrian zone someone throws a grenade under the wheels of an armoured jeep. There follows - by a false donkey's bridge - a burst of laughter from a group of English youths beginning their THROW-UP WEEKEND IN PRAGUE. "It is strange how lines of fools eagerly seek their destruction." Karel Milota: Gregor.
But there is no sense in irony. The city has changed unbelievably. It has come to life, come together. It has been acclaimed. Restaurants are lit up, theatres are playing, travel agencies offer escape here or there, bookshops are overflowing with books. But it still seems that we have somehow missed the time of conciliatory bilateral helpfulness, when the city would really begin to belong to us and we in return would confidently be willing to belong to it. We are still just a little absent, just as our city is absent. The centre filled up in promising fashion - and then with a silly apologetic smile it tottered and spilt the contents to the sides; suddenly the centre is everywhere, the centre, the prayed-for centre will not let us breathe. The centre: a half-litre plastic bottle of water for a whole CZK 60. We leave, ashamed, to thirst elsewhere.
How can one act towards a city whose transformations we respect, yet at the same time it cannot do other than disappoint us, especially our generation? How can one act towards a city, which together with us and with the surrounding civilisation is undergoing a creeping disintegration of sense and order, innocently concealed by the mask of progress. "It was the best of times..." This Dickensian line still applies in the new millennium - how else. And so the fact that the centre of the metropolis has become unpopulated, meaning that local life has vanished from it and almost everything is subordinate to tourism, from which we all naturally wish to make money, I take as a sad but inevitable trend of the time. I am just a bit envious that Venice, for instance, perhaps even more afflicted by tourism, has managed to leave the path just a little and breathes authentic local life at us. Not to mention Naples, Oporto or Manhattan. Traditional life in the inner part of Prague was systematically destroyed by "plastic" communism so that now, after its fall, there is nothing to return to. Jan Neruda and even you, Karel Pecka, will never write any further Lesser Town Tales. Because two thirds of the local inhabitants have left your famous picturesque quarter in the last ten or fifteen years, no well-known figures remain and with them there has vanished also the special spirit of the places and corners that we loved.

The Central European city is therefore a city with all it entails, but at the same time it is a casing for unreal metamorphoses, changes and strange deviations. In spite of its strengthening practicality, utilitarianism and commerciality it is still the same identikit of our soul, buffeted by everything. "Prague, now, for a change, I love your shame at how you are ageing / how you melt away, how the more you give yourself away the less there is / to give." I see the fact that the Prague Waterworks on Národní třída, where my father spent his whole professional life ensuring that "the water ran", has now become another hotel in the row as a dream makeweight. The fact that someone sleeps awhile, on holiday or on business, in the room where my father spent his life at the drawing-board, I see as a silent symbol and the continuing irony of life and the world. Was my father too finally only a guest here? History in such a city is ceasing to be the maintenance of continuity and becoming a mere sequence of increasingly superficial and worthless changes. I understand it, but it doesn't return the city to me.

And yet: why do the drivers of Prague tramcars today, in their boxes above street level, often look so self-important and sulky? Do they like us at all? No, then they would not be Prague tram-drivers, annoyed with the whole world. How could we understand their Central European spleen when it is they, not we, who must glide through the streets and stop at the intersections, wait for the magnetic switching of points, constantly harassed by passengers catching trams, missing trams, disembarking too slowly or wanting something explained. How unfair! Sitting in one's cabin, in the centre of one's city, with one's people behind one and doing one's job... Sometimes the whole Central European metropolis with its wounds and scabs, once insulted and humiliated and still taking out its humiliation on those similarly insulted and humiliated, seems to me epitomised in the passive nabob's cabin of the Prague tram-driver.
And I remember one of the early demonstrations against the regime some time in the summer of 1989. Due to unexpected police pressure the crowd gushed into the whole of Spálená Street, even onto the tramlines, and suddenly it was impossible to move, but the tram-driver, God knows why still pretending that nothing was happening, just set off from the stop and continued on his way to Lazarská Street. He rang his bell and pushed the crowd before him. I remembered the erstwhile motherly rocking of the Prague tram, which now cut straight into people as the driver moved his tram into the crowd, maintaining his injured professional honour: Don't both me with the problems of the world, I'm driving!  
But then came the floods. No metaphorical flood, nor the flood of enthusiastic crowds of November 1989, but a real full-blooded millennium flood. It happened in 2002. And suddenly everything was different, just a few hours and the city was in a whirl. Whole quarters were closed in turn. A fire engine drove through the streets and the loudspeaker announced: This part of the city is to be evacuated, leave your homes. The last tram crossed the bridge. Only the heads of the stone lovers in the Rose Garden show above the water and soon they vanish completely and the enamoured youth has lost his head for good.

In the night darkness falls, the electricity is off, cars do not run, windows and lamps do not shine, and everything stops. A Central European feeling, genetically known even to one who has only heard tell of the occupation, the blackout, air raids and butter rations. Little groups of citizens wander through the streets. Suddenly it is possible to stop anyone and ask what's new, what street they live in, how they're getting on. From the local cake shop, full of refugees, the Macedonian manager runs out and shouts, with eyes focussed somewhere in the direction of the river: Is it here yet? The tidal wave? A man confides in me at some length, wondering whether he should go home to a forbidden area for the night. Everyone is united by a wave of solidarity; people bring blankets, packaged water and toys. Trams are free! Everyone is united by expectation: What will happen? And also amazement and a secret, inexpressible pride: this is us; this is our city and our river! Some crazy bloke sails down the wild water through the whole city on a homemade raft, perhaps just a broken gate. Crazy! I think. "Only of such / a life / I now dream // Not to fear / anything // Wipe one's backside / with dandelion leaves // Be crafty" Ivan Jirous: Magorova vanitas (The Madman's Vanity).

Does it really take such excitement to waken us? At a given moment there is no time to think, but one is almost startled to think what it will be like again once everything returns to normal.

In the meantime, however, darkness in the streets, comradeship, worried pedestrians. And the silence all around!   

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