‘You have to wonder what he’d think of the burgeoning surveillance state of the world, and its general growing creepiness’
What would K. say about all this, or the Good Soldier Švejk, for that matter? That’s what I want to know.
It’s true, Prague has always been a crazy quilt of icons clashing, blown up glass, and iconoclastic ideologies; a place of bracketed space and time, drawing the displaced, dispersed and just plain dissed; home to all the diasporas floating on the latest winds of change, the central melting pot of would-be bohemians and art school flunkies from the Upper West Side of the Big Rotten Apple.
But ever since the Russians left town with their tanks, and not long after Havel addressed Harvard and earnestly preached world peace to deaf ears, Prague has become a place of smoky sports bars, business wolves and a hub for all the latest techno gadget and surveillance state conventions. Every year brings a Kissinger or a Blair, and other assorted war criminals, to hawk the latest battlefield bling to an assortment of rogues wearing dishdashas, turbans, berets, and probably even togas, now that we’ve gone all retro with our empire thinking.
So, I pace, wandering from frame to frame, a little loose-knit Napoleon, looking into my loo water, maybe a bit too much to drink, and wonder: What would Citizen K. and Soldier Švejk think of all this?
I first learned of Kafka and Hašek from my only good high school teacher, Mr. White, a diminutive field of energy who looked like a goyem version of early Woody Allen. He would enter our Year 10 English lit classroom with his Nietzschean moustache, and always wearing his University of Michigan sweatshirt (O those SDS days!), and break into some song and dance about Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, and the making of the English working class, which was fine in itself, except he was from a rich suburb of Boston and teaching poor kids from some vanilla ‘hood, and you’d go, ”Meh.”
But one day he talked Kafka and Hašek, and a history of the Czech political underground, and we’d go, “Meh,” and he’d suddenly leave the room like a flashy pianist grabbing his hat and hightailing it after splashing down a fiery head-turning cadenza.
And we’d look out the window and see him with his beauteous wife, Anne, her long legs two lines of poetry, their hands a conjoinéd couplet, and Mr. White about two feet shorter than his poet wife bouncing along beside her like one of the Mario brothers. We learned later she left him for a sonneteer and he moved to Prague to mope through a masters in linguistics at Charles University. And now he shills for Apple. Some rebound. Meh.
But back to K. You have to wonder what he’d think of the burgeoning surveillance state of the world, and its general growing creepiness. And what would he make of Prague’s leading role in rolling out these brazen new technologies? Just the other day I read in the Prague Post of a plan to install cameras with built-in software that will predict or anticipate certain criminal behaviors among the hoi polloi and automatically call the cops. What would K. say to this?
Hard to predict. We do know Kafka was a tetchy fellow though. Recall that in her obituary for Kafka, Milena Jesenská, Franz’s lover, said of him:
“He was a hermit, a man of insight who was frightened by life. . . .He saw the world as being full of invisible demons which assail and destroy defenseless man. . . . All his works describe the terror of mysterious misconceptions and guiltless guilt in human beings.”
Wouldn’t it be a hoot to see the look on K’s face, upon first reading Edward Snowden’s revelations in the Post about the NSA’s XKeyscore and its hyper-intrusivity? You can bet your sweet bippy he’d not be crawling out of bed that day.
I remember Mr. White teaching us about Kafka’s portrait of the individual up against all the cosmic emptiness; in fact, I picture K. on the Charles Bridge, exclaiming, ”WTF,” every time I see a version of Munch’s Scream, which is all too often, since someone has thought to mass produce it as blow-up dolls, giving some the wrong idea, I’m sure, and not really being a ‘version’ at all. And Mr. White would draw out the opening lines of The Trial, “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.”
And then Mrs. Grubach, just disappearing like that, right? You say, ‘due process’, and someone pulls out a spearmint leaf and points at the sun (as if everyone understood Buddhist geekspeak and the questions of being were rhetorical).
No, I don’t know what K. would do. But I can imagine him sitting down at ‘a clean, well-lighted place’ to write Anne Frank a postcard, “All nada, nada, nada,” he’d scratch, shaking his head, and Anne would never read it, being too busy online ordering a thermal image-hiding ‘anti-drone hoodie’ at PrivacyGiftShop.com.
And Švejk with his comic emptiness, in a world that just wants to tickle him to death. What would the Good Soldier say to all this? Švejk, the bumbleclot, clopping south through Wenceslas Square toward the mounted Saint. Švejk stooping, picking out of the gutter discarded bubblegum blobs and remolding them, as he trods, into saleable figurine likenesses of the Castle’s giants.
Perhaps badgering a passerby with, “Buy a bubblegum giant for the missus?” and getting back from some local scalawag, “How would you like to be Jacques Cousteau at the bottom of the Vlatava, heh?” And Švejk bumbles on, passing assorted jugglers, sordid buskers, prozzies thick as mozzies, onward, unperturbedly disturbed.
And all the summer ex-pats, in all the midnight sports bars, simultaneously typing away at keyboards, clickety-clacking exactly the same message but with different rhythms, creating a kind of finger fugue, authoring emails all about their adventures in old Praha, complaining though about ‘all the tourists’ teeming this way and that, and how they managed to bump into 15 friends and/or acquaintances, and staying at a hostile hostel way out in the outer circles, outer circles so far out on the train that they are the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno, and the hostel proprietress with baggy underwear (you can see some drying on the line) looking up and down, and saying, “Oish, loot katju, yoy moik me miss the Sobiets,” and then adding over her shoulder, “An in de myorneeng, doan forgeh de goat to milyk iv you vant sum krem lin in yaw gruel. Vulva Rebablution, myuh ahss,” and then all the ex-pats rushing outside simultaneously and upchucking their Urquell Pilsners all over the mounted Saint, and then going back for refills.
And then Švejk makes it to the park, and he’s looking up at a curious warning sign, when sirens go off and a security services spotlight beams down on him leaning against the base of the Saint, and he’s being busted on suspicion of public defecation, and although he never did, he fits the profile in the disposition matrix, and they drag him away, to the Castle, where he goes before the magistrate, who is K. or, at least, a 3D-printout simulacrum, who pronounces him innocent and sentences him to debt. At which hearing Švejk throws up on the bench, and K. says, “I know what you mean.”
Ah, yes, Praha. The mind wanders back to the years before all the surveillance, when people just ratted each other out for revenge, or an extra loaf of bread, or for the sheer thrill of seeing Soviet soldiers drag your friend, Veronika, away to the gulag (her dopplered voice holloring,”You’ll get yours, Tomáš”). Tanks for the memories, dear city. Unbearable lightness of being? Not so much anymore. More like the unbearable speed-of-lightness of being constantly watched and judged, all the guiltless guilt, in the city Kafka called home, and we now call the new world penal colony.