The Prague Fermor encounters in A Time of Gifts is both strange and bewildering in its dramatic styles and shapes—”The city teems with wonders; but what belongs where?” Prague was not a part of Fermor’s original plans. He travels to the city under persuasion of his friend as he follows the Denube to Slovakia on his way to Hungary, and amidst this spontaneous detour he encounters for the first time a land that is utterly unfamiliar to him.
Throughout his travels, Fermor traverses a series of German-speaking countries, where, although regional dialects and accents confuse him, he is still able to understand and communicate with some of the locals. Czechoslovakia is his first experience with the Slavic tongue and his initial loss at the new sounds illustrates the universal experience of travelers as they enter a far-off country with little in common with their own. He highlights the change with an acute comparison to theater—”A different cast had streamed on stage and the whole plot had changed.” Indeed, Prague was a whole new world, and one must abandon all previous suppositions and expectations in order to take it in.
Fermor describes the language here with the same enthusiasm and flair as he does previous encounters with German dialects—perhaps even more, as the sounds automatically conjure for him a wave of images that constitute his wonder at this new realm. “These thoughts invested everything with drama,” he writes. “As I listened to the muffled vowels of the Slovaks and the traffic-jams of consonants and the explosive spurts of dentals and sibilants, my mind’s eye automatically suspended an imaginary backcloth of the Slav heartlands […]: three reeds on a horizontal line, the map-makers’ symbol for a swamp, infinitely multiplied; spruce and poplar forests, stilt houses and fish-traps, frozen plains and lakes where the ice-holes were black with waterfowl. Then, at the astonishing sound of Magyar—a dactylic canter where the ictus of every initial syllable set off a troop of identical vowels with their accents all swerving one way like wheat-ears in the wind —the scene changed. […] League upon league of burntup pasture unfurled. The glaciers of the Urals or the Altai hung on the skyline and threads of smoke rose up from collapsible cities of concertina-walled black-felt pavilions while a whole nation of ponies grazed.”
The rich details of Fermor’s language evoke immediately the spirit of both the language and the landscapes of the cities. It is easy to see his love for these lands as he describes them. This kind of imagery often crowds his language, packing his writing into long paragraphs of description that could very easily—and probably more effectively—be transformed into film. It is almost overwhelming to speed through months of travel and observations in the space of mere pages, though the blinding affluence of detail perhaps conveys exactly the sensory overload of stepping into a foreign land, where everything is new, everything is unfamiliar, and everything takes up space and time in order to be comprehended.
Another characteristic of Fermor’s Prague that stood out to me was its abundant history in religion, war, and mysticism—”Hardly a street is untouched by religious bloodshed; every important square has been a ceremonious stage for beheadings.” And, “Moody and unbalanced, [Emperor Rudolph II] lived in an atmosphere of neo-platonic magic, astrology and alchemy. […] In fact, an obsession with the supernatural seems to have pervaded the city.”
This darker, more sinister and magical image of Prague, to me, only seems to manifest in reproductions of the city, though the image certainly seems to pervade these accounts. It had been one of the few impressions I’d had of the city before coming here, and there was certainly some disappointment upon finding only caricatures of this mystical Prague in cheap souvenirs and tourist attractions. Perhaps this shadowy undertone of history is becoming non-existent in the advent of globalization and modernity. Fortunately, there remain hints of it in the hidden alleyways, the art, and the dramas that pervade the culture still.