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Two Books to read when going to – Prague

Karlštejn Castle, a short train ride from Prague

I have no idea when ‘normal’ air travel will resume. I can’t help but wonder whether I’ll ever be as nonchalant about using it as before. But writing is a great way to re-visit beloved books and to reminisce about past travels.

This entry is about Prague (Czechia). The capital of the Czech Republic is a beautiful city with the best (and possibly) cheapest beer in the world. My advice is, start drinking when you get there and don’t stop until you leave. Don’t limit yourselves to the well-known brands (my favorite has to be Kozel) but try and taste local breweries as well. One that I recommend, which also has an excellent restaurant serving a selection of the brews is U Tri Rozi (the Three Roses).


But I got carried away, enough about beer. I’m here to discuss books.

The two books I cover today were written by French men. Both can be categorized as historical fiction, as they rely on true events and depict real people. I discuss here the English translations but since I read both books in Hebrew, my comments will not touch on the quality of the translation.

The second-best book to read before going to Prague is the 2009 Running. A Novel by Jean Echenoz, translated to English by Linda Coverdale.

Running is a very short book, a Prix Goncourt winner, that follows the life and career of the great Czech runner Emil Zatopek. This book characterizes itself as a biographical novel and as such allows fiction and facts to mix freely. This approach can be irksome to purists and sticklers to historical accuracy. The book was heavily critiqued for not portraying the facts correctly and for poor understanding of running. Still, the descriptions of Zatopek’s early running sessions in difficult terrain and wrong shoes are riveting. He is depicted as a reluctant runner, finding joy in the pain of the exercise more than anything. It was an early era of sports when one didn’t need to be reared by coaches from a young age, have access to enhanced diet and strict regime, in order to win an Olympic medal.  Read about Zatopek’s small apartment in one of the communist’s state drab blocks, then walk around Prague and remember he was living in one while winning the Olympics. It made for a stark contrast to his great achievements and worldwide fame.

The best book to read while in Prague is HHhH by Laurent Binet. (published in France in 2010, translated to English by Sam Taylor).

HHhH won the Prix Goncourt for a debut novel in 2010. The book follows the planning and execution of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech resistance in an operation called Operation Anthropoid. Many historians regard Heydrich as the darkest figure within the Nazi regime. HHhH is short for: Himmlers Hirn hiest Heydrich, Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.

Binet has an ars-poetic approach in his writing i.e, he shares with the reader his feelings and misgivings whilst writing this novel. He writes about his modern-day anxieties. Again, as in the former book about Zatopek, this approach can be off-putting, but it can also be refreshing. It’s up to the reader. I for one, was ensnared in Binet’s prose and accepted his style.

Binet gets more serious as the book progresses. He sheds light on horrors like the butchering of the entire village of Lidice as retaliation for the assassination attempt. His writing as he follows the anticipated convergence between the would-be assassins and their target is masterful. Then he follows their escape attempt all over Prague. Binet evokes a brutal Prague occupied by the Nazi Third Reich which was supposed to last for a thousand years (and lasted 12).

Walking around the beautiful ancient stone paved streets of a modern democratic Prague which is no longer occupied nor communist gives one hope for the future.  

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