Exit Cues

Exit cues can be tricky things. How do you know when the story’s cone to an end? How do you know the ending you wrote out of exhaustion or euphoria is the right way to end? Sometimes it helps to take the opening and the ending and see how they match up. Does the last chapter or page or sentence deliver on the promise of the opening?

Like the creaking of the beautiful old door at Prague’s Questenberk Hotel, the ending ought to suit the opening.

The Viewer and the Story

A million thanks to The Wandering Wanderlusters for leading me to a few of the brilliant and bizarre sculptures scattered around Prague. By far the most moving was the memorial to the victims of communism by Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek and architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel.

First of all, it was hard to find. The map was, well, difficult to read, as great swathes of it had been ripped off:

Once you find it, though, the installation strides into the mind and will not leave. And in that way it is like a good novel.

The character comes toward you out of his past and into your present. Walk up the sloping steps and you experience just enough discomfort to worry about falling yet just enough momentum  to keep going.

When you reach the top (caution: plot spoiler!) you find something you cannot see at the outset. 

Most people who see this never climb up. They will never feel the great dashing wave of sadness and humility that comes over you at the revelation at the summit of the installation. The ending in this case is worth the work, many times over. 

And as in a good novel, the ending prompts you to return to the beginning, to think about the journey.  Is this a single figure in many stages of brokenness, or is the whole thing perhaps symbolic of retelling and of healing? You glimpse the meaning of the bronze strip that runs along the centre of the memorial, showing estimated numbers of those impacted by communism. 

While we gazed up, an elderly man walked haltingly up alongside the installation. He took pictures with an air of reverence. As he made his way back down I stepped forward, thinking I’d offer a hand if he needed it. He saw the movement and smiled, made it down on his own.  Another smile, a muttered “Hezký den!” and he left, turning back to take more pictures. 

He seemed of the generation of the figures in the installation. Like the turning head of the stainless steel Kafka, his presence brought the past into the here and now. Oddly, it lent a little hope. 

Kafka Re-envisioned

The Frank Kafka museum aims to capture the strange, estranging qualities of the man who is its subject. The interior is dark. A video presentation begins with street images of Prague that grow distorted as if seen from underwater. We see notebooks and letters, photos, a family lineage with text we are forced to bend low to read. The lighting is dim. There are many locked drawers. I was left mildly bemused and marginally disturbed, which is probably the intended effect.

A shifting, ​changing head of Kafka, all stainless steel and electronic wizardry, offers a lighter look. Less oppressive bureaucracy and more twisting imagination. Another David Černý piece that beguiles, intrigues and leads you back to some inner quality of the subject that goes beyond the facts and dates of museum displays.

“…different times, different ages…”

img_1960No place in today’s Prague is as empty as the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) in this spread from The Three Golden Keys. But when it rains and the tourists scatter it’s still possible to feel the strange magic of the city.




Look at this statue of  Sigmund Freud by David Černý, hanging over Stare Mesto, pondering whether to hold on or let go.

Yesterday we encountered yet another magical place a couple of hours away from the city.

Český Krumlov is a castle complex, a town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. No pictures were allowed on the tour of this 13th-century castle. The castle has Gothic, Renaissance and baroque elements, a garden with French and English sections and a Masquerade Hall with Rococo art that takes the breath away. Italian and French “Commedia del Arte” figures mingle on these walls.  One actor peers into an actual mirror, from which his own surprised reflection looks back. Above a balcony, an array of painted costumes hang so realistically from their pegs that at first I thought they were players waiting to go onstage.

Illusion is a commentary on reality. Sometimes the borders between them are the very purpose of art. That was true in Josef Lederer’s quirky paintings of 1748. It’s true of much of the art that is everywhere in Prague.

Choose Your Way 

img_1934There are lessons to be learned from days gone askew. “You are free,” Sis says to his daughter in the dedication to The Three Golden Keys. Free to choose your way. Some days the choices yield disappointing results.

The Prague to avoid, it turns out, is the city of tourist traps.

We want to let the castle walls speak to us in their own stony way. Instead we are trapped in a labyrinth of so-called tourist attractions, of which the changing of the guard was the high point. It all went downhill from there.

Still, on the return, there was this. Street signs in most places offer one piece of information at a time. “Caution: children,” for example, or “Rough road.” Utilitarian things, street signs. This one is almost a cautionary tale set in this neighborhood. Look at all the forbidden possibilities. And all the added artistic statements layered in.

Yup. Choose your way. Then stay tuned for the unexpected.

Context and Reference

Walking in one of Prague’s many interconnected parks, it’s possible to spot this little blue head perched on a wall in someone’s house. In a museum, sterile and possibly behind glass, one might pass this by, or at most see it as one piece among many. But here on this wall, there is something moving and tender about this sculpture. 

Perhaps it’s the red brick behind the head or the matter-of-fact way it faces the road. Regardless, you stop to look back. You  see the subtle asymmetry in the face in the way you might see your own face in a mirror. Character emerges from that face, as meaning emerges from Sis’s book, arising from its context, “quietly shimmering, motionless, as if frozen in time.”

The Three Golden Keys yields plenty of meaning all by itself. But reading it while walking through these streets, I’m moved by the power of place. Setting is more than an element to employ in fiction. Used with skill, setting is story.

Time as the Guide

The cobblestones stretch into the distance. Houses lace the horizon line. “We are heading toward the castle.” Peter Sis’s Prague is a place of magic and mystery.

And its traces are everywhere, like this little map I spotted in a restaurant, like the clock tower itself, like the endless cobblestones. Over the next few days, I’ll be exploring this city through the prisms of Sis’s picture book love letter to the city of his childhood.

Unlocking the Mysteries

In the final stage of this month-long European ramble, here are the cobblestones, the windows, the patterns of Prague. 

No city has art like this one, art in its structures and lines, art as elemental to its every twisting street. I have brought with me a copy of Peter Sis’s exquisite love letter to the city, The Three Golden Keys.  In my own bumbling way, I plan to “…unlock the mysteries of Prague very, very slowly.”

What Others Miss

Now is the time to look, attend, be aware, pay heed to the infinite world.

IMG_1520.JPGIn the words of Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem:

There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn’t matter where I am, it could be in a small room.
The glimmer of gold Böhme saw on the kitchen pot
Was missed by everyone else in the house.

I have always wanted to be one of those people Henry James talks about:

Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only,” I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

Monition. Now there’s a word you don’t hear too much these days. It’s a word worth reviving.


​On the Isle of Skye, sheep! Dawdlers supreme, and a monition to attend to this minute. The only minute we really ever have.

The Other Side of History

When you walk in the Scottish countryside as we’ve been doing for the last week, you are reminded everywhere of history. Not the history of lords and manors but stories of oppression. Communities struggling to reclaim the land. A verdant glen that was once the site of a massacre. 

What I like here is the frank labeling of these things for what they were. A massacre is called out for what it was. Witness Angus McDonald whose story can be found to extend from Glencoe to the Nez Perce nation