“Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project on nineteenth-century Paris, Derek Sayer’s book on twentieth-century Prague brilliantly mixes an infinity of small worlds that reflect the greater world of an enigmatic and fascinating city.”—Jan Baetens, author of Rebuilding Story Worlds: “The Obscure Cities” by Schuiten and Peeters
“Postcards from Absurdistan is a compelling account of the official and the everyday dramas of twentieth-century Prague. Derek Sayer evokes the farce, satire, tragedy, and absurdity of the fragments that create history, masterfully balancing reality and the myths constructed by visual artists, writers, dramatists, and composers.”—Marta Filipová, author of Modernity, History, and Politics in Czech Art
“An extraordinary entrance ticket to modern Czech culture—erudite, independent, fascinating!”—Jindřich Toman, author of Czech Cubism and the Book
“Brilliant and addictively readable, Postcards from Absurdistan is at once an intimate history of Prague and a lively retelling of the story of the twentieth century.”—Paulina Bren, author of The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring.
Czech readers are at last getting a translation of the best known book by the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Bohemist, which is an adventurous tour through twentieth-century Prague in all its surreal corners, that lurk at literally every step.
Prague – “a city located at a crossroads of imagined futures that seemed boundless and imagined pasts that eternally threatened to return.” Just because of this it became an inspirational metropolis for a movement so sensitively reactive to the social changes of its time. Now, surrealist Prague is presented in a spectacular monograph, which in more than 500 pages shows the important role of this uncanny city in its interwoven connections, without which surrealism would not have achieved its celebrated forms. And what is still more remarkable – it is not a Czech but a Canadian-British Bohemist who narrates this adventure …
In his spellbinding account of the turbulent art of Prague and the lives of its creators, Sayer does not forget the finest details … (Elizaveta Getta, “Město surrealistických snů,” iLiterature.cz, 1 August 2021)
I dare not estimate the total number of pragensia, i.e. books dedicated to Prague, that have so far been published. Two of them, however, are absolutely fundamental works and rightly recognised throughout the world. These are Magic Prague by the Italian bohemist Angelo Ripellino and Prague in Black and Gold by the now ninety-eight-year-old Prague native and Yale University professor emeritus Peter Demetz. These two admirers of Prague were joined eight years ago by a generation and a half younger Canadian-British bohemist Derek Sayer, with his extraordinary cultural-historical monograph Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, subtitled A Surrealist History …
I consider Derek Sayer’s book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, with the significant subtitle A Surrealist History, to be an excellent guide to the history that we assume we know. This Canadian has managed to make it special precisely by looking from elsewhere and putting into context what, seen from up close, appears like some impressionist paintings – illegible spots of colour. (Zdenko Pavelka, Meziřádky Zdenko Pavelky, Magazín OKO, 25 May 2021.)
According to the author, the modern history of Prague is “an illustrative lesson in black humor.” Where else can one get a better sense of irony and absurdity, a lasting mistrust of the sense of grand theories and of totalitarian ideologies, and a Rabelaisian delight in how all social and intellectual claims to rationality are indiscriminately subverted by the erotic? But above all, Sayer repeatedly emphasizes that we should understand “modernism” as Vítězslav Nezval prefigured it in his collection Woman in the Plural, namely as something diverse and plural. According to Sayer, it is time to acknowledge that abstract art and the gas chamber are equally authentic expressions of the modern spirit …
The author’s picture of Prague and those times … is dominated by left avantgarde artists … about whose occasional inclination toward the Stalinist Soviet Union the author writes overly generously … Despite this slight bias and minor errors, we can agree with Lenka Bydžovská, who wrote enthusiastically about the original book that Sayer amazes the reader with his “encyclopedic knowledge, his reliable orientation in specialist literature, memoirs and correspondence, in literature and art, but above all with his inventiveness, his ability to illuminate seemingly familiar events, stories and works from a different angle.” (Jan Lukavec, “Surrealistická setkávání v modernistické metropoli” [Surrealist encounters in a modernist metropolis], Deník N, 3 June 2021.)
A substantial book on art has been published – and yet it doesn’t weigh 5 kg! It is, however, weighty in its genuine passion, content and reach. The main theme is the interwar cultural scene in Prague, with an emphasis on the local surrealist circle, which has gained an international reputation. The book is about this phenomenon, but it is is also full of enjambments, digressions and wider contexts. It is a great read – and yet it is based on a truthful, factual and clearly accurate text. Here we have writing that is extremely learned, informed as well as naturally flowing. It is strange that no one has written a book like this before. Only now has a foreigner taken it up. And that is very good …
Sayer’s book is a great achievement. It is a source of information, education and entertainment. A volume that brings Czech history to life, a text that penetrates its numerous hidden corners, a collection of (un)known stories of which we can generally be proud, for they prove the valuable place of our cultural activities and art in the first half of the 20th century. We belonged to the avant-garde, and Derek Sayer knows how to write about it. (Radan Wagner, “Vynikající kniha nejen o Praze a českém surrealismu” [An exceptional book not only on Prague and Czech Surrealism], ArtReview, 12 June 2001.)
A slightly incorrect and provocative guide to the cultural history of Prague, not only of the last century. It reminds Western readers how significant a role Prague played in the world’s modern culture. For those here, it can help them to perceive in a new, unhackneyed and lively way many of Prague’s realities that we too often take to be self-evident. (PLAV, iLiteratura.cz, 19 June 2021.)
Eight years after the original, a Czech translation of a monumental guide to Czech modern culture has come out, whose author is Derek Sayer … The author’s aim is not only to rehabilitate Czech surrealism before the global public, but to present Prague as the city of “another” modernity: “This is not ‘modern society’ as generations of western social theorists have habituated us to think of it, but a Kafkan world in which the exhibition may turn into a show trial, the interior mutate into a prison cell, the arcade become a shooting gallery, and the idling flaneur reveal himself to be a secret policeman …”
For him Prague is also the capital city of the twentieth century because “this is a place in which modernist dreams have again and again unraveled; a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off to reveal the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are.” And also a place where “the past is not easy to escape … even when, and perhaps especially when, you are making new worlds.” (Petr Zídek,”Kniha o českém surrealismu aneb monografie světové Prahy” [A book on Czech surrealism or a monograph of global Prague], Právo, 1 July 2021.)
None of these reviewers are without their criticisms, and I am grateful where they have pointed out occasional factual mistakes in the text. There are of course errors, mostly minor, in the book (and as Petr Zídek noted in his review, some more were added in the Czech edition that were not picked up by the Volvox Globator editors). Zdenko Pavelka also (justly) alerts readers that:
“Sayer’s knowledge of realities and his ability to connect them in time and space are exceptional. I have to warn, however, that sometimes maybe also with a certain exaggeration or, let us say, poetic license. Perhaps you know that the Kinský Palace on the Old Town Square was the seat of the State German Gymnasium at the end of the 19th century, which Franz Kafka attended as a student. Sayer mentions that just outside the windows of his classroom is the balcony from which Gottwald spoke on 21 February 1948. I’m not sure whether in this case Sayer is not slightly embellishing reality in the Hrabalian manner, because the rooms at the disposal of the gymnasium were supposed to be in the rear of the palace. But even if Kafka did not sit in that balcony room, the well-known story of how in a later retouched photograph of the balcony scene, only the cap of Gottwald’s faithful comrade Vladimir Clementis remains, of course on Gottwald’s head, is certainly close to Kafka, but also to the surrealists.”
Precisely. In this case the error was inadvertent, but call it hasard objectif. The Kinský Palace remains an excellent example of Prague’s surrealities. As to the comparison with Bohumil Hrabal, I take it as a compliment.
I am very pleased to learn that a Czech edition of my 2013 book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, translated by Jindřich Veselý, was published in March 2021 in Prague by Volvox Globator. The book is available in hardcover or as an e-book from many stores including Kosmas.cz.
The book has received what I am told are excellent reviews in several leading Japanese newspapers and magazines, including Yomiuri Shimbun (28 December 2018), Asahi-Shimbun (“The City of Kafka and Čapek,” 6 November 2018 book page: “a great book”), Mainichi Shimbun (by Shigeru Kashima, 27 January 2019, reproduced in All-Reviews, 6 March 2019: “It is a must-read document for understanding the Czech avant-garde”), and Repre (no. 35, 2019, by Haraka Hawakame: “With a focus on Prague, the Czech capital, this book crosses literature, art, music, cinema, theatre, architecture and all cultural areas starting from the surrealism movement and draws nearly 600 pages of European cultural history in the first half of the 20th century. It is a great book”).
I have also been told that Tosho Shimbun (the reviewer’s weekly) “recommended the book as one of the most impressive books for 2018.”
I am extremely fortunate, not to say honored, to have a leading Japanese expert on the Czech avant-garde, Kenichi Abe, as my translator, assisted by Kawakami Haruka and Atsushi Miyazaki. An Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo, Dr Abe has translated (among many other Czech works) Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England into Japanese. Translating Hrabal must be the pinnacle of the translator’s art! Kenichi Abe’s most recent translation, appearing this month, is of Bianca Bellová’s Jezero (The Lake). His own book Karel Teige: Poezii no tankyusha (Karel Teige: the surrealist who pursued the poiesis, 2018) is a first attempt to map the Prague interwar avant-garde in Japanese.
The publishers have done a superb job of producing this Japanese edition, with outstanding book design, many illustrations (some not in the original English edition) and a stunning cover by Junpei Niki that montages some of the book’s key motifs.
Ivan Margolius, author of “Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th Century” and “Prague: A Guide to 20th Century Architecture”
“There is no visitor to Prague who is not enchanted by this city. Prague has everything: the ancient and the modern, the history and the culture, the music and the tranquility, the contradictions and the harmony. Derek Sayer’s excellent book captures all of these facets of Prague to make any visit even more worthwhile.”
Jindrich Toman, University of Michigan
“Meticulous, imaginative, unconventional—all the way from old palaces to Little Hanoi.”
I have long wanted to write a non-academic book on Prague that would both provide a readable short history of the city and act as a guide to visitors who might be interested in more than just the standard tourist trail. When I was approached by Reaktion Books to write on Prague for their excellent Cityscopes series, I jumped at the opportunity. This is the result. Out this month. It was fun to write, and I hope it serves its purpose.
Thirty years ago, Prague was a closed book to most travelers. Today, it is Europe’s fifth-most-visited city, surpassed only by London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome. With a stunning natural setting on the Vltava river and featuring a spectacular architectural potpourri of everything from Romanesque rotundas to gothic towers, Renaissance palaces, Baroque churches, art nouveau cafés, and cubist apartment buildings, Prague may well be Europe’s most beautiful capital city.
But behind this beauty lies a turbulent and often violent history, and in this book, Derek Sayer explores both. Located at the uneasy center of the continent, Prague has been a crossroads of cultures for more than a millennium. From the religious wars of the middle ages and the nationalist struggles of the nineteenth century to the modern conflicts of fascism, communism, and democracy, Prague’s history is the history of the forces that have shaped Europe.
Sayer also goes beyond the complexities of Prague’s colorful past: his expert, very readable, and exquisitely illustrated guide helps us to see what Prague is today. He not only provides listings of what to see, hear, and do and where to eat, drink, and shop, but also offers deep personal reflection on the sides of Prague tourists seldom see, from a model interwar modernist villa colony to Europe’s biggest Vietnamese market.
Hardback, 280 pages, 105 illustrations, 71 in color.
I was recently invited by the excellent Prague-based magazine Alienist (motto: ALL SUBJECTIVITY IS APPROPRIATION) to participate in this questionnaire. The entire issue of the magazine can be downloaded here. I have also posted my own brief contribution, which interrogates the notion of alienation, separately on academia.edu.
We live, we die. In a world beset by alienation, it seems we exist in a recurring dream of disillusionment. The history of reason – history as reason – poses itself at the beginning of the 21st century as a congenital madness. And if reason is the symptom of an irrational problem, what part does the mind play in this? Bloodless revolutions have stained the pages of psychiatry, literature, art history, philosophy – if emancipation is an idea that first belongs to those who forge chains, it is not a facetious question we pose: IS SCHIZOPHRENIA A SOLUTION?
“STOP immigrants and Drahoš. This land is ours! Vote Zeman.” Election posters all over the Czech Republic, January 2018.
“This is the order of the moment for every one of us, it is the historical task of our generation … Our new republic cannot be built as anything other than a purely national state, a state of only Czechs and Slovaks and of nobody other than Czechs and Slovaks! Although our land is beautiful, fertile, rich, it is small and there is no room in it for anybody other than us … Every one of us must help in the cleansing of the homeland.” Prokop Drtina, Minister of Justice in postwar Czechoslovak National Front Government, 17 May 1945.
The Bohemian Germans of whom Drtina wanted the homeland “cleansed” had lived in the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia since they were invited in by Czech kings in the 13th century. The chronicle of František Pražský, written in the 1340s, records that as early as 1315 Czech lords complained of “these foreigners who are in the kingdom,” requesting instead that the king favor “us, who were born in the kingdom …”
Six hundred years later Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald echoed the lords’ complaint in Brno on 23 June 1945, denouncing “the mistakes of our Czech kings, the Přemyslids, who invited the German colonists here” and demanding that Czechs expel “once and for ever beyond the borders of our land … an element hostile to us.”
Between 1945 and 1946 over three million Bohemian Germans (and thousands of Hungarians) were forcibly expelled from Czechoslovakia. At least 15,000 people, and probably many more, perished in one of the worst examples of ethnic cleansing in 20th-century Europe. Czechs made up 70% of the population of the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia—the present-day Czech Republic—in 1939. In 1950 they made up 94%.
The Sudetenland was resettled by Czechs and Slovaks, who showed their gratitude by voting in huge numbers for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the elections of 1946. To this day, the region remains one of the most desolate and depressed parts of the country. Needless to say the former Sudetenland voted heavily for Zeman in the election of 2013 (in which, astonishingly, the events of 1945-6 became a major issue between Zeman and his liberal opponent Karel Schwarzenberg) and again in 2018.
PS. Before the war Prokop Drtina was a prominent member of the National Socialist Party who became Edvard Beneš’s personal secretary and confidant. He was a member of the London-based Czechoslovak government-in-exile, familiar to Czechs from his BBC radio wartime broadcasts as Pavel Svatý. He went on to become one of the “bourgeois ministers” in Klement Gottwald’s communist-led coalition government, whose collective resignation in February 1948 precipitated the coup d’état that led to 42 years of communism in Czechoslovakia. Drtina unsuccessfully attempted suicide three days later and was imprisoned until 1960. Later he became a signatory of the dissidents’ Charter 77. He died in 1980, with no end of communist rule in sight. His autobiography, published by the émigré publishing house 68 Publishers in Toronto in 1982 and in Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1991, is called Czechoslovakia My Fate.
“Years ago we saw No-Man’s-Land, in a film, and because the film took place in 1918, we thought, fools that we were, that it was past history. We went home from the cinema with a feeling of pride in the free radiant future toward which the people of today walk hand in hand. At that time we had not yet experienced the strange twists and turns, the detours, dead ends, blind alleys, that history creates” (Milena Jesenská, “In No-Man’s-Land,” Přítomnost [The Present], 29 December 1938; translated by A. G. Brain, in Jana Černá, Kafka’s Milena, Northwestern University Press, 1993, p. 201).
Three months later Czechoslovakia was dismembered and Bohemia and Moravia invaded by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and turned into a Protectorate of the Third Reich. Milena Jesenská was arrested in November 1939. She died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in May 1943.
Today, almost 100 years after Czechoslovakia declared independence from Austria-Hungary and 28 years after the Velvet Revolution, Czech history veers off down another inimitably Czech country lane.
Miloš Zeman, who has warned that if the Czech Republic accepts more refugees from Syria (currently it has admitted a grand total of 12) “unfaithful women will be stoned, thieves will have their hands cut off and we will be deprived of the beauty of women, since they will be veiled” was re-elected as President of the Czech Republic. At least the margin of victory was narrow (51.36% to Jiří Drahoš’s 48.63%) and the major cities of Prague, Brno and Plzen turned out in force for Drahoš.
Moral: history is never past. Good thing Václav Havel appreciated the absurd.
One of my earliest attempts to formulate the argument of my Prague Trilogy was in a keynote lecture I wrote for the conference New Directions in Writing European History at the Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, on October 25-6, 1994. I was one of three keynote speakers, along with Paul Langford and John Hall. My lecture was titled “Prague as a Vantage Point on Modern European History. ”
The conference proceedings, including the three keynote lectures, responses by Turkish scholars, and a transcript of audience questions and panel discussions, were published in English in METU Studies in Development, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995.
I am pleased to belatedly discover that my lecture, along with those of John Hall and Paul Langford, has appeared in Turkish translation in Huri Islamoglu (ed.), Neden Avrupa Tarihi (Istanbul: Iletisim Yayincilik, 2nd ed, 2014). I like the cover too.
The title means “Why European history?”—a good question. I began my contribution to the discussion of John Hall’s paper (which was titled “The Rise of the West”) as follows:
I found the presentation very compelling and I was suspicious precisely because of that. It was the clarity, the simplicity, the elegance of it that came across so strongly, but I wonder can you do that when you are talking about 2000 years of European history and contrasting it with the rest of the world? Can you compass that complexity within so simple an argumentative framework, within a single theory? I want to try to pin you down by asking three simple questions …
The simple questions are: first, what is Europe? Second, where is the West? And third, when was modernity?