Prague, Beauty in its Emptiness

In The Art of Travel, 6. First Book, Prague by Sean Oh1 Comment

Truth to be told, this study abroad opportunity allowed me to travel for the first time to Europe. To its effect, I’ve expected every European city to be like Prague, as Prague was the first European city that I have ventured through. Reinforced by my travels to Vienna, Krakow, and Berlin, I was under the impression that all major Europeans are relatively alike in their composition with masterfully built castles, large parliament buildings, and a town center. The only difference that I was able to catch was the difference in language and currency. However, it was not until I had read Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City by John Banville that I began to notice the city’s unique characteristics.

My favorite quote throughout novel is, “in Prague, it always seems to me that someone has forgotten to do the wild track, and that behind even the loudest scenes of festival or protest or just everyday business, there is a depthless emptiness” (Banville 232). This “depthless emptiness” is the most eerily accurate term to describe Prague. Even on walks down the most busiest streets, there is an emptiness that is almost visible. This paradox is one that is not easily understood until one walks the streets of Prague on first-hand account. Banville quotes, “Prague’s silence is more a presence than an absence . The sounds of the traffic , the voices in the streets , the tolling of bells and the chiming of innumerable public clocks , all resonate against the background hush as if against a high, clear pane of glass” (Banville 1).

Banville stresses the importance of historical context in understand a culture (Banville 232). He brings to recollection the “successive defeats and invasions the city has suffered” to bring into context some of the actions and characteristics of the city.

One that I found rather interesting was his description of the people. “Praguers are the most circumspect of city dwellers . Travelers on trams and in the metro carefully remove the dust jackets of books, no matter how innocuous , that they have brought to read on the journey ; some will even make brown – paper covers to hide the titles of paperbacks” (Banville 113) While most “Praguers” do not still hide their books with paper covers, they remain extremely private and continue to keep to themselves. I agree with Banville that it is important to understand Prague, in particular, in context of its “defeat and invasions”. Throughout history, Prague has been conquered and oppressed by several regimes, making it strange not to wary of outsiders.

Near the beginning of his novel and throughout, Banville questions the entity of Prague and attempts to provide his own understanding of the city. He quotes, “One will not know a city merely by promenading before its sites and sights, Blue Guide in hand. Yet how can one know an entity as amorphously elusive as Prague, or any other capital, for that matter? What is Prague?” (11-12). I completely agree with this notion that a city cannot be fully understood through travel guides and must be interpreted firsthand according to one’s own experience. A beautiful quote that his appropriate in this context is, “There are as many Pragues as there are eyes to look upon it – more: an infinity of Pragues” (Banville 12).

(Image: View of Prague from Powder Tower; Source: Sean Oh)


  1. Sean,

    Your post resonated with me in that my book also had an effect on the way I viewed my surroundings to a degree I didn’t expect (as, I think, with many other people in the class). I find it so interesting the way that you viewed the feeling of the city in a new understanding after this book.


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