When Covid-19 ushered in a new reality and borders began to close in February 2020, I found myself in Prague, the city of Franz Kafka and Václav Havel. Rather suitable companions in such strange and absurd times, I thought. But somehow too obvious. Indeed, for the older citizens of Prague (and of course the Czech Republic as a whole), lockdown is not a novel experience. Before the Velvet Revolution in 1989, led by the peaceful coalition Civic Forum and fronted by Havel, a trip abroad was similarly impossible, and restrictions structured quotidian life for all but the communist party’s leadership. At the same time, Czech artists were masters at subversion in this difficult period, whereby samizdat, dissident manual reproduction and passing on of banned literature from person to person, flourished in the face of censorship. After all, this is also the country of Jaroslav Hašek, whose unfinished, riotous work The Fate of the Good Soldier Švejk during the World War (1921-22) embodies a joyful resistance to adversity.
Unlike many other countries, the Czech Republic did not hesitate to close its borders and to subsequently establish a full lockdown in order to restrict the spread of the virus. Only essential trips to obtain food or medicine were allowed, and while shelves were empty for a short while (toilet rolls, flour, rice, horseradish and condoms noticeably absent), a community spirit was reawakened. The wearing of masks was made compulsory almost immediately, but as they were in troublingly short supply people dusted off their sewing machines or learnt new skills and shared the fruits of their labours. At the end of March, the Zachraň pivo (‘save the beer’) initiative aimed to find homes for the 1,306,833 pints of beer sitting in microbreweries. In other words, there was a collective, unspoken agreement to follow the official guidelines while finding a way to make life bearable (often with the knowing ‘we-have-been-here-before’ gesture); businesses were closed but sold goods out of a window, and customers now ‘queued’ to shop online (amidst crashing servers and a small amount of goods still available for purchase on virtual shelves) in lieu of a future normality that had no date. For many, Covid-19 is simply a biological virus that is a nuisance that rivalled the political virus that brought the country to a standstill for more than 30 years. As Milan Kundera, an exile writer whose nationality was withdrawn by the communists, ironically declared in the aptly named Life is Elsewhere: ‘Certainty. Life’s last and kindest gift’.
The arrival of Covid-19 had an uncanny resemblance to Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself transformed into a large insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and the ever-changing decisions made by governments in response to the virus have been frighteningly reminiscent of the inscrutable workings of the same author’s The Castle. But my guide has been Bohumil Hrabal, who did not want to serve any master (be it the King of England or the communist party) – just look at the titles of his books: The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Too Loud a Solitude, In-House Weddings or An Advertisement for the House I Don’t Want to Live in Anymore. In his writings, Hrabal turns the world upside down, and then convinces the reader through his infectious humour and affable characters that this is actually how life should be experienced.
As we tentatively surface from lockdown restrictions, new or long forgotten things have become possible. Czechs now enjoy a pint of beer in the historic centre of Prague, which previously cost three times as much as they would normally have paid in other parts of the city. And having not done so for many years due to the wall of tourists, they once again cross the Vltava river on the Charles Bridge. Indeed, it is fitting that the ‘farewell to the virus’ party was celebrated on this very bridge on 1 July, whereby citizens were invited to share homemade food and drink on a 500-metre long table.
Yet as the borders happily open again, we emerge into another new reality, one perhaps best encapsulated by another title of a Hrabal book – Closely Watched Trains.