Franz Kafka. A German-Speaking Jew from Prague

Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is arguably one of Europe’s most fascinating authors. Kafka is rightfully associated with the city of Prague, today the capital city of the Czech Republic. But was Kafka Czech? No, Kafka was a German-speaking Jew from Prague.

Franz Kafka
Source: Anonymous

To understand this statement, we must first understand the city of Prague and its history, as well as the region where it is located, Bohemia.

Prague was founded during the second half of the 9th century. During the High Middle Ages, the city flourished as a political and economic center for its surrounding region, Bohemia, or Čechy in Czech and Böhmen in German.

Prague played an important role in Bohemia and Central Europe from the Middle Ages until the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In fact, the Thirty Years’ War is considered to have begun in Prague with what is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration is a method of execution where the intended victim is thrown out of a window. The name of the this method comes from the Latin word for “window”: fenestra.

Prague Castle (2006)
Source: Wizzard

The Second Defenestration of Prague was the execution of the governors of Bohemia, installed on their posts by the Catholic Habsburg dynasty to subdue Protestantism in Bohemia. The citizens of Prague responded to this policy by defenestrating the Habsburg officials from the windows of the Hradčany, or Prague Castle.

The Thirty Years War ravaged the European continent and Prague’s political and economic success waned. However, new life was breathed into the city during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. When Kafka lived in Prague it was a bustling and modern city at the heart of Europe.

When Kafka was born in 1883, Prague and Bohemia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into being in 1867 when a constitutional compromise between the Austrian Empire and Hungary was reached. This compromise meant that Hungary would continue to acknowledge the rule of the Austrian emperor, but was autonomous in all political issues except war and foreign relations.

Outside of Hungary, the empire consisted of a not-clearly defined agglomeration of regions called “the kingdoms and lands represented in the [Austrian] Reichrat” or simply “the other Imperial half.” What these different regions had in common was the dynastic claim of the Habsburgs, the royal dynasty to which the Austrian royal family belonged. Bohemia and Prague belonged to this other half.

Austria-Hungary in 1899. Prague is located at the map coordinates 14:50.

Throughout history, Bohemia had three major population groups: Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Czechs lived in Bohemia because of it being a region within the Slavic cultural and ethnical sphere. Germans lived in Bohemia because of its proximity to German regions such as Bavaria. Jews lived in Bohemia because of the Diaspora, which after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. spread the Jewish population across the world. Jews are known to have lived in Prague since the 970s, with a permanent community established there in the 11th century.

Reading articles, texts, and private correspondence contemporary to Kafka, it becomes evident that these three groups defined themselves as separate from one another. In fact, tensions were at times rife between Germans and Czech nationalists with Jews trying to find a place in the middle while avoiding anti-Semitism from both sides.

During Kafka’s lifetime, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Prague, most of them spoke German and mainly identified with the German-speaking culture. They lived a secularized, mostly bourgeois lifestyle and distanced themselves from Jews living in rural areas further east. Yiddish, the language most often connected to eastern European Jews, was unknown to them. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Prague’s Jewish population consisted of 92,000 people, one of the largest in Europe. 60% of them are estimated to have perished in the Holocaust. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Prague.

Franz Kafka was born into a wealthy merchant family, where everything centered around the family business. Kafka himself worked as an official at an insurance company and dedicated his spare time to writing, which lead to conflict with other family members. A relentless self-critic, only a handful of his stories were published during his lifetime. Most of Kafka’s works that we know and admire today, were published posthumously by his friend Max Brod, who disregarded Kafka’s wish to burn all the manuscripts after his death. All of Kafka’s stories were written in German.

Although secularized through his upbringing, Kafka identified himself as a Jew. He became engaged in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Prague and that movement’s discussions on Jewish identity and culture interested him a great deal. He frequented the Yiddish theater whenever such plays were available in Prague and made friends within the theater companies.

Reading Kafka’s works, Jewish folklore and Talmudic discussion techniques jump out off the page. The Jewish sense of humor and the twists and turns of Talmudic discourse lay the foundation of an absurd and unpredictable reading experience. Believe it or not, but the step from Kafka to Mel Brooks is not a big one.

Throughout his life, Kafka lived in Prague, the main city of Bohemia but only a regional capital in the other half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to and identifying with one of the three main ethnic and cultural groups. When he died in Vienna at the age of 40, Prague had been the capital of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, created after the collapse of the empire brought on by World War I, for only six years.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources: Czechoslovakia Bohemia Prague
Jewish Virtual Library Prague
Franz Kafka The Trial (Der Prozess) (New York, 1998)
Reiner Stach Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton & Oxford, 2005)

The images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Texas Rangers and Killer Women

I started watching ABC’s TV-show Killer Women because of Sofia Vergara. All I knew about the show was what she told Jimmy Kimmel. It’s an American adaptation of the long-running Argentinian TV-show Mujeres Asesinas. I continued to watch it because it has good characters, good story lines, and well written episodes. And it has Texas Rangers. Unfortunately, I seem to have been the only one to have this opinion, because the show has now been taken off the air.

Sofia Vergara herself is not in Killer Women. She is one of the show’s executive producers. The lead of the show is Tricia Helfer, who plays Texas Ranger Molly Parker, one of only two women on the force.

Tricia Helfer
Source: Alan, DSC02107

Each episode is a stand-alone case investigated by Agent Parker where the perpetrator is a woman. Because of this plot device, the show so far has tackled issues such as Mexican drug cartels, domestic violence, and PTSD among war veterans from the view point of a woman who takes action.

This format is taken from the original Argentinian show, which in turn is based on the Mujeres Asesinas trilogy written by Marisa Grinstein. Grinstein’s books chronicle actual murders committed by women in Argentina.

The overarching story line of Killer Women is Molly’s attempts to break free from her abusive husband, Senator Jake Colton (Jeffrey Nordling), and start a new life with undercover DEA agent Dan Winston (Marc Blucas). Highlighted here is the fact that in the United States of America in 2014, men and women are not equal before the law.

What I really enjoyed about Killer Women is that it is a new show that involves Texas Rangers. I am a huge fan of Chuck Norris’ TV-show Walker Texas Ranger and his movie Lone Wolf McQuade. I also love Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer winning novel Lonesome Dove, and the mini-series based on the book where, in my opinion, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones put on the best performances of their careers as retired Texas Rangers Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call.

Texas Ranger Badge
Source: Hartmann352

Texas Rangers are a law enforcement agency with a history going back to the 1830s. The first Texas Rangers acted as a security force for settlers against Indians. During the period of the independent Republic of Texas, the Rangers patrolled the Texas-Mexican border. The Texas Rangers’ weapon of choice was the Colt revolver. In other words, it is because of the Texas Rangers the Colt has become the weapon synonymous with the Wild West. Moreover, in 1934 former Texas Rangers officers brought down Bonnie and Clyde.

United States and Texas Flags
Source: Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

The Texas Rangers merged with the Texas Highway Patrol in 1935, ending its existence as an independent law enforcement entity. Today, Texas Rangers are still active in Texas, among other things adding assistance to local law enforcement in criminal investigations.

Personally, I’ll take a TV-show or a movie about Texas Rangers over the FBI or the NYPD any day. Killer Women provided me with just that.

However, the show has been cancelled. It will be replaced by a show starring Christian Slater and Steve Zahn where one guy is normal and the other guy is out there. That sounds like a show that has never been produced before (Person of Interest, Elementary, Sherlock, Two and A Half Men, Hannibal).

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

IMDB Killer Women
IMDB Walker Texas Ranger
IMDB Lone Wolf McQuade
IMDB Lonesome Dove
Mujeres Asesinas (TV-show)
Marisa Grinstein Mujeres Asesinas
Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove Texas Rangers
Wikipedia Texas Rangers

Images downloaded from Wikimedia Commons


What the Dickens! Poetic License in Historical Fiction

How accurate does an author need to be when writing historical fiction? This is a question I have wrestled with for quite sometime, on Twitter and here on The Boomerang. This third installation in my ongoing discussion on history and historical fiction came about after reading Peter Damien’s book review of Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe on Book Riot.

Water color painting of Virginia Poe (1822–1847)
Source: Midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Mrs. Poe is a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia, and the relationship between her husband and one of his admirers, a poet named Frances Osgood. Damien’s review of the book is a positive one. However, he does a double-take when Cullen lets Poe discuss Charles Dickens.

According to Cullen’s portrayal of Poe, he is not impressed by the writings of Dickens, even sneering at his portrayal of England’s less fortunate classes. Damien, who is obsessed by Dickens, notes here that Poe, too, was obsessed by this author. In other words, Cullen has given Poe opinions that contradict Edgar Allan Poe. As a consequence of this, Damien understandably begins to question the accuracy of the entire novel.

3a52078r  Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)                  Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Source: Library of Congress                    Source: Tagishsimon, Wikimedia Commons

Here lies the crux of historical fiction. The genre is called historical fiction. In other words, what you read is made up. However, the genre is called historical fiction. This means that what you read also has a basis in events that once took place.

As I stated in the blog post Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane, historical fiction is necessary to make historical research accessible to the general public. Historical research needs to be made sexy and historical fiction is a nifty way to do it. To make the story work some poetic license is needed or there would be little difference between fiction and research and the value of entertainment would be accordingly.

The problem with historical fiction is how an author can use poetic license and still call it historical fiction?

My answer to this question is that as long as the author does not change important facts or the essence of a character, poetic license can be applied quite freely.

The problem with Cullen giving Poe a negative view of Dickens is that in so doing she makes the fictional character of Edgar Allan Poe contradict the essence of the historical character of Edgar Allan Poe. This is where historical fiction leaves history behind and just becomes fiction.

According to Damien, the scene where Poe discusses Dickens is a minor one. But, as the saying goes, The Devil is in the details.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Previous posts on the topic of the relationship between history and historical fiction are
Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane
Five Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and not an MFA