Wars and alchemy and people dying because they didn’t do a wee at a feast… I’d forgotten about all the excellent gruesome detail of Medieval times until I plunged into Richard Fidler’s ‘biography of Prague’, The Golden Maze.
There were other reasons I picked up this tome –
- Back in the eighties, I loved the Doug Anthony Allstars (although was in constant fear I’d be roped into audience participation).
- My brief visit to Prague whetted the appetite, and I certainly wished for more time there.
Prague was founded in the ninth century, and there followed baroque palaces and narrow laneways; plagues and pogroms; Nazi terror and the world’s biggest statue of Stalin.
Fidler captures the readers attention by telling stories within the story – the folk tale of Master Hanus the clockmaker, who made the most beautiful clock in the world for Prague, and then had his eyes burnt out after the unveiling so that he could never make another clock to rival it; a five-day-long public autopsy done by Dr Jan Jesenius, who had the crowd riveted by his slow, methodical dissection of a man; Mozart’s love affair with the city; and the story of author Jaroslav Hašek –
Someone noticed that Hašek‘s fake Russian-sounding name, when spelt backwards, became ‘kiss my arse’ in Czech. In his defence, he insisted he’d been trying to help the war effort by testing police vigilance, but they jailed him anyway for five days.
What I most enjoyed was Fidler’s very personal point-of-view. He states at the outset that his love affair with Prague began in 1989, when he was 25 years-old, and happened to be visiting Prague as the fall of Soviet power traveled in wave across eastern Europe – Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Fidler was struck by the role that students, musicians, actors, artists and writers played in Czechoslovakia’s protests – the city came alive with words (notable after decades of repression and censorship) and the change of power was so ‘peaceful’ that it was dubbed the Velvet Revolution.
The end of the Cold War arrived in 1989 not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a party.
It was the most recent history, that of the secret police (known as the StB), that most interested me. Fidler speaks with one woman about her experience living in a policed society, who summarised it by saying that the StB destroyed trust between people, and ‘…you need trust to make an opposition.’
Although I am a few years younger than Fidler, he makes mention of the world view that he held in the late-eighties, and on reading it, I was sucked back in time, to the nagging anxiety I felt as a teen over the possibility of nuclear war and someone hitting ‘the button’.
Just as worringly, the leaders of both the United States and the USSR appeared to be suffering from cognitive decline… To me, it seemed the world was run by unyielding old men who could afford to be careless about a future they would not live to see.
I paused and wondered if today’s teens feel the same, but about climate change instead of nuclear war?
The Golden Maze is certainly not a traditional history text, but there’s much to admire in Fidler’s narrative. Although some of the early sections are weighted down by dates and a roll-call of kings and their multiple wives, and the later sections delve very deeply into the politics, there’s enough of Fidler’s observations and interpretation of events to keep this ‘biography’ moving.
3/5 Been to the city? Read the book.
Fidler shares a cup of mulled wine with strangers in the Old Town Square.
A woman in a woollen cap passed us a cup of the sweet, spicy wine. Her boyfriend raised his plastic chalice and said, ‘Pravada a laska!’ I looked at the woman in the woollen cap.
‘Truth and love,’ she translated.
‘Truth and love,’ we replied, raising our cups in return.
It’s almost impossible to summarise this book – Fidler tells the story of the reclusive emperor who brought the world’s most brilliant minds to Prague Castle to uncover the occult secrets of the universe. He explores the Black Palace, the wartime headquarters of the Nazi SS, and he meets victims of the communist secret police. Reaching back into Prague’s mythic past, he finds the city’s founder, the pagan priestess Libussa who prophesised: I see a city whose glory will touch the stars.
Following the story of Prague from its origins in medieval darkness to its uncertain present, Fidler does what he does so well – curates an absolutely engaging and compelling history of a place. You will learn things you never knew, with a tour guide who is erudite, inquisitive, and the best storyteller you could have as your companion