Review: Prague: Belonging to the Modern City by Chad Bryant

“Prague: Belonging to the Modern City” is a remarkable book and sheds light on our ways of inhabiting modern cities in the past and present

Nandini Bhattacharya


Posted 03.12.21, 03:04 AM

Book title: Prague: belonging to the modern city
Author: Chad Bryant
Editor: Harvard
Price: £ 23.95

Chad Bryant specializes in the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe. Prague: belonging to the modern city is Bryant’s third work on the subject, the first being his monograph, Prague in black: Nazi domination and Czech nationalism (2009); the second was a long essay, “Strolling through the Romantic City: Gardens, Vistas and Middle Class Elites at the Beginning of the 19th Century in Prague”.

Prague: belonging to the modern city is not an objective history of the city. Nor is it a linear tale of how Prague grew, its complex ethnic stratification, its evolution as a global city. Bryant replaces an objective narrator with the “imaginations” of real, but not so notable, people who have inhabited Prague at different times. Such “views” are chosen from different eras and positions of class, faith, ethnicity and gender. Together, their imaginations radiate these distinct ways of “belonging” to the city of Central Europe. These “points of view” are those of editors of tourist guides and die-hard walkers of the city, such as Karel Vladislav Zap; of middle-class journalists writing about Prague in special supplements to Bohemia (a prestigious Czech news newspaper), such as Egon Erwin Kisch; carpenters, laborers and veterans of the First World War, such as Vojtech Berger; actresses straddling the communist and post-communist eras, such as Hana Frejkova; and Czech-Vietnamese bloggers, like Duong Nguyen.

The in-between of Prague – a German-speaking city with a large population with Czech-Slavic cultural aspirations, a Christian majority city (Saint Wenceslas is its patron) with a strong Jewish demographic presence – is just one aspect of its complexity. ‘Belonging’ has been an endlessly charged idea, given Prague’s dramatic and often messy transitions from a feudal empire ruled by the Habsburgs to a democratic republic backed by Allied forces, to violent anti-Semitic territory annexed by the Nazi Germany, to a communist republic, a proto-fascist domain dominated by Russia, to a republican and democratic city, to a global city with economic and cultural ties to the Far East. Belonging is a rich conceptual vein and Bryant uses it to explore a city that has been part of many empires, dominions and republics. Perhaps the correct verb to describe Bryant’s exercise isn’t “explore” or “investigate” (carrying, as they do, connotations of intrusion) but the more expansive, accommodating, “imagine.”

The lives and writings of the five characters are chosen to imagine Prague at different times and none of them is even remotely as well known as, say, Franz Kafka. These five non-notable choose the most unlikely forms of expression – guides, walking maps and memorabilia, pieces of soap operas (diaries / supplements), letters and diaries, actresses’ diaries and electronic blogs – to imagine “a city visible but invisible”. This book deals as much with these emerging but powerful expressive forms as with the imagined city. Bryant’s book is particularly postmodern in its blurring of the lines between empirically told stories and imaginatively recreated narratives, though (strangely) the author is quick to dismiss such generic ‘confusion’ and assert his legitimacy as than a historian with a difference in his introduction.

Prague: Belonging to the Modern City by Chad Bryant, Harvard, £ 23.95

My favorite part of the book is still the stroll, the walk, Zap’s imagination, crisscrossing the city, savoring its sights and sounds and incorporating them into his guides. The difference between driving or traveling by train where the places parade and quietly savoring a central European city with its rolling green beauty, its past embellished with castles and monuments, is well engraved in the book of Bryant. The maps, images and photographs which enrich the vision add to the pleasure of the Zap guides.

The anxieties of belonging to Prague – as experienced by German-speaking Jews, Kisch and Kafka – are comparable to the difficulties of “setting up” faced by Czech-Vietnamese girls like Duong who write blogs. The blogger’s creation of the term “banana-people” evokes the dilemmas of Vietnamese Czechs marked by their non-Caucasian traits and their alternative cultural practices. They arouse xenophobic reactions in the Caucasian imagination which dominates Prague, even if it prides itself on being a cosmopolitan and global city.

The weakness of an otherwise brilliant book stems from Bryant’s attempts to confuse, if not reconcile, ideas of “nationalism” with those of “belonging.” In a post-war atmosphere, “nationalism” is increasingly influenced by a structured set of ideologies. The ideas of “belonging”, on the contrary, are much more fluid and accommodating. “Belonging” has come to define our complex nature of being in a confused and globalized world in far more appropriate ways than “nationalism” could ever do conceptually.

Prague: belonging to the modern city is a remarkable book that sheds light on our ways of inhabiting modern cities of yesterday and today.

Berta D. Wells