Question: Where can you find a tiny man riding a headless giant as a tribute to one of the world’s most famous authors (who was pretty much ignored at home)?
Answer: The Kafka Monument, Prague, Czech Republic
From the window of the Jewish Quarter apartment in Prague where Franz Kafka spent much of his life, the now-famed fiction writer watched the comings and goings on Dusni Street. Today, passersby out for a stroll get to look at him in return—or, at least, a suitably surreal sculpture of him.
- The eyes of the beholders: Czech sculptor Jaroslav Rona created a two-bodied figure, in which a smaller man rides atop a giant headless man missing both hands and feet. The first trick for the viewer is to figure out which figure is meant to represent the author. Most seem to think that the complete man riding atop the other is the author and the surreal figure below is one of his creations. But some art critics argue that Kafka is actually the man being ridden and is being prodded to discovery by his creative side, embodied by the smaller man.
- No wrong answer: Rona refuses to take sides, noting that both are right in a way. He has told reporters that he created the figures after reading a short story, “Description of a Struggle,” in which one man jumps aboard the shoulders of another and was able to steer his carrier toward new discoveries. This story, Rona says, seems to embody Kafka’s ideas and his creative process, as well as all the eventual themes for which Kafka was known.
- Eavesdropping: He is well aware that most readers of Kafka don’t know the particular story he used for inspiration, so it’s been fascinating for him to gauge viewer reactions. He admits to visiting the Jewish Quarter and pretending to be a tourist just to listen to them. He told Radio Prague, “I don't want people to recognize me but I want to listen to their reactions because, for me, it's important. Many people come here, groups, and they take pictures. I'm very happy about it."
- An artist before his time: The 12-foot tall statue is now one of the most popular attractions in the Jewish Quarter, but Kafka was not always celebrated here. Though he would come to be considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century—giving rise to the adjective “Kafkaesque”—there was at first only scant embrace of his fantastical works in which anxious humans battle society, alienation, and impossible events. He had to continue working his self-described “bread job” (a day job) to make ends meet as very little of his fiction was published. Despite writing daily, he published only a single book (The Metamorphosis) before his death from tuberculosis at age 40 in 1924.
- Against his wishes: His formal request was for the rest of his work to be burned, but best friend and literary executor Max Brod ignored those wishes, publishing three of Kafka’s novels, as well as short stories. With the rise of fascism and the dawn of World War II, new readers found that the work spoke to their time, and his fame grew so much that the Nazis not only banned his books but punished his surviving family members.
Better late than never: By mid-century, Kafka was being hailed as a literary master, a reputation that grew steadily even after the war years. Camus, Ionesco, Sartre, and others credit him as a major influence on their work. And yet Czech readers didn’t soon claim his as one of their own because he had written in German. It took decades of the world’s acclaim for him to finally garner a place in Prague culture, and it was not until the 21st century that he began to get his due. He earned a square in his name in 2000 and Rona’s mysterious statue hails from 2003, the 120th anniversary of his birth.
In the end, his enduring legacy today has proved him right to claim in this prescient letter, "Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld: mine is by writing.”
You can seek out the Kafka statue—and form your own impression—during your free time to explore on Grand Circle’s Old World Prague & the Blue Danube River Cruise.