“The world is going to Hell.” We’ve been hearing that for so long, it may seem surprising that we haven’t got there yet, but plenty of people have been there and some would say they still are.
For many folks trying to exist behind the Iron Curtain, everyday life was a kind of Hell. That small dark figure sidling along next to the grungy brick wall: was it Kafka’s ghost? We wouldn’t have been surprised. Again and again, as we walked through old Prague in 1988, we felt that Kafka’s tales had foretold this hungry and dark world. We could imagine never being allowed to escape this relentlessly bleak place.
Crossing the dirty Charles Bridge and seeking Kafka’s house in the gloomy shadow of Hradcany Castle above the Vltava River, we wished that we’d seen Prague before World War II. First the hapless city suffered during the war, then endured liberation by the Red Army, and ever since had struggled to survive as part of the Communist Bloc.
We encountered few tourists and those were European, except for a solitary Japanese group. Each evening, we returned to the threadbare glory of our old hotel for an uninspired, stingy meal at one of its restaurants. Finally, since we’d used up our food vouchers, we decided to try a restaurant we’d seen in the old town. It looked pricy enough that it might actually have good food – and enough of it, for a change. A small notice on its door had said that a reservation was required, so I asked the hotel desk clerk to call for us, handing him a tip.
“Impossible,” he told us, a favorite word behind the Iron Curtain. Even that depressed and depressing city had a class system. In that case, I said, we want to eat at the hotel’s French restaurant, which seemed to be reserved for guests more important than mere tourists.
“Impossible,” he said again, shaking his greasy head. One or the other, I said. He didn’t like the ultimatum. No local resident would’ve dared, but I stood there, waiting. Finally, he said that he’d see what he could do. Clearly, he didn’t want to return the tip.
A while later, he called up to our room. A table for us in the hotel's French restaurant had been located, he said. Dredged up from the murky waters of the Vltava, I wondered?
That evening, we found ourselves at a small table wedged between a flamboyantly dressed ballet troop from the Soviet Union and some stout bureaucrats. The waiter brought us miniscule courses of fairly nice French dishes, which together almost satisfied our grumpy stomachs. This time, in this small way, maybe because we were foreigners, we were able to stand up to the unseen powers.
Over the years, as we visited countries around the world, we saw and experienced the ruthless controls imposed by various regimes. And decades later, Delphine, the idealistic heroine of my novella, Delphine, found herself in a place where outside forces also had stolen the ability to make free choices – and discovered how lives could be destroyed because of it. The young, she came to see, lose hope and the old descend into bitterness and despair.
However, that night two dozen years ago, we discovered that nothing stays the same forever – and that the regime so rigidly and blindly then ruling Czechoslovakia might not hold on forever.
From our fourth floor hotel room window, we watched a crowd of young protestors spreading like a swarm of insects across lower Wenceslas Square until, without warning, several Black Marias and black buses with painted-over windows appeared, spilling black-garbed, club-carrying police. The demonstrators fled into side streets and alleys, cops chasing them. Those who weren’t fast enough were beaten and dragged into the vans and buses.
“This can’t go on,” we told each other.
As it turned out, it didn’t.
A year and a half later, when the riot police again beat back a peaceful demonstration, the world already had changed. This time, the Soviet Union was in no condition to send in tanks (as it had in 1968). The so-called Velvet Revolution soon crowded the streets of Prague. After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Prague became the capital of the new Czech Republic and UNESCO designated the Old City a World Heritage Site.
People across the Middle East also have been struggling for years to achieve their own versions of self-determination. “Arab Spring” seems to have been just a step toward something bigger and perhaps more enduring.
In Syria, people are fighting desperately to break free from long-standing bonds. Cities are being bombed, children are being tortured, and 2,000 people a night are fleeing into Jordan. In Iran, whatever their leaders may say, ordinary people still want to be friends with the rest of the world, including the United States. And, as Delphine in my book found out, the tragic struggle in the massively walled land shared between Palestine and Israel still has found no solution.
If Kafka had walked on Prague’s streets with us back in 1988, he would’ve recognized the atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Maybe our world today has more in common with that world than we want to admit.
Some of us today seem to be wallowing more in the gaudy false paradise of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than in George Orwell’s relentlessly grim 1984, but do we really want to live in either place? Maybe Hell comes in many hues and flavors. The world is more complex than political slogans and television sound bites. As writers, I believe, we have an obligation to observe this screwed up, motley world around us and to use what we discover to inform and enrich our work.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Texas A & M University Press Consortium, and by order from your local book store.