On the Outside of the Inside
by Terry Barr
Photo by Terry Barr
I’m standing in a mall in the center of Prague, lost, and waiting out a rainstorm. I can’t find my hotel though I have a map and a usually keen directional sense. I can’t believe I’m in a mall. A mall in Prague. What would Kafka think, or would he see this as just another nightmarish moment where history and life and the inadequacy of human reason collide?
I buy a coffee, which serves two purposes: warmth, for even though this is summer, the mall is cold and I’m wet.
I decided to travel to a writing workshop in Prague all alone, because I needed the adventure. And, though I was reluctant to admit this, I wanted to test myself, to see who I was: a safe husband and father who lived neatly in a upwardly-mobile Southern town; or a writer who was unafraid of streets in foreign cities that might take him nowhere, that might strand him in a twilight midpoint between home and those voices promising that there is a place for him on some distant hill?
So upon arriving in Prague that morning, rather than sitting in my hotel for a full day waiting on my workshop to start, I ventured out into the streets, across the Old Town Square and cathedral, past a book store which was formerly a hat store where Kafka’s father once worked. I found a pub: the original Pilsner Urquell pub. I ordered the house standard, 20 ounces of golden draft. It’s the custom in Prague that the bartender keeps bringing full glasses until you say “enough,” and while I’ve read about this and should have known better, I failed to speak up and soon began my second 20 ounces, and it was so damn good and I was so tired yet happy to be there that I drank and drank. And I wrote in my journal words that are lost in illegibility to me now. Somehow in my growing stupor I stopped the barman after the second beer and headed out into the late afternoon light, which wasn’t much since rain clouds had developed. I thought I could find my way back to my hotel by simply retracing my grid.
What I didn’t realize is that Prague streets are not laid out perpendicularly but rather in a circle around periodic squares. That would have been important to grasp before the Pilsner Urquell.
I’m feeling light and, of course, comfortably light-headed. So I walk east, because I’m sure that I came from the west. I note certain fascinating landmarks; unfortunately, I didn’t pass any of these on my way to the bar. My guidebook says that the café in front of me is one Kafka frequented and where he actually participated in live theatre. I’ll come back here one day, but for the moment I must continue on my path: the path I think is my way. There are men’s clothing stores here and I duck into one as the rain starts.
The two young women handling sales are extremely solicitous of me. But I’m conscious that I’m at least semi-drunk, that the jeans I’m looking at cost 200 American dollars, and that impulse-shopping in Prague on my first day isn’t the best plan. Are they laughing at me now? Are they conspiring to offer me what I can’t afford and what I don’t want? For a moment they tempt me to linger, to flirt, to forget myself. But only for a moment.
So I head back out into the rain, consulting my map, but nothing looks familiar. I’m not panicking yet, because somehow being a bit lost in Prague seems like the right thing. And really, how lost could I be, because the streets are still cobbled, I can still see the Old Square cathedral against the skyline. Besides, nothing bad can happen on my first day in the city of my dreams.
“This isn’t a nightmare,” I tell myself after another hour’s wandering. “I’m already awake.”
As I wander, these stateside voices rattle my brain. The first, from a Business professor at my college:
“I really liked Prague, but you can still see the signs of Communism there.”
I’ve already passed “Gucci” and “Cartier” stores, so I wonder just what the signs of Communism are: “Bread Lines Form Here;” “This Way to the Secret Police?” The other voice is from my dental hygienist. I love how people feel free to dispense unsolicited advice, especially when they have their fingers stuck in your mouth:
“Don’t worry about getting homesick in Prague, there’s a TGI Friday’s right in the middle of town.”
Yep, nothing says home like loaded potato skins. When I told her that I was travelling to Prague because I loved Kafka’s tales of darkness and transfiguration, I hit a nerve. Or actually, she hit the nerve, down in my bottom-left molar.
And dammit, there’s the TGI Friday’s and I feel cursed. Turning around, as if out of spite, I see this mall and somehow I want to go in and feel just a little less alien, a little more American. I won’t have to tell anyone that on my first day in Prague I got drunk and lost and ended up as a bug in the most garish and bourgeois place in the Czech Republic. I won’t have to disclose my humiliation and fear about losing my hotel.
Now it’s stopped raining, and I step back outside. I look at my map, but I don’t know where on the map I am. So I look up and pan from right to left. And as if I really were in someone’s American dream-film, what comes into clearest focus as I pan is, of course, my hotel.
I’m spending ten days in Prague and one of the things I’m discovering is that I’m an insomniac. Several nights go by with me sitting in bed, reading a mystery about a female detective in Paris who has a standard poodle named Miles Davis and a partner who is a dwarf. A dwarf named Rene who drives a yellow Citroen. Sometimes I get confused and think Miles Davis is driving the Citroen and Rene is barking at him. Maybe that really happens. The killer in the book is a Neo-Nazi targeting elderly Jews. It’s a modern-day setting, and I’m staying in a modern hotel, which is rather plush and seemingly secure, and I’m wondering what it used to be sixty or seventy years ago. Who back then had the privilege of staying here, and who couldn’t? The outer door to my room is heavy and ornate and latches with one of those long skeleton keys, the head of which, as I view it with less and less sleep, looks a bit like those photos of Kafka I’ve seen on books and postcards, which doesn’t help.
I listen to my own Miles Davis on my daughter’s ancient Walkman and send text messages to my wife at three in the morning. And sometimes I get messages back, though once, I get one from a guy named Wesley: “I can’t wait to kiss your sweet lips again.” I find it funny and start to laugh until I realize that before I left, I let my thirteen-year old daughter use my phone for a few days. I think of calling my wife to tell her what I found, but that would only panic her, so instead I continue not sleeping and waiting for light.
Our hotel has a fancy buffet but their coffee cups hold about three ounces and I get embarrassed asking the waiter to refill mine every other minute. So I walk across the street to a sidewalk place that advertises Lattes and Cappucinos. The waitress speaks English, but I think she’s sneering at me because I’m American. I think of mentioning Kafka to her, but instead I ask her where the WC is and she points to a room behind the counter that you must access through a sliding door. I enter easily, but when I’m finished, I can’t open the door. The glass on the door is glazed, and through it I see her hearing me trying to get out. I try harder, but nothing, and then I see her approach and knock.
“Push to the left,” she says, and I don’t know why that seems counter-intuitive, but it does and I keep pulling to the right.
“To the left,” she says more sternly, and finally I give in, and just like that, I’m out. I stare into her face. She’s maybe twenty years old, blonde, and kind of weary-looking. Or, she’s beautiful and exotic and I might be in love with her, so I say the only thing that’s in my mind:
She looks at me again. Then all her sternness melts and she actually laughs with me. Over the next ten days she serves my lattes with a smile and casual chat. She asks what I’m doing in Prague and I tell her about my workshop, that I’m a writer, and maybe that impresses her.
Don’t we all come to Prague to write?
Her café plays American music and I don’t know who programs it, but one day I hear a tune I know, though can’t place. The female voice is familiar, but too out of context. A few lines stick with me, though it’s not until I get back home to my personal computer that I find the song by Googling the line I remember:
“Now I’m standing on the outside of the inside where I want to be. Love’s unkind, ‘cause he’s not mine.”
Czechs must love Donna Summer.
Kafka often used doors to express the ambiguities of what we see and experience. That bathroom door I couldn’t open and my instinct to go right when the waitress said left: is that a Prague thing? A Kafka thing?
In my favorite Kafka work, The Trial, two different doors resonate. The first, a door to a closet in K’s office building that hides the floggers, an unruly pair who insist on flogging a worker who has somehow run afoul of the bureaucracy. When K opens the door, he catches them in the act, and the whining and explaining ensue. He tells them to stop, in a way, and then closes the door on them. The next day when he opens the door again, the three of them are in exactly the same positions as when K shut the door the previous evening.
Is this what life is like, I wonder, when no one is around to experience it?
The second and more famous door is the one near the end of the novel in the section entitled “Before the Law.” A little man has appeared before an enormous door which is wide open and seemingly only open for him. Or at least so says the equally large and formidable doorman. The little man can enter if he chooses, but his obstacle-odyssey won’t end there, for there are other doors and other doormen worse than this one. So the little man waits and waits and years and years pass and he asks questions and always gets answers and tries bribes that are always taken and in the end, just when he might be ready to try or give up or die, the doorman closes the door on him.
His door. His life. His choice. Always.
Where the little man wanted to go was “before the law,” seeking justice for what we never know. Of course, as I read and reread this master work, I keep thinking that “before the law” actually means that time before there were laws, or before “the law as we now know it,” if we know it, that is.
If Kafka thought he had trouble understanding the bureaucracy of laws in his time, he should try living in ours.
I take a strange inspiration from these ambiguous Kafka doors. I’m also inspired by my little Tuxedo cat who hates doors. From his kittency he’s always tried to go under doors or open them with his paws. He mews plaintively if he’s shut out by the deck door, the bedroom door, and especially the bathroom door. I should have named him Joseph or Kafka or even K, but my daughter found him first and named him Morgan.
In any case, while in Prague, I choose Morgan’s way and go through all doors and so find myself walking at night with members of my writing group to hookah bars and goulash cafes, and one midnight, up to the Cathedral on the hill overlooking the Charles River. Midnight in Prague seems especially like the Kafka hour, and behind the Cathedral are the byzantine alleyways that I’ve read about, winding past cafes and artist studios and a place where Kafka once lived. The doors are all small and narrow here, as if the citizenry were Lilliputian by birth. In fact, I believe to live or work inside one of these structures would mean to never stand upright. I’d love to go in one, but it’s midnight and Morgan aside, I decide not to try that door handle on the Kafka house. This door is not open for me or anyone else.
The following day, I take a tour of “Jewish-town” in the old quarter and visit cemeteries and synagogues. I know Jewish law and understand much of what I see, though again, my map is useless here. The streets were never planned and maybe that was good for the medieval Jews who needed getaways and sometimes fast ones. Eventually I find the Altenshul, a gorgeously ornate structure, but it’s near sundown and no one who isn’t ready to pray is allowed in. I’m not an observant Jew though I wonder if prayer isn’t just what I need to find the peace of sleep.
What I really want to do, though, is get to the attic of the Altenshul where rests Rabbi Loew’s Golem who protected the 15th century Jews from the marauding Easter Christians who wanted to do just a bit more than open a few doors. This attic room is off limits and not only is the door to it closed and locked, but so, I hear, is the coffin where the Golem resides, inanimate but waiting till he’s needed, till someone inscribes the first Hebrew letter on his forehead that turns death into life. If that happens, we’ll be before the law for sure
It’s growing too dark now, and I think of Gustav Meyerink’s 1915 novel The Golem, set in this Jewish quarter. In it, there’s an apartment building where another Golem resides. Not the Golem hero, but a strange night-shade you never see coming. Not only don’t you see him, but even though you know he lives in this building on a certain floor, when you look from the street, the apartment he lives in isn’t there. I don’t mean you can’t see it because it has no window. I mean that there is no attendant space for it. It can be found only from the inner halls and our narrator takes us there, to the Golem’s door—a closed door that finally opens for him.
I think of all this as I look for a building that has many floors and hidden apartments, as I wind my way through streets that make no sense. I pass the Golem café where a seven-foot tall golem statue beckons me. I have more goulash and coffee and buy four three-inch replicas of my giant host, one for each member of my immediate family. I keep thinking about the boy who called my daughter’s lips “sweet,” and if only I could bring my Golem to life. Then we’d talk about the door to revenge.
As I sit outside, disguised in my Yankees cap, I notice a couple noticing me. They’re smiling and whispering and I wonder whether I’m invisible or growing or whether a doorman has stepped up behind me.
Finally, the young woman asks me:
“Uh, excuse me, but by any chance are you Steven Spielberg?”
Of course, I’m mildly flattered though I really don’t like Spielberg’s movies except Schindler’s List, which I feel as a Jew I’m required to like even though it started the journey toward Holocaust-lite. I think for a moment what might happen if I tell them they’re right. If I said that I am the famous director. I could. Who would know, and it would make their day.
And maybe I do, because here in Prague, I believe no law I’ve known before can touch me.
I love walking in Prague alone. With my journal ready I find countless cafés either on side streets, by the river, or inside bookstores that allow me the freedom to forget everything. To be lawless.
As I sit in the Kafka Bar, I hear more American music, and I have to wonder who is making these choices; who is playing the obscure songs of my life? Not just Stealer’s Wheel’s, “Stuck in the Middle with You,” which isn’t that obscure, but oddball hits such as, “You, I,” by a band called The Rugbys. That’s circa 1969, and I think I’m the only person on earth who knows it: “You…want me to be true. I…don’t know what to do….”
Now, if only they’d play Steppenwolf’s “Monster.”
In workshop that day I read a piece about my grandfather who refused to eat meat without ketchup. One night, upon serving dinner, my grandmother admitted that she forgot to buy ketchup that day. My grandfather, the fate of his sustenance hanging in the balance, silently arose, descended the stairs, went out the door, and re-entered through that door thirty minutes later with a new Heinz bottle. He waved it over the meat, muttering in either Yiddish or English. And poured.
The meat, it is said, sprang to life. Or, at least, he finished his meal with gusto.
Of course, divorced from a soul, what are any of us but meat?
My workshop mates laugh and applaud, especially the men. And indeed, in our group we do have enough men for a minyan, if only they knew.
I make the mistake then of telling a few people in my workshop that I’ve found countless perfect places to write: The Golem Café, the Kafka Bar.
“Oh, I’d like to go with you tomorrow,” a man named John says. He’s a tall New Yorker with a blue-jeweled earring in his left ear. Perhaps a year or two older than me, he’s a crisis counselor with a background in the financial world.
“Sure,” I say, only halfway meaning it. I’m trying to be nice, to be one with my group, which is composed of middle-aged men and women from all walks of life: teachers, pediatricians, surgeons, and a few retirees from Britain and California. I don’t want to say no to invitations since I do free time, alone time, every morning and evening. But I also don’t want to fuse my identity, my autonomy, with another.
Worse, what I think will be just one morning writing with John at the Kafka Bar, turns into an every-morning routine. He begins selecting sites, excited at what venue we will conquer tomorrow.
“I think writing with someone is encouraging, motivating,” he says.
It can be, I think. I wonder, though, how much of what he’s writing will seep into me? How much of his will become mine? Sometimes while I’m writing, I catch John staring at me, and lately he’s gotten into the habit of shooting candid shots of our locale.
And of me while I’m trying to write.
I consult my journal now from that workshop experience and find the day when he snapped photos incessantly:
“It’s hard writing. He won’t stop taking pictures. Of me. Too many and I can’t say stop. Do I want to say stop? I know he’s crushing and a part of me is flattered so maybe I should just relax into the experience. But I can’t totally because I don’t want to hurt his feelings and I don’t want this to go on.”
There he is again, snapping, and if he’s so “here,” then where, who, am I?
On the last workshop day, several of us read the pieces we’ve been working on for the past ten days. Mine is about discovering just how Jewish my hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, really was, and, of course, how Jewish I am. I interviewed many former Jewish residents there, and to a person, they said that they experienced no hatred, no discrimination, though Bessemer was home for many years to a vibrant Klan group who posted and signed a “Welcome to Bessemer” billboard on the city’s outskirts.
Our workshop leader, Patricia, who ironically is also from Alabama and knows one of my favorite professors from college, suggests that our group try to find at least one person in our midst to stay in touch with.
“To have a companion for writing,” she says, “is more valuable to you than you can know.”
John looks at me then, motions back and forth between us, and silently mouths, “You and I.”
The group then heads to a prearranged farewell supper, and I sit with other people in our party. We talk about our lives, about writing. Tonight I feel like a writer and I feel I’m being looked at as a writer. The pediatrician, a Jewish woman named Laurie, comes up as we’re leaving and tells me that I remind her of her favorite college literature professor. Then she reaches up and kisses me quickly on the lips and says goodbye.
I think of The Trial again, where Joseph K believes and is mainly right that all the women swoon over him and want him. But, in the end, none can save him.
I lose sight of almost everybody that night, though I have two days left in Prague. The next day, three of our group have arranged to tour the Terezin “model camp” where children and others were kept, usually waiting for transport to places like Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. We come to a door that leads us through a tunnel and eventually to a beautifully open and green knoll where hundreds or thousands of Jews were lined up and shot. I’ve never knowingly walked an execution path before, though I grew up in a civil rights era where people were executed outside the law, before the law, frequently and mercilessly.
I keep thinking of how Kafka pre-understood the Holocaust, the nightmare of bureaucratic organization that made possible the extermination of millions. This was not “before the law.” During that nightmarish reality, there were plenty of laws—laws that all-too-many blindly obeyed. How did Kafka know that those like him would become bugs hated by their neighbors and even their friends? How did we become lost in a world of trials and tribulations and secret networks of police and Gestapo and brown, black, and gray shirts? How did we go on after?
Kafka saw such a world but of course he didn’t live to see it.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell nighttime from daylight, especially when you still can’t sleep and want to do the right thing by those you love and even those you don’t.
Back home, I share only some of these thoughts and experiences with my wife. I don’t tell her about the kiss from Laurie, or about Terezin which, two years later, she’ll see for herself. I tell her, though, about my writing, and in the end, I tell her about John who has asked that I have dinner with him on my last night in this old city.
We meet at a café in the Old Town Square, a touristy kind of place where hundreds sit outside and try to feel exclusive. I look out at the square and wonder if this is the one that K was dragged across on his way to “die, like a dog.” After dinner, we walk around a bit, long enough for this not to feel ungrateful but short enough not to start feeling awkward.
“I need to go back now,” I say. “I’m really tired and I have an early flight.” So he walks me to my hotel, and I’m hoping he won’t say anything or do anything. Maybe he did say something, but in the end, in my hotel lobby, all he really did was hug me, lingering almost too long, and then simply walk through the door and right out of my Prague dream forever.
But in my dream and in my memory of Prague, this is how it ends: on a completely overcast day, I walk across the river to the Kafka Museum where inside I traverse long hallways surrounded by mountains of filing cabinets lit only by a single fluorescent light. A stifling world and in its own way quite like the death-walk at Terezin.
Yet, in the swirl of time that is the Kafka-review of all that was to come, I come to a doorway, a descent into somewhere. Facing me as I descend is a ten-foot mirror. At a first glance into it, I see not myself, or at least not the “myself” I expect to see. My face is too long, and my expression! Not exactly haunted, but maybe hunted, maybe searching. For what?
In The Golem, eventually the protagonist/searcher—an isolated, lonely man—finds the Golem. Or rather, he discovers that the one he’s searching for is himself.
I look back at my mirror before I take the first step down. I’m me again, or at least I recognize myself, the one I’ve always been. And I smile.
It might seem a simple thing to imagine walking downward and feeling as if you’re also walking forward, into yourself. But trust me. It isn’t. Not for a lover of Kafka, a descendant of those who perished in a nearby camp, or for a writer whose main goal is always to look inward. To see the golem within, on the inside of my outside, the part of me that is pursuing me, waiting for me to awaken.