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Magic From Z to Z

The first objective of the SDSU Kafka Project's Eastern European project was to spread the word, to alert the public and the archival community that 1) Kafka's writings and letters & from the last year of his life are missing, and 2) We are looking for them.

Within the first three hours of arriving in Prague, I was interviewed and photographed for a newspaper, a literary magazine andCzech Radio. In two days, I gave interviewstosixmedia outlets: the two major daily newspapers, two literary magazines as well astwo radio stations, including Prague Radio . It happened without any effort on my part: Judita organized, scheduled and coordinated everything. I simply made myself available. The following day I was interviewed for a story in Mlada Fronta , the other leading daily, and this & included my own photo shoot in the atmospheric & Prague streets! It was too much fun. & Judita, who works as a journalist and cultural manager, served as & a professional, gracious and energetic publicist and Czech translator, & and volunteered her services free of charge.

When Judita learned that Byron and I would be returning to Prague at the end of the research project in Poland to catch our flight home, she made an offer I couldn't refuse: She and her creative partner Jan Jindra, could drive us to Zurau, a tiny picturesque village about 80 km west of Prague, where Kafka had written his aphorisms. We could stay that night in a neighboring town with a small hotel. Judita could make all the arrangements and even get us to the airport on time for our flight home on July 24.


Village of Zurau, now Sirem by KafkaProject, on Flickr

Kafka's Zurau aphorisms-short, concise statements of principle and truth-and the writings from his Blue Octavo Notebooks , written after his diagnosis of tuberculosis, are among my favorite of his writings. First published as "Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way," they appear at the beginning of chapters in my book and are my oft-quoted mottos. Judita's description of Zurau, a tiny pastoral village in the rolling Bohemian countryside where Kafka faced his mortality was irresistible. We decided to change our train tickets to return to Prague a day early. We would spend our last day in one of the quiet places that Kafka loved, deep in the Czech countryside. &

On July 22, Byron and I took the train from Krakow to Prague. As we walked that evening from the station to our clean and well located, relatively inexpensive hotel, The Musketyr , a brilliant rainbow arched over the National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square. & I took it as a special summons back to Prague, as rainbows are one of my favorite things (no music necessary here.)

The next morning, Jan picked us up at the hotel in his car and we drove to Zurau. Judita asked me what I knew about this village where Kafka lived with his favorite sister Ottla in 1917-1918. Not much, I admitted, since he was there pre-Dora. I hadn't realized that Kafka had written the aphorisms here. I had seen several photographs of Zurau from Wagenbach's book of Kafka pictures , and remembered one of them clearly: Kafka and Ottla standing in an open doorway.

Jan and Judita had visited Zurau a few years ago to photograph it. They escorted two German scholars, our friend Dr. Hans Gerd-Koch and Kafka biographer Reiner Stach , and the party had attracted the attention of family who now owns the house where Ottla once lived. Before our visit today, Jan called the owner of the house and had made arrangements to be able to get into the very room where Kafka actually wrote. (He slept in one house, ate in another and wrote in a third dwelling, which also served as the village's Jewish cheder and prayer house.) &


Kathi on Zurau street by KafkaProject, on Flickr

We arrived in Zurau early and walked around on unpaved lanes through the tiny village, with ancient farmhouses mostly untouched since Kafka's day, except by the forces of nature and neglect. A few have been painted and many have gardens or flower filled window boxes.

Fiegl's house by KafkaProject, on Flickr

The large baroque church is abandoned and its yard overgrown, with vines covering the statues of angels and saints.

Ruined Zurau church by KafkaProject, on Flickr

Angel in Zurau churchyard by KafkaProject, on Flickr

There is & life still in Zurau--two little boys playing near the pond by the church, mothers walking their babies in prams, chatting, an old lady sitting in a chair in the sun. Judita told me only about 100 people live in Zurau, which is now called Sirem.

Jan pointed out the neighboring hills and valleys that Kafka described in his diaries, and the clover and wild-flower filled field where the house in which Kafka slept once stood. Like so many of Kafka's residences, it has been torn down since, while the neighboring structures stand in memory, as references in the old photographs. There is a peaceful, yet stirring feeling in the air.

We walked up a lane to large mysterious granaryon the hill, what Judita called "the Castle." Jan explained: some people have theorized that Zurau was Kafka's inspiration for the village in his novel " The Castle ." Kafka had arrived in Zurau in winter, when the village & was covered with snow, just as his protagonist, the land surveyor had done, and that this building, by far the largest in Zurau, could have represented the castle in his landscape. &

The Zurau Castle by KafkaProject, on Flickr

When Judita was here last time, she told me, a real land surveyor was there, taking measurements. I told her about 108 (see " The View from Kafka's Head ") and we laughed at the reassuring but weird coincidences that accompany our respective searches. As we walked up the hill, we noticed a couple of pieces of paper posted on the large wooden doors. & As we approached, the white pages came into focus. I couldn't believe it. There was a picture of Kafka under the headline "Magic Zurau." Underneath that, I was looking my own picture!

Kathi on Castle Door by KafkaProject, on Flickr

Someone had posted a copy of one of the newspaper articles, which had been published six weeks earlier, underneath a flyer for a concert and theatrical event in celebration of the 125 th anniversary of Kafka's birth on July 3. The event was titled " Magic Zurau ."

"Why Magic ?" I asked.

"Zurau has always been considered magical, I don't know why," Judita answered. We left Zurau to check in to our darling 13th century hotel, U Hada , on the main square in the enchanting town of Zatec, perhaps the most delightful place in our entire journey.

Zatec Town Hall by KafkaProject, on Flickr

Hotel U Hada, Zatec by KafkaProject, on Flickr

We got room 112, with the best view overlooking the square (Judita's was room number 108, of course.) We had lunch, and returned to Zurau to meet the owner of the house where Kafka wrote, wherewe met the family who owns both houses. The son, David , who lives and works in the city of Most, made arrangments with his mother and grandmother , who live in Ottla's old home, and his aged aunt , who has lived for more than sixty years in the house where Kafka wrote his aphorisms. These three women opened their doors and homes to us. That afternoon I stood in the same doorway where Kafka stood with Ottla. I looked out his window . The same window where he wrote "This is a place where I never was before. Here breathing is different, and more dazzling than the sun is the radiance of a star beside it." And "Beyond a certain point, there is no return. This point has to be reached." Afterwards we had Czech cookies and coffee, served by David's mother and grandmother, in the house where Ottla had lived.

Judita & Kathi Zurau coffee by KafkaProject, on Flickr

The next morning after breakfast, Jan and Judita drove us to the airport. Our flight left Prague at one in the afternoon. We cleared customs in Atlanta and caught the quick connection to San Diego. Sixteen hours later, at eight that evening, my suitcase was the first off the conveyer belt at baggage check. We were home by 8:30 pm.

So what do you think? Magic? &

Up next: Kafka Project Wrap Up: What we learned, what we still have to do. Stay tuned!