Friday, February 18, 2011

A Candle for Neruda

Jan Neruda, that is--the 19th century czech writer who, a century or so later, lent his name to a Chilean poet who was looking for a pseudonym and found it in a long-dead writer who might have indeed been his literary father.

Several years ago, when I first learned that the upcoming spring semester at the Castle would include a group trip to Prague, I decided to create for myself a quick, personal minicourse in Czech literature so that i could include some in my upcoming castle lit course.  I spent a long time on google, an even longer time in the library, and came up with a respectable number of czech authors, past and present.  they were unfamiliar to me, except for kafka--whom i'd never realized was czech; he was always just kafka--and vaclav havel, the poet-president of the post-velvet revolution days. decent start. soon i happened on another one i had known, but not well--  karel capek, author of RUR, the world's first robot fantasy play.

then came the discovery, someone i'd heard nothing of , very popular in his day, who wrote in czech rather than german [a fascinating result of the complicated history of the much-invaded Czech and Slovakian regions].  So i curled up with Tales from Mala Strana, with which i fell instantly and probably permanently in love.

Prague, i soon discovered, was a splendid city, which had produced some splendid writers.  To one of them, it has given great attention over the years.  Walk around awhile and you will stumble upon a street or a house or a whatever in which franz kafka once lived, ate, drank, or visited.  he even has his own museum, a small but admirably designed one. 

all this is to the good.  but where was my neruda to be found?  unlike the peripetatic kafka, neruda didn't stray from the  neighborhood he grew up in--Mala Strana, the "little town." Knowing I'd get lost on my own, i got a couple of kind students to spendpart of their free time in Prague helping me find the long,  steep block now known as Neruda Street.  there we found the house had had grown up  in: attractive, narrow, and with nothing left of the writer  except a plaque on the wall, proudly proclaiming that he had once lived here.  on the street level was a small store selling post cards and candy and a few 'sundries.' we went inside, because i wanted to stand as close as possible to where he would have stood.  a shy elderly man sat behind a small counter. did he speak english? we asked. 'little,' he said, almost apologetically.  'there was once a writer here,. jan neruda,...' i began.  the man beamed.  'neruda, yes. writer! czech!'  we tried to find out if the man had read the works, but his slight english and our nonexistent czech made it impossible. still, he was definitely proud of his writer and pleased that we americans had come in search of neruda.

before we left,  bought something. i don't remember what it was--a pen, maybe, or some postcards. i do remember that i bought it.

i've been back to prague on several more class trips, but somehow have never gotten back to neruda street. i keep meaning to.  we go again in  a few weeks, and this time i'm determined to get back there.  i've' even found the names of the cemetery where he was buried, in mala strana, and a place not too far, i think, where there is a lone statue of him. i'll shoot for them both, and make a real pilrimage to neruda's spirit. if i can't  wheedle any companions this time, i will certainly get myself--by foot, bus, or taxi--back to neruda street and his old house. if there remains any sort of store there, i will buy something--a pen, maybe, or some postcards.  of course i will. thinking about it this week, i realized for the first time what that tiny purchase had been about.  certainly, a thank-you to the enthusiastic merchant.   but there was something more, though i couldnt place it at the time. now i understood that  it had the feeling i have in a cathedral when, for all the years i have been away from catholic belief, i experience the holyness of the place, and can't leave until i've lit a candle. it's the same feeling i had unexpectedly at the remains of a shrine to Athena, in france, and , not knowing how to respond to it, had hastily thrown some pennies into a hole in the marble.

neruda's house is a chapel to me.  so of course i bought a chachka or two there.  of course i'll buy a chachka or two again.  i will light my candle to neruda.


American Peacock said...

Love Jan Neruda's Mala Strana. Check out the author of "Grandmother", a very controversial 19th cent. woman writer whose name I'm forgetting.

American Peacock said...

Bozena (something)

American Peacock said...

Bozena Nemcova, a lady after you, Karen