One of the first fictional pieces I wrote. It is very rough, but it is based on my awkward and uneasy obsession with the novels of Milan Kundera and my visit to Prague last year.
Under the shadow of the Old Town Hall, between Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square, I sat quietly recording notes for a few stories in between some people-watching. As always, a large crowd had gathered underneath the Astronomical Clock just before the hour to watch the ancient puppet show and as always I am fascinated by the crowd’s reaction which shifts from anticipation, excitement to disappointment. Watching the crowd, I notice Milan on the other side. He’s also ignoring the medieval animated figures in favour of the tourists. They are gazing at God’s windows, we think.
His gaze, however, is fixated on a young woman in particular whose hands are gesticulating wildly as she explains the history of the clock to her friends. With a semiotician’s fascination, his steely blue eyes trace the motions of her hands. I wonder if her movements have inspired a new work of literature. Perhaps she is the new Agnes from Immortality? His stare quickly moves beyond an innocent look of intellectual curiosity towards something more lascivious and disconcerting. By observing his observations so intently, the subtext has ceased to be subtext, the intellectual veneer removed.
As the crowd armed with a multitude of cameras and phones disperses, so does he. He seems to move uncomfortably across the Old Town Square even though there is a quiet confidence in his strides, his self-assured steps. After a few metres, I wonder if that discomfort comes not from him but the background. It’s not that he doesn’t fit in: the world doesn’t fit him anymore. Milan is a true exile, not just from this country, but from time.
He is a native Czech, born 90 years ago just two hours from Prague, but the country he was born into no longer exists. He was born three countries ago. Now it is the Czech Republic but before that, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and, when he was born, democratic Czechoslovakia; it has been occupied, liberated, reoccupied, and re-liberated several times since he was born and yet he has remained steadfast, immortalised in his works. For better or worse? I think.
Adorned with a large felt hat, he has a distinctly Parisian sartorial style, one that has been adopted subconsciously after decades of sitting in bars and cafes overlooking the Seine. His outfit covers the majority of his face in shadow, reinforced by the turned-up collars of a man who conspicuously does not want to be seen. As a seasoned people watcher, he spots a fellow acolyte in me and saying nothing sits in the chair on the table next to me, forcing my gaze elsewhere out of propriety. A small glass of red wine arrives before him, ostentatiously standing out among the lakes of pilsner at every other table including my own. Where we look for romance and exoticness in Prague, he seeks the consolation of a new home. “A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person”, he once wrote. What, then, of the man forced to leave a country that no longer exists? A man who lives in a time long past?
As we sit there I can feel myself being watched in the periphery of his vision, and he can feel himself out of the corner of my eye. We watch without watching. The glass of wine reaches his lips, he sips and places it back down next to his hat. ‘Remember, Marcel Proust wrote: “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself”, Milan says. “The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”‘
I don’t know if he’s talking to me or if he’s talking to myself. I’m the narrator of the great narrator’s story and yet even in this fantasy of my creation, I cannot imagine a dialogue, a conversation between pupil and master. We are, all of us, narrators and our stories are our own even when they are about other people.
Milan responds to my thought, talking softly into the rim of his glass: ‘The novelist is the sole master of his work; he is his work’.
I observe the discomfort of the world around him and quietly I come to accept that we all come to exists in times that are not our own. Our value as artists remain even if the worlds we depict change, and if those new worlds challenge our ideas. One day all of us will sit uncomfortably between the old and the new. We all need our Knight of the Mirrors, showing us our flaws and sometimes we are shown those flaws in what we read: sometimes in what we write.