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A Troubled History: Prague 1938 by Dara Kavanagh

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Prague 1938

By Dara Kavanagh

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Like many stories, this one began with an image. An adolescent, infatuated with a girl several years his senior, takes to following her surreptitiously around the streets of her neighbourhood. One day, he discovers she’s a thief.

This germ of an idea put down roots in Prague, that enchanted city where a fretful salesman might wake to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach. December 2018 was my fourth time to visit the Bohemian capital – I’d first fallen under its spell shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when it was still relatively untouched by the gaudy excess of tourist-capitalism. Three decades on, in the New Year snow, its cobbled streets and colonnades, its pointed roofs and puppet theatre and astrological clock still worked their magic. I was staying on Nerudova St. on the Mala Strana side of the Vltava, which meant I crossed the Charles Bridge to Staré Město maybe a dozen times a day. A walking tour brought me through Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter, past the haunting, insanely overcrowded Jewish cemetery. The story began to germinate.

There’s an old curse, ‘may you live in interesting times.’ Throughout the twentieth century, the labyrinthine city of Franz Kafka, of Jan Švankmajer and Milan Kundera has certainly seen its fair share of these. Aside from a few interrupted decades of independence, Prague had been swallowed by the Austro-Hungarian, the Nazi German and the Soviet behemoths. Somehow, it survived the physical destruction wrought on so many of the great cities of Mitteleuropa by aerial bombing. The more I thought about its troubled history, the more parallels I found with our present crises of identity: the fall and resurgence of empires; the breaking and redrawing of borders; the proliferation of refugees; the agitation of separatism; the rise of populist demagoguery; the increasingly heated debates on ethnicity, sexuality, nationality and belonging – the nightmares of history that are no longer dormant.

While Syria, the Crimea, Brexit and the Trump phenomenon dominated the news, the story of a boy’s infatuation continued to grow in my imagination. The year might be 1938, when a restless warmonger looked to annexe large swathes of Czechoslovakia in order to reincorporate three million ethnic Germans into his Reich. The girl might be Jewish. Aware that she is being followed, she might challenge the boy to steal her a ring from a jewellers, an initiation rite into a world of con-artists and petty thieves. I began to imagine an art gallery, somewhere in the Staré Město district. A father-son bond that bordered on adoration. A half-sister. A troubled mother. A family advisor who was Sudeten-German. The tale I’d finally begun to write, three months after my return from Prague, was growing at the rate of two thousand words a day. It was no longer a short story. No longer a novella.

More than the world wars themselves, the inter war years had always held a particular fascination for me. I now read a whole library of European novels that were set during the era – by Hans Fallada, Jenny Erpenbeck, Walter Kempowski, Robert Seethaler, Antal Szerb. After that it was a case of checking and double-checking my facts. How much was the Czech koruna worth in 1938, or the Italian lira? Who were the figures and organisations agitating for Sudeten separatism, and against it? I consulted an old map of the city dating from 1930 to ensure I had the correct street names – the renaming of streets is something of a European hazard, particularly when a country has endured so many mutually hostile regimes and ideologies.

I’m constitutionally a slow writer, far more tortoise than hare, so I was amazed to find, at the end of a mere seven weeks, I had the first draft of a novel. It was, at the time, entitled ‘Degenerate’, in part because the hero’s half-sister Katya had evolved into what the Nazis would term a ‘degenerate artist’, but also to focus attention on all who deviate from the supposed ideal and who tend to be ‘othered’ by the far right – the mentally or physically disabled, the vagabond, the dissident, the gypsy, the Jew, the homosexual.

Once I’d completed a second, much-revised draft, a process that took more than twice as long as the first, spontaneous growth, I was delighted to submit the manuscript to Eric Lane of Dedalus Books (not to be confused with Dublin’s Dedalus Press!). I’d long been aware of Dedalus as a European publisher, having picked up a copy of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus some thirty years ago. Their catalogue of books in translation is second to none. Given the forces so recently unleashed by Brexit throughout these islands – and has anyone really foreseen the implications of that divisive vote? – I can’t imagine a more worthy home for Prague 1938.

(c) Dara Kavanagh

About Prague 1938:

Prague 1938 is a coming-of-age novel, or a novel of lost illusions, set in a Czechoslovakia threatened with incorporation into the Third Reich. Centred on the 15 year old Guido Hayek, it traces his infatuation with Leah Meisel, an orphaned Jewish girl several years older than him who, he discovers, is part of a street-gang of con-artists and petty thieves. His initiation into their world occurs when Leah challenges him to steal a ring from a jewellers. Soon he is enmeshed.

Guido is aware that Leah’s grandfather Ezra Meisel, an antiques dealer, has plans to emigrate to Odessa with her, particularly as the Sudeten Crisis comes to a head. Guido’s own crisis comes to a head when he discovers that his father Emil, an art-dealer whom he adores, is bent on cheating old Meisel, and he must choose between aiding the Meisels or helping his own half-sister, the ‘degenerate’ artist Katya, who also has the ‘taint’ of Jewish blood, emigrate to the New World.

“The streets of Prague take centre stage in this smorgasbord of a novel: coming-of-age, familial upheaval, political unrest, artistic intrigue, rag order existence, the folly of youthful infatuation, the warp and woof of flight to a new world; and all of it played out under the looming shadow of war, of a world approaching the precipice. This is elegant, vibrant and read-on storytelling at its very best.” – Alan McMonagle

“[Dara Kavanagh] has written a vivid coming-of-age morality tale set in pre-WWII Prague that holds a magic mirror up to our own strange and disrupted times” – Paul Lynch

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Dara Kavanagh is a writer, academic, translator and poet. A native of Dublin, he spent more than a decade working in Africa, Australia and Latin America before returning to settle in Ireland. He is the author of several books and poetry collections.

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