THE Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague is touted in tourist literature as the cultural capital of Europe. While some may baulk at such a description, pointing to its reputation as a sex trade hotspot, I don’t see how this can detract from the city’s well-deserved reputation as a cultural centre.
I am writing this on the second day of my second visit to Prague. My first visit was in 2005. The impression I have of the place is still the same – this former communist Eastern European city oozes with culture.
Over here, a Czech is more likely to attend a classical concert or an opera than watch a Hollywood movie. Apart from its many museums, Prague has three full orchestras, a host of small, high-quality chamber music groups, and a plethora of dance troupes and theatre companies as well as a very active jazz music scene, among other cultural pursuits, that together put up a large number of shows each day.
What’s more, most of these shows are well-attended by the city’s 1.25 million inhabitants. Inspired tourists find themselves keen to do the same, but often face disappointment as they discover that tickets for the more popular shows, such as concerts by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, have been snapped up long before they arrived in Prague.
The only cities that come close to putting up such a large number of cultural performances are London and New York, but these two metropolitan cities have a population of some 8 million, so Prague still leads by a mile in terms of shows per capita.
When referring to celebrities, pop and
Novelist Franz Kafka was regarded by the Czechs as one of their own. The house he had lived in is preserved as a memorial, and a museum is dedicated to an exposition of his works. movie stars of the Hollywood ilk or their local and regional variants come to mind in most societies these days. But in Prague, a natural manifestation of the city’s cultural inclination is its celebration of cultural icons above their pop equivalents.
Writers like Milan Kundera and the late Ivan Klima, Bohumil Hrabal and Franz Kafka are popular and influential, with their words carrying weight among the populace, even after their deaths.
Kafka was born in Prague of GermanJewish immigrants at a time when Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wrote in German as this was his native tongue but he spoke fluent Czech and is regarded by the Czechs as one of their own. The house Kafka lived in is preserved as a memorial and is open to the public. There is even a museum dedicated to an exposition of the writer’s works.
Much of Kundera, Hrabal and Klima’s influ-
Music composer Antonin Dvorak remains one of the Czech Republic’s favourite sons till today, 106 years after his death. Documents relating to his life and work have been preserved. ence stems from their status as dissident writers during the Communist era when they wrote under the threat of jail against the repressive regime in power from 1968 to 1989. Klima and Hrabal, especially, are revered as they were forced to engage in blue-collar jobs to survive, but still wrote and published their works underground, without any chance of gain and every chance of reprisals from the Communist authorities.
So influential are Czech literary figures that dissident writer Vaclav Havel was elected the country’s first post-Communist president in 1989. He was in office until 2003, first as president of Czechoslovakia and, from 1993, as president of the Czech Republic after Slovakia declared independence.
One hundred and six years after his death, classical music composer Antonin Dvorak is still one of the Czech Republic’s favourite sons. Documents relating to his life and work, including some of his music manuscripts, have been preserved and been on permanent display at a museum in Prague since 1932.
Another classical musician, Bedrich Smetana, is less well-known internationally than Dvorak but is widely regarded as the father of Czech music, thanks to some of his works that were written as nationalist expressions of Czech aspirations for independent statehood in the mid-1800s. Smetana lends his name to many of the city’s music-related halls and monuments.
Classical music is so popular in the country that most of the street buskers in Prague consist of small roving bands of chamber groups comprising violinists, cellists and bassists who perform their music at cobblestoned cul-de-sacs of old buildings that date from medieval times.
The quality of play is very high for buskers and these bands are more interested in selling their CD albums than the coins and notes that spectators often shower them with.
Then there are the musicians who play at the many jazz and music clubs located in every nook and cranny of the city, jamming with international artistes who flock to the city in droves as well.
Jazz music is deeply popular because of its association with anti-Communism as Czechs would flock to jazz clubs in defiance of Communist disapproval.
Let me add the caveat at this point that the average Czech also likes his weekly dose of Two And A Half Men and The Simpsons, but these shows and the stars from these shows play second fiddle to the literary and musical icons whom the Czechs regard as the real celebrities.
The literary heroes of Prague also open one’s mind to another way of defining a celebrity. Talent is essential, but it is the courage one has in pursuing one’s talent, at risk of life and limb, that makes one a true celebrity. Art has a purpose and it’s not about money but about conviction. Now, that’s something we don’t encounter much in the Hollywood variation. n In this column, writer Hau Boon Lai ponders the lives, loves and liberties of celebrities.