Sometimes a city can be like a bird. Just as the magpie is an inveterate collector, hoarding beautiful eclectic bits to line its nest, so Prague retains fragments from bygone regimes and centuries past to create a city of juxtaposition that is alternately exquisite and bizarre.
Prague's personality is expressed as much by its obvious beauty as by its overlooked details. This unforgettable place is brought to life by acclaimed author Myla Goldberg, a former Prague expat, whose first novel, Bee Season, captivated so many with its unique voice and exhilarating prose.
Myla Goldberg lived in Prague in 1993, just as the process of Westernization was getting under way, the city straddling a past it wished to shed and a future it was eager to embrace. In 2003, she returned to see what the pursuit of capitalism had wrought and to observe the integral ways in which Prague's character had endured. In Time's Magpie, Goldberg explores a city where centuries-old buildings have become receptacles for Western values and a generation defined by the Communist regime coexists with a generation for whom Communism is a rapidly fading memory.
Wander through the narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets to places most tourists never see--to a neighborhood eerily transformed by the devastating flood of 2002; to an anachronistic amusement park that is home to a discomfiting array of Technicolor confections; and to the cabinets of curiosity in the Strahov Monastery, where hidden among deceptively modest displays of butterfly specimens and ladies' fans are creatures that defy the laws of taxidermy. This imaginative, individualistic journey will show you the odd and unique corners of a city often seeking to erase what its very stones will not allow it to forget.
Novelist Goldberg (Bee Season) spent a year in Prague as an expatriate in the early 1990s, writing and teaching English to ex-Communist officials. Returning ten years later, she vividly describes current places and events-a neighborhood turned into a ghost town by the recent devastating flood, antiwar protests in the main square, an encounter with corrupt police officers, a late-night tram ride with Czech citizens in various states of inebriation-against portraits of the city's famous sites. The historic Prague of monasteries, medieval libraries, the Astronomical Tower, and Charles Bridge exists side by side with the modern Prague of skateboarders and amusement parks. Goldberg depicts both in an equally engaging manner, allowing her fiction writer's voice to infuse each essay with exquisite detail. A fascinating look at Prague and another winner in the "Crown Journeys" series; highly recommended for all libraries.-Rita Simmons, Sterling Heights P.L., MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 15, 2004
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Excerpt from Time's Magpie by Myla Goldberg
Forget the long days. When the days are long, bands of Germans and Italians and Japanese and British mob the narrow streets of Old Town, and herds of American college students in velvet jester hats and prague drinking team T-shirts stampede across the Charles Bridge singing Pearl Jam songs. But in March or April, the worst of winter is over and the tourist hordes have yet to descend; by early September the summer crowds have dispersed. On the edge of a season it is still possible to duck onto a narrow, cobbled side street to find it deserted and to feel time straddling centuries the way Prague straddles its river. So many of Europe's cities have been bombed and burnt and torn down and rebuilt again that their physical history survives in stray fragments or not at all, but Prague is time's magpie, hoarding beautiful, eclectic bits from each successive era. In Prague, Gothic towers neighbor eleventh-century courtyards, which lead to Baroque and Renaissance houses with twentieth-century bullets embedded in their walls. Art Nouveau hotels abut formerly socialist department stores that now sell French perfume and American sneakers. Through a combination of luck, circumstance, and obstinance, Prague has stockpiled ten centuries of history.
The city's unrelenting profusion of stimuli forces the brain to screen things out, until one day a new sort of detail will ambush an unconscious filter and then appear everywhere, remaking once-familiar streets. Almost every city block displays a plaque commemorating Prague's countless martyrs from across the centuries--resistance fighters and outspoken nationalists, religious heroes and fallen soldiers. Usually these plaques are placed over doorways, or just above eye level on a building's edge. Small and made of dark, weathered metal, they are easily overlooked but upon noticing one the rest appear, Prague's long, sad memory emerging with each additional step. It becomes impossible to go anywhere without noticing more names; Prague becomes a city overrun by death. Then, the eye will be diverted from the funereal by an ornamental frog decorating a doorway, or a marble frieze of a violinist fronting an apartment building that was a music school a century before. It becomes apparent that almost every building is charmingly adorned--even in the shabbier neighborhoods lion heads roar above doorways or cherubs recline below windows. The memorial plaques fade into the background.
The nemesis of ornament, Prague's graffiti also exists at first as visual static, soft and persistent and easily glossed over. Spray paint crawls across delicate Art Nouveau facades; black tags mar eighteenth-century marble; names are keyed into granite landings and wooden windowsills. In the wake of the Velvet Revolution, graffiti has spread like mold along the city's edifices, leaving practically no surface untouched. Here, where old beautiful buildings are the default rather than the treasured exception to time's entropic rule--and where rich architecture belies an impoverished budget--it's impossible to safeguard everything. Freed from Communism's straitjacket, the entire city is now wrapped in scrawl.
But the beauty of Prague's youth almost excuses their penchant for vandalism. Preternaturally appealing creatures with sculptural faces, creamy skin, and long, supple limbs, they lean against buildings, cigarettes dangling from their lips. They sip slow drinks in cafes; they spill onto the streets in acid-washed jeans. They cultivate looks of boredom that highlight their full lips and Slavic cheekbones. Their attractiveness is alarming in its universality and in its disappearance at the earliest intimation of middle age. Prague's denizens breathe coal-laced air, drink polluted water, and live on boiled dumplings and pork cutlets, beer and cigarettes--a diet that generally allots a person only three good decades. Faces become haggard and loose-skinned; bellies grow and arms become flaccid; spines curve; strange lumps and moles appear.