Discovering the Prague in John Banville's memory
In “Prague Pictures,” John Banville describes the time when he came to Prague on a mission to smuggle artwork back to America, where his friend Milos would sell them for a ton of cash. The story itself, however, is merely a backdrop in a novel dedicated to depicting the mysterious and beautiful city of Prague from Banville’s own perspective. The probing question that Banville seeks the answer for is simply, “What is Prague?” and moreover, how does one go about defining it? “Does its essence inhere in the pretty Old Town Square, with its cafes and its famous clock, or...in the smoldering concrete suburbs?” asks Banville in the early pages of his novel. Even more than the physical and geographical qualities of Prague, Banville also ponders how to define Prague through its history; “Time lays down its layers like strata of rock, the porous limestone of the present over the granite of the communists over the ashes-and-diamonds of the Habsburgs over the basalt of the Premyslids…Where, in what era, may one station oneself to find the best, the truest, view?”
Eventually, Banville comes to realize that Prague is different for everyone who experiences it. He writes, “There are as many Pragues as there are eyes to look upon it – more: an infinity of Pragues.” Unlike other notable and cherished cities around the world, Prague cannot be universally defined and his pressing question, “What is Prague?” will bear a different result from all of the people who answer it. For Banville, the Prague in his memory will live on through a mix of his own experiences and the Prague displayed in the work of Josef Sudek, a photographer he admires deeply. Banville writes, “When I think back to those days, and nights, in Prague, I am not sure whether what I am summoning up are images from my memory, or from the photographs of Josef Sudek.” Through his novel, Banville shows us his Prague, and doesn’t try to force his version of it on his readers. Banville doesn’t set up his book as a “Guide to Prague” or an informational book on Prague, but instead describes the mysterious city through his experiences within it, and how he was able to finally grasp the depth of it.
About a month ago, I was on a bus coming back to Prague from Budapest after a weekend of traveling. I was exhausted, so I had been planning to sleep for the entire seven-hour journey. Instead, I was kept awake for the duration of the trip by a group of eight middle-aged men sitting in the back of the bus, who were passing around bottles of liquor and e-cigarettes as they laughed and yelled loudly to one another in slurred Russian voices. My first thought on that long bus ride was that they must be on the wrong bus. They couldn’t be going to Prague, a city I knew for its tragic history, its ancient architecture, and its quaint cafes. These loud, obnoxious men who couldn’t even make it through a bus ride without their vodka must have been going to experience a part of Prague that I’ve never seen. They definitely weren’t going to my
Prague, that’s for sure. In an infinity of Prague’s, I don’t think I wish to see their version of Prague any time soon.
Banville’s statements on the infinite amount of ways people can interpret this city reminded me of a different quote from one of my favorite books of all time. As with “Prague Pictures,” this book’s theme was also an idea about “infinity,” but it dealt with a different topic entirely. To paraphrase, the book set out to prove that infinities can be all different sizes, although they are all infinite. For example, there are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1 (0.1, 0.11, 0.12), but there are an even bigger infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 2, and 0 and 100. I’ve only been in this city for three months now, but it feels like I’ve lived here much longer; I feel like I’ve experienced my own little infinity in Prague. Although the day when I have to pack up and leave is quickly approaching, I will take back with me my
unique version of Prague, and I will leave thankful for my little infinity within the numbered days.
p.s. My favorite book that I mentioned is called, “The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green, and it’s also being made into a major-motion picture coming out this summer. Read it, it’s amazing.