Innocence abroad

You don’t hear much about Prague these days. The former home to Franz Kafka and Communist bloc country has returned to relative obscurity on this side of the Atlantic. That was not the case in the early ’90s, when all you heard about was the mass expatriation of young Americans to the Eastern European capital of cheap food and cheap beer and cheap Bohemian livin’. Everyone was off to stake a claim in the newly liberated city, finally free from Russian rule.

College grads, college drop-outs, hyperactive entrepreneurs, Internet tycoons and layabouts who saw an innovative and trendy way to spend their trust funds hopped on the Prague bandwagon and were relentlessly profiled in every form of American media. You couldn’t go to a bar or coffee shop (especially the coffee shop) without hearing about a wide-eyed plan from an unknown artist who was going to join the wave to transform Prague into a Paris of the 1920s, where Ernest Hemingway and others got drunk and led adventurous, romantic, creative lives. As illustrated brilliantly in Aaron Hamburger’s understated collection of short stories, The View From Stalin’s Head, Prague was no Paris, but it did become an ironic and fascinating backdrop for Americans who pinned more than their dreams on its gray facades and melancholy streets.

Hamburger, who studied at the University of Michigan and later went on to receive an MFA at Columbia University, was one of the dreamers who took the journey. The result is 10 short tales that delicately explore the Prague experience with a sometimes sad, sometimes farcical, always artful touch. To complicate and enrich matters, many of the protagonists in Hamburger’s book are not only coming to terms with the chaos and confusion that is modern-day Prague, but wrestling with a dormant Jewishness and homosexuality that drives home their “strangers in a strange land” status.

These are not the budding geniuses of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. They are people struggling to pay the bills and have a bit left over for a drunken weekend. They are people desperately lonely and homesick and feeling the pull of the mothers and fathers, friends and lovers they left behind.

In Hamburger’s tales, Prague becomes a mirror held up to the faces of these expats, forcing them to confront and struggle with their religion and sexuality and lack of definition. The expat experience in the ’20s, with artists and revolutionaries and ne’er-do-wells absorbing the cosmopolitan and worldly gifts of Paris, could not be further from the experience described in The View From Stalin’s Head. In Prague, the Americans come face to face not with an exotic, transcendent Eden. They come face to face with themselves.

Many of the characters in Hamburger’s collection make money by teaching English to the locals. It’s just about the only decent job they can find. The opening story, A Man Of The Country, tells of the odd and revelatory relationship between a former waiter from Madison, Wis., teaching English in the city and Jirka, a giant Czech who walks up to the ex-waiter one day on a train platform and asks if he can photograph his nose. Jirka, despite a not-so-subtle anti-Semitic streak, spends a year with the language tutor as a friend until a farewell leads to another type of relationship that is achingly awkward yet profound in its stark portrayal.

In the title story, one that conjures the horror and paranoia of Prague’s communist past, two schoolboys play a bizarre game with an old man who is not only living in the past, but has visualized it in the form of a monstrosity inhabiting his apartment. An artist monitored and harassed by the communists, the old man has been irretrievably affected. This story, like the others, illustrates the shadows that fall on the inhabitants of Prague, following them as they eke out brand-new lives with brand-new rules.

Hamburger’s tales are stories of self-discovery. The new writer — this is his first published collection — weaves prose in a straightforward, poetic style that reveals characters for the fragile, lonely, yet empowered figures they are. Hamburger’s mastery belies his newcomer status in the world of letters. Granting him the compliment most writers wish for: I impatiently await his next work.

E-mail Dan DeMaggio at [email protected].

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