I am standing in front of two men literally having a pissing contest and I cannot look away.
By “men,” I mean two sculptures by the Czech Republic’s most famous artist David Cerny. By “pissing contest,” I mean their dicks are spouting water on the ground that is shaped like the map of the Czech Republic. It’s an interactive piece of art.
The statues are moving — or at least their lower bodies are — and they are actually writing with their piss on the fountain.They are writing lines from Franz Kafka’s work or stuff people text to a mobile number…while pissing on the Czech Republic.
It is May 2014, a cold spring day in this old city. It seems the perfect place to hide from new hurts.
On this holiday, I have given myself five days in Prague, which would stretch several more days but I don’t know this yet standing in front of the Franz Kafka Museum.
For the time I have been here, I’ve been chasing Kafka throughout the city. There is a Kafka Café; there is a hotel whose name sounds like “Metamorphosis” and I text an American friend who is reading him in the original text to ask if guests might feel the urge to feed on garbage when they wake up in the morning; then there is the Kafka statue in the Jewish Quarter by Jaroslav Rona.
It is a strange sculpture. But then Kafka was a strange man — or at least his stories are. The statue is of a headless man dressed in a suit and a smaller figure of Kafka sitting on his shoulders. I suppose this could be interpreted in many ways: Kafka literally sitting on the shoulders of a giant is just another surreal tribute to him; or Kafka looking beyond his own perspective, his Jewishness, for the broad horizon.
Or it could be just how Kafka wrote it.
In an interview with Pavla Horakova in 2004, the sculptor Jaroslav Rona referenced the short story “Description of a Struggle,” where Kafka writes, “And now — with a flourish, as though it were not the first time — I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot. But since he stumped forward rather reluctantly and sometimes even stopped, I kicked him in the belly several times with my boots, to make him more lively. It worked and we came fast enough into the interior of a vast but as yet unfinished landscape.”
This “landscape” is Prague, Kafka’s hometown — this city on a piece of land wedged between so many other republics that used to be part of one country. And in the Jewish Quarter, on Dusni Street, Kafka spent most of his time wandering about and presumably getting inspired and writing his stories, too.
He hung out in coffee shops along with other intellectuals. If the walls of Cafe Louvre on Narodni Street had feelings, they’d probably have collapsed during Kafka’s day from the weight of the existential angst being dissected by Prague’s writers and intellectuals.
Most tourists come to the Kafka Museum to see David Cerny’s “Piss” sculpture and spend time walking around the courtyard but don’t go inside the museum. It’s like going to the Louvre and walking around I.M. Pei’s Pyramids without going in to look at the Monalisa or Nike’s Winged Victory.
Okay, maybe not — because inside are mostly just pictures and his journals, not very attractive to people who like taking selfies against a stunning background. Plus, taking pictures inside is not allowed.
The museum is dark, the walls are black, the lighting is subdued. It is full of symbolism, things that Kafka rebelled against in his writing, like bureaucracy. One part of the museum wall is covered with filing cabinets, some of which you can open and take a peek at his writing or quotes from his work. The room feels claustrophobic, like someone is chasing you with a million forms to fill out so you can prove you have the right to live.
Kafka died in 1923, in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40, a full 15 years before Kristallnacht or “The Night of the Broken Glass,” when violence against the Jewish people broke out across the Reich, and in just two days 250 synagogues were burned and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted.
So much shattered glass from the store windows owned by Jews — that’s how those two days in Poland and Germany got to be called. Broken. Glass. The rage from both sides. The satisfaction on one side, the anger and helplessness on the other side. It’s not related to the museum, but I am thinking of this moment in history while I am here and I am overcome with sadness. Because Kafka is Prague, and Prague is Kafka, and the thing that shaped his writing strongly was being a Jew — a Jew in Prague.
What if Kafka had lived through that period in his own world, walking through the Jewish Quarter as he did every day? How would his stories, his characters, his real-life nightmares have played out? One of his nightmares, according to the museum, was about “a sinister machinery which subjected his body to interminable torment.” What if he had lived through the gassing of the Jews?
Perhaps what we’d be reading today in his book would be an entirely different kind of metamorphosis. From an entirely different Franz Kafka.