Prague & the Czech Republic: Recommended Reading and Viewing
By Rick Steves
Czech children, adults, and grandparents delight in telling stories. In Czech fairy tales, there are no dwarfs and monsters. Czech writers invented the robot, the pistol, and Black Light Theater (an absurd show of illusion, puppetry, mime, and modern dance). The most famous Czech literary figure is the title character of Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk, who frustrates the World War I Austro-Hungarian army he serves by cleverly playing dumb.
Bohumil Hrabal, writing in a stream-of-consciousness style, mixes tales he had heard in pubs from sailors, self-made philosophers, and kind-hearted prostitutes into enchanting fictions that express the Czech spirit and sense of humor better than any other work — the best are I Served the King of England, The Town Where Time Stood Still, and Too Loud a Solitude. (Jirí Menzel turned some of Hrabal's writings into films, including the recently released I Served the King of England and the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains; for more on Czech cinema, keep reading.)
Other well-known Czech writers include Václav Havel (playwright who went on to become Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president — he authored many essays and plays, including The Garden Party); Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, set during the "Prague Spring" uprising); and Karel Čapek (novelist and playwright who created the robot in the play R.U.R.). But the most famous Czech writer of all is the existentialist great, Franz Kafka, a Prague Jew who wrote in German about a person turning into a giant cockroach (The Metamorphosis) and an urbanite being pursued and persecuted for crimes he knows nothing about (The Trial).
Some lesser-known Czech writers are also worth discovering. Arnošt Lustig's Dita Saxová covers the fate of Czech Jews during the war, while Ota Pavel's Golden Eels and Josef Škvorecký's The Cowards (Zbabělci) describe the world of a generation coming of age just after the war. Dominika Dery's The Twelve Little Cakes is a delightful memoir of her childhood (spent near Prague) at the end of communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So far, the definitive book of the 1989 generation is Jáchym Topol's Sister. Topol captures "the years after the Time exploded" in a rich mixture of colloquial Czech that's full of German and English loanwords and neologisms. Alex Zucker's English translation does an excellent job of capturing these nuances.
The Nobel Prize–winning poet Jaroslav Seifert experienced during his long life all the diverse movements of the 20th century — Dadaism, Surrealism, communism, anti-communism — and created a medium of his own, in which everyone finds a poem to his or her own liking.
The Czech film tradition has always been strong, and the 1960s were its heyday, giving birth to Jiří Menzel's Closely Watched Trains and Larks on the String; Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting; and Miloš Forman's Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blonde. After his 1968 escape from communist Czechoslovakia, Forman made it big in the US with films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus.
Two Czech filmmakers made a mark on the international stage after 1989: Jan Svěrák (The Elementary School and the Oscar-winning Kolya) and Jiří Hřebejk (Divided We Fall, nominated for an Oscar). More recently, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda created a sensation with their hilarious, original, and disturbing documentary, Czech Dream, about the opening of a fake hypermarket invented and massively advertised by the directors themselves.
One of the most inspiring Czech artists is a painter, animator, director, and surrealist — Jan Švankmajer. His Something from Alice, Lesson Faust, and Food combine all of the author's artistic skills into a highly original style that is guaranteed to change the way you look at the world. His two most recent films — Little Otík and Mad — blend in more realism.
The Czechs have a wonderful animation tradition that successfully competes with Walt Disney in Eastern Europe and China. Pat a Mat, Krteček (The Little Mole), or Maxipes Fík are intelligent gifts to bring to your little ones at home.