Monday, January 19, 2009

Prague in the Snow

     I don’t mean to get myself mixed up in the livelihood of Mr. Šimon, Mr. Stretti-Zamponi1 and the other graphic artists who earn their living on monochromes, dry-needle engravings2, India-ink aquatints of snow3, eaves, Charles Bridge and other winter scenes. I just want to make a single column out of snow—for alas it no longer suits me to make snowmen the way I used to. Snow forts were very beautiful too: we would pour water over the ramparts and allow it to freeze overnight, make snowballs in the morning and then wage war, with conquests and shrill cries everywhere. We fought especially fiercely with the boys from Sychrov4 for territorial, legal, and social reasons. Today, however, I cannot call upon even my greatest enemy (if indeed I have one) to draw up plans for a snowball fight. And that’s why I can only produce a column out of snow.


     When the snow falls, Prague suddenly turns into a quaint little town; overnight we go fifty or a hundred years into the past, all at once the Malá Strana is medieval, grandmotherly, baroque, nestled in the palm of your hand, more naive and antique. Out of nowhere you remember your grandmother and her seven pairs of undergarments, apples cooked in the oven, the smell of wood smoke, old rooms and flowered curtains. People are happy on the street, carving out their footprints in the snow as though they were tracing wreaths, crunching away as they did a hundred years ago. And the quiet, sir—such rural quiet—the Vltava does not even roar, the trams make no more noise than the Christ child, and no one would bat an eye if the automobiles started to jingle as if they were horse-drawn sleighs. O holy world! Suddenly the world of old things and old dimensions is here. Small-town magic. Antique character.

     Just so you know, the only real snow is the kind we get in the Malá Strana. That is why it lasts longer than elsewhere, and when it is all blown away on the other side (for they just get flurries, nothing at all to brag about) we still have it heaped in drifts, by the grace of God, with only footpaths through it. That is our domestic right. Just us and Hradčany.5

     But no graphic artist could depict how pretty a snowflake is resting in a girl’s hair or the sorts of tracks left by a blackbird or sparrow on a snowy roof. Those look like little poems written in Oriental script or calligraphy. An entire poem composed in a single row. I’d love to be able to translate it.


     Then, when the moon shines over everything, what happens then cannot even be described: Prague shrinks and makes itself tiny, scarcely even breathing: the snow sparkles like glass underfoot, the roofs press close to the earth, everything bristles with frost and it is so bright, so bright that you fear the darkness of your own core.


     And you, red spark in the stove, you emphasize the blue of the winter twilight with your ruddy companionship. How wonderful is that duet of glow and quietude!


     In the summer we see trees, clouds, water, and everything under the sun, but when the snow falls in the winter we see what we scarcely noticed in the summer—that is, the roof. Once a roof is snow-covered it is creditable, prudent, and above all, it is visible. Only then does human roofing fulfill its purpose. And we only see in the winter that our dwellings exist under roofs. The whole of our city is a city under roofs set up over our heads.

     Let us praise the snow for showing us the dignity of our roofing!



1 Jaromír Stretti-Zamponi (born 1882)—painter and graphic artist, creator of graphic designs with an old Prague themes, who published in 1914 a cycle of four colored prints called “Snow” depicting the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter) area.
2 Copperplate engravings (more rarely zinc-plate) made with a steel needle or a cone-shaped diamond nib.
3 Prints made without any engraving mechanism, but through the gradual deposition of material on the work surface.
4 i.e., from the industrial suburb of Sychrova in Úpice, where the author spent his childhood and adolescence.
5 [The Castle District, up the hill to the north of the Malá Strana and on the same side of the river as it.]


Czina said...

well that's all true.
if i understand well, it's your translation of čapek...


i hope you are familiar with prague ghosts... that's really the time when they wake up! in silent of white streets and with hardly heareable cracking of freeze.

i mean headless riders and all that stuff.

Andrew said...

Yes, this post is a Capek translation. And I've never known Prague in the winter, alas, so I know no headless riders.