March 20th, 2008


Kafkaism communesque

Prague's Museum of Communism is pure propaganda. Not communist propaganda, capitalist propaganda. Located above a McDonalds and next door to a casino, the museum is full of shabby bric-a-brac -- busts of Lenin, shop displays with pathetically few goods (all canned, with generic labels) on the shelves. Groups of impressionable teenagers are herded around the show, which is subtitled "the dream, the reality, the nightmare", reading labels which inform them that Marx's ideas are "outmoded" (in fact they'll stay relevant as long as inequality persists), that Czech communism forced women into the workforce (capitalism doesn't?), and that shops betrayed the idea of equality by keeping under-the-counter goods for important customers (there was still less inequality than the present system cheerfully and unhypocritically fosters).

For the Museum of Communism, the revolution is something that happened in 1989, ending communism, rather than 1917, starting it. A video presentation shows images of state brutality accompanied by plaintive folk songs. Images of communist achievement in Czechoslovakia -- the futuristic TV tower, the films of Frantisek Zapasy -- are skipped entirely.

Trying to see an exhibition about Zapasy up at the castle, I had a rather kafkaesque experience. The show was held in a huge, empty hall at the castle stables. The old man by the till seemed to think I'd wandered in by mistake. When I asked him for a ticket he told me he couldn't sell me one. I'd have to go to the central ticket desk in the Information Office across the courtyard. Cursing a castle administration which apparently didn't trust its emplpyees with cash, I crossed the courtyard and queued for ten minutes behind tourists trying to make complex choices in a dozen lamguages. When my turn came, the old lady cashier said "I can't sell you a ticket for the stables, you have to buy one there."

"But the man in the stables told me I could only buy the ticket from you!" I exploded, foreseeing an entire afternoon of to-ing and fro-ing between the two buildings. The cashier phoned up the old man in the stables. "He said you want to see the Castle Pictute Gallery. For that, the ticket is sold here." I explained that I wanted to see the Zapasy show in the stables. "Then you must buy the ticket from him."

So I returned to the stables to confront the old man, who was becoming more and more like the gatekeeper in Kafka's parable Before the Law. "You realize I can't sell you a ticket for the Castle Picture Gallery?" he asked. I turned and gesticulated towards the hall with its arty black and white film stills. "I want to see THIS show," I said, "YOUR show!"

Finally, with a why-didn't-you-say air of astonishment, the man took my hundred crowns and ushered me into the exhibition. It was great, but rather than frame Zapasy's work as an achievement of the communist era it was produced in, the organisers had framed it as "Struggles of Frantisek Zapasy", emphasising that his visionary films were produced despite the regime, not because of it. Which surely applies to the visionary films (I'm trying to think of some) produced under capitalism too.

Meanwhile, I was beginning to understand, thanks to my experience with the gatekeeper, why Czech surrealist bureaucracy and communism may not have been such a great combination.