I’ve read Franz Kafka’s novels and short stories but after visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague discovered I only had a cursory understanding of his life and work. This unique museum presents in-depth information, making you want to learn more about Kafka.
Kafka was a great early 20th century Jewish author. The “symbiosis” between Prague and Kafka’s life and work is well-known. He wasn’t Czech and wrote in German, but he was born in Prague in 1883 and lived there most of his short life. In 1924, at the age of 41 Kafka died from tuberculosis in a sanatorium near Vienna. He was buried in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery.
In 1999, the Kafka exhibition opened in Barcelona. It transferred to the Jewish Museum in New York City from 2002–2003. In 2005 The City of K. Franz Kafka and Prague opened in a museum prominently visible on the Malá Strana bank of the Vltava River in Prague.
The interactive exhibition has two sections – Existential Space and Imaginary Topography – and includes displays dedicated to Kafka’s works. Then you pass by a series of handwritten letters, photographs, diaries, and documents detailing his life chronologically, including his career as an insurance attorney. You pass through a dimly lit labyrinth where music, spot lighting, mirrors, and eerie videos set a fun “Kafkaesque” mood.
Many think that “once you leave the Kafka Museum you may experience some of the tricks the city of Prague plays on the mind”. I’ve been in Prague for three weeks now and think I understand that – two weeks ago, not sure I would….
Existential Space Section
“In this first stage of immersion into Kafka’s world, we look at how Prague affects and shapes his life. Kafka envisioned Prague as a dear little mother with claws.”
“Prague acts on Kafka with its metamorphosing power, confining him to an existential space which he can only enter by fixing his gaze on the surface of things. Prague forces Kafka into a spatial constriction, steadily dosing out its secrets. Prague contributes myth, magic, and a magnificent backdrop, but abhors clarity.”
The museum’s design lets you see Prague from Kafka’s point of view. Guided by Kafka, the exhibits condense principal conflicts in his life. Visitors descend into the depths of “his city,” adapting to his “sensorial range and cognitive register. They become involved in a gradual distortion of space-time agreeing to an experience allowing everything, except indifference”.
“The way Kafka creates the layers of his city is one of the most enigmatic operations of modern literature. With only occasional exceptions, Kafka does not name the places described in his novels and short stories. Instead, the city steps back and is no longer recognizable by its buildings, bridges, and monuments. And even if they are recognizable, they have since become something else.”
People want to name real Prague places in Kafka’s fiction. The Gothic cathedral in The Trial is St. Vitus. The path taken by the protagonist Joseph K. as he runs all over Prague leads him from Old Town over Charles Bridge to Malá Strana. It’s said that in The Judgment the wharf, river, and opposite bank of the Vltava appear as they would be seen from Nicholas Street, where the Kafka family lived.
I recommend visiting the Kafka Museum but be prepared for a heady experience marked by Kafka’s trademarks – “surreal distortion and a sense of impending danger”. In true Kafkaesque form, this museum takes you into another space – Kafka’s world.