Prague isn't just the names Havel and Kafka: Author Peter Demetz returns to his birthplace

From left to right: Peter Demetz, Marketa Goetz-Stankiewiczova, Miroslav Hornicek, Prague 2000, photo: CTK

During the Prague Writers' Festival's Tuesday panel discussion titled "The Great Dream of Heaven," Prague-born Peter Demetz described the American way of life as a sort of mythical entity that is much more than the golden arches of the McDonald's restaurants which stand out like eyesores throughout the American landscape. A resident of the USA since 1949, he said he considers America to be a sort of heaven because a person doesn't need a past, doesn't have to remember. Just what does the author of the extensive history Prague In Black and Gold have to say about his birthplace and his current visit to the Czech capital? I spoke with him after Tuesday's event.

From left to right: Peter Demetz,  Marketa Goetz-Stankiewiczova,  Miroslav Hornicek,  Prague 2000,  photo: CTK
In Prague in Black and Gold you mention you both love and hate your hometown and you write about Prague as a magical place full of myths. How does it feel to be back here now: is it still a 'magical' place, and how does it compare with the current atmosphere in the USA?

"First, I have to say that this is not my first return. I returned immediately after the so-called Velvet Revolution, and there have been many occasions to walk through Prague. I've been here many times in the last ten years, I think. Spots of Prague are magical, and the rest, fortunately, are very real and not mystical at all because it's a city for real people and real life and not only something invented by the writers of the nineteenth century."

What inspired you to take on such an impressive endeavour - to write such a comprehensive history of Prague?

"I can answer this question very precisely. At that time, I was teaching a so-called city course at Yale about Prague, Berlin and Viennese history and architecture. My impression was that many students of mine had travelled to Prague which was open for the first time, and they always came back with two names: Havel and Kafka. It struck me that Havel and Kafka were admirable people and admirable writers, but that was not enough. The city has a long history - many wars, many peaceful years of creative writing and art - and I said that I was going to write a book for my American students to show them what Prague means in the course of 900 or 1,000 years."

What is your most vivid or most cherished or most beautiful memory of Prague?

"I guess there are many, but when I look back - back in the sense of 40, 50, or 60 years - it's the walks on the Mala strana and the walks on Kampa, especially in May when the chestnut trees begin to bloom. This is for me heaven."

Can you comment a bit on your newest book, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909? Is it also based on historical fact? What inspired you to write it?

"Yes, it's totally historical, I hope. What I did is: I read that Kafka had attended this air show. Then I found out that many other famous people, D'Annunzio and others, especially famous pilots, had attended the show. It was the first meeting of important poets and important pilots in cultural history. It's based on detailed facts."

Author: Tracy Burns
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