darkskywatcher (darkskywatcher) wrote,

Prague in Black and Gold by P. Demetz

After spending the last book review driveling about how long it took me to write the review, I then delay this review even longer, with less cause. Oh well, at least I'm not actually on deadline. So, without further ado...

Prague in Black and Gold is an attempt to highlight pivotal moments and developments in the life of a particular European city using historical accounts and analysis to create or dispel narratives about the city. Demetz, as a born citizen of Prague, has passionate opinions about some of these (spending several consecutive pages trying to disabuse the reader of Prague's "mystical reputation"), while understanding how delicate some of the topics are. The biggest thing in this latter category is the identity politics of "Germans" vs. "Czechs" that figured so prominently in the 20th century Prague that he inhabited. From the very early chapters about primeval Prague-where there is certainly a scarcity of sources- he treats the matter with deliberate care, trying not to take sides by presenting different accounts from different sources.

Overall, I found the book to be quite readable, other than the occasional Czech word. While Demetz does give some accounting of the sweep of history, the focus on particular periods and important actors actually works fairly well. I've never really outgrown my fondness for finding out what life was like in preceding centuries and distant lands, and Demetz gave me just enough of that to get my imagination going while generally sticking to the larger picture and the events and institutions that more clearly occupy the historical narrative.

And Prague has some amazing moments, either singly or repeated. A definite wrench for me was realizing that every time there was civil unrest of basically any sort in the city, the aggrieved party always took time to plunder if not burn the Jewish quarter. On the other hand, some moments made me cheer: when some medieval demonstrators had gone to far, the streets were reclaimed by the butcher's guild, who acted to stop looters and vandals with the threat of their long knives.

There are three particular weaknesses to the book. First, Demetz doesn't systematically address the growth of the city, especially in the 19th century, as clearly or as well as I would like. It seems like there must be some decent statistical data available, but I don't remember seeing it during my reading. Second, the book only occasionally delves into the relationship between Prague and the wilder world, and when it does it is usually through the accounting of events in the life of a particular individual. The best example of this is the Hussites: after Jan Ziska's victory just outside Prague and the subsequent exit from the city of the Hussites to higher ground in the South, they aren't heard from again, though it was years before they were finally suppressed. I'd like to know more of what was happening in Prague's region, and how that affected the city.
The third failure is that Demetz seems hesitant to try to answer some difficult questions that arise. A great example comes near the end, where Demetz can list off many great luminaries of art and literature that were born in Prague or lived there most of their lives, but has no idea why Prague created or attracted so many of these people, and doesn't seem willing to pursue an answer. Perhaps any explanation would be too long or too of topic, but it occasionally left me piqued that there wasn't more pursuit done of what seems like an interesting topic.

The last chapter, a personal account of the author's return to Prague decades after fleeing from it, was a great way to wrap up the book and bring the grand scope of the city's history down to a personal level.
So, Prague in Black and Gold ends up being a good study of a particular place, and as such is worth a read even if, like me, I've never been to that place and knew little else about it.

I'll hopefully see you sooner for the next one.
Tags: books

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