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Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City.

Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City

John Banville

Bloomsbury

New York

ISBN: 1582343829 $16.95, 244 pp.

Prague Pictures is, to use a description from the book, an "ecstatic paen of amor urbi." The is a literary, sensual travelogue, heavy on art history, which journeys down the backstreets and alleyways of mankind to explore the mysterious nature of all cities via the lens of Prague. John Banville, in sinuous, often magically elusive language, explores a city that is identical in style. They make a good couple and his longing for her is palpable. But he shows his youthful enthusiasm and she reveals her deep experience and vast age, which turn the relationship into a dalliance of almost courtly love between a wily old queen and her peasant-of-the-moment, which surely cannot last.

This book has many aspects. The text is musical and beautiful, you can chew over every single passage and savor the alien flavors found, and yet, there is an invisible layer beneath the surface paint, a quiet music within the score that whispers constantly to the soul. There are a lot of details and history captured here (and sometimes the asides and footnotes intrigue so much I long for entire books on these subjects to be vulgarly inserted into the text). Not only does Mr. Banville capture the fascinating ancient history behind the city and its people, but he relates first hand the drab oppression of the recently deceased Soviet era, and the crazed new blossoming freedom of a people lost and searching the modern age for a new direction out of the fast food wilderness. Designed to emulate the pocket books of old, these pictures of the city are so illuminating and joyful to experience I wish for a volume twice the length.

Overall, there is a pervasive melancholy atmosphere. The nature of the book is of a lost love or a lover that always has eluded him. In fact Banville notes how most cities are like lovers spreading their limbs before us, but that Prague is more coy: "When I seek another word for mystery," he quotes Ripellino, "the only word I can find is Prague. She is dark and melancholy as a comet; her beauty is like the sensation of fire, winding and slanted as in the anamorphoses of the Mannerists, with a lugubrious aura of decay, a smirk of eternal disillusionment." This city has many masks and all of them reveal a side of the city, but none of them reveal the true nature beneath the surface. "There are as many Pragues as there are eyes to look upon it--more: an infinity of Pragues." This is a line that seems to come directly from Michael Moorcock and his multiverse (that brothel in Rosenstrasse especially), but it also evokes the same forlorn conclusion about the lover mourning his loss, of never being able to truly possess his love. Prague is lost to everyone by the end of the book. The sadness of that final portrait, after the devastation of the 2002 flood (the Vltava living up to its ancient Celtic name), is heartbreaking. His ending statement is a wish, a tearful demand, "Prague always survives."
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Author:Fortenberry, Thomas
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:529
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