Our book today is Angelo Maria Ripellino’s utterly wonderful 1973 book Praga Magica, published in 1994 by Picador as Magic Prague, marvelously translated by David Newton Martinelli. It’s a forlorn love-song to the weird city of Prague, written in white heat at the height of Ripellino’s powers, and it’s as beautiful and sui generis a work of “travel writing” as any ever created. It’s a mystery to me why this book isn’t permanently in print.
Ripellino was an Italian scholar and poet with a positively rapacious intellectual appetite (in his youth, he had the endearing but slightly unnerving habit of reading while he walked), and his Prague book was a long time percolating. He never truly forgot anything he read, and he read everything he could find, and yet he could be adorably dutiful – he was forever saying “I’ll be brief” when everybody (at the lectern, at the dinner table, at restaurants) knew it was virtually impossible. When he managed to wrangle a commission for a book on Prague, he assured all parties concerned (and maybe himself?) that he would be “peaceful in his halter.”
There was no chance of it, of course, and Magic Prague explodes almost immediately beyond anything that would be even recognizable, let alone useful, to, say, anybody contemplating a visit to the city. Instead, what unspools for the enraptured reader is something more diverse, more encyclopedic, and infinitely stranger than anything along the lines of “And here we have the house where Kafka wrote …” More and more of Ripellino’s enormous eclectic erudition starts gushing through the fences of normal sightseeing, so that a routine visit to a famously crowded cemetery becomes a twisting, fitfully illuminating breviary like something out of Umberto Eco:
The gravestones have a rich symbology. Blessing hands are the sign of kohanim, the priests; pitcher and basin are their assistants, the leviim. Scissors indicate the grave of a tailor, tweezers the grave of a doctor; a mortar and pestle represents an apothecary, a lute an instrument maker, a book a printer and an ertog a vendor of greenery for the Succoth festival. Grapes signify wisdom and fertility; a scene in Paradies means that the name of the woman in the grave is Chava (Eve), a rose that her name is Rose; pictures of animals (stags, bears, wolves, lions, roosters, foxes, doves, carp, geese) designate people with animal surnames. A headstone depicting Adam and Eve contained a young couple slain on their wedding night by the angel of death; a headstone graced by two chickens pointing their beaks at a woman’s head marked the resting place of an adulteress whose eyes were pecked out. There is a legend that the carcass of a dog that had been thrown over the wall to desecrate the graveyard was buried in a corner by Rabbi Loew.
You can really sense Ripellino the poet in many of these passages – the flash of images, the perfect compacting of details, stunning passages whose presentation in English really is a testament to our translator’s skill:
Do you remember the first signs of spring, when the gulls returned to the Vltava from Lake Macha and Mrs Hlochova took Brussels lace out of her bottom drawer, when winter retreated into the milk shops with their cold zinc counters, onto the roof tops crusted over with snow, into the narrow, shaded Mala Strana streets? A straw-coloured sun, still weak, flickered as through a vase, yet Petrin Hill would soon explode with forsythia, lilacs and jasmine in a feverish, frenetic exuberance that both brought on one’s allergies and took one’s breath away. In the light of that intense flurry of blossoms, so out of keeping with Prague’s usual gloom, one ponders Kafka’s words: “What misery, a granary in spring, a consumptive in spring.”
(“The milk shops with their cold zinc counters” is so exquisitely old-world Prague – as is that beautiful writing-in-bed image of the sunlight through a vase)
Ripellino was a marvelously happy man, but by the time he wrote his Prague book, there were a couple of very sharp tragedies stalking his life, and some of that sifts into these pages. At a couple of points in his headlong narrative, he stops and realizes this, in moments that are always oddly arresting:
As I look back over these pages, I see have written a gloomy book, a Totenrede, adding the menetekel of recent decline to the city’s constant melancholy, its White Mountain legacy. Yet with the possible exception of the grim clowning of ghosts and the Poetists’ black-bordered ruffles hardly any of the material gives cause for cheer. The true Prague Mozart is not the carefree prankster sequestered in a room in the Villa Betramka to compose the overture to Don Giovanni while merry ladies pass him food and drink through the window…
There’s some poetry of Ripellino’s that I haven’t read (and there’s a mountain of deadline literary journalism that, as far as I know, has never been collected, let alone annotated), but even so, I feel pretty confident calling Magic Prague his greatest book. It’s the equal-standing but neglected sibling of such works as The Worst Journey in the World and Arabian Sands, a wilderness narrative superimposed on the most urban setting the Old World has to offer. Thanks to the bounties of the Internet, even people deprived of my beloved Brattle Bookshop can probably find a copy easily enough. You should! You’ll have read very, very few books like this one in all your life.