It may – or may not – surprise you to hear that some of the most important classics of the 20th century were written by Czech authors. Of course, when you consider that Czech literature dates back to the 14th century and has been consistently valued culturally since then, perhaps it’s not so surprising. After all, it’s thanks to a Czech writer that we have the word robot (it’s not on the list as it doesn’t really feature the country, so if you’re interested check out the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek)! In 2014 the capital city, Prague, was even named as a UNESCO City of Literature.
Although there is a greater amount of Czech writers in translation than from most other Central or Eastern European nations, most Czech literature remains untranslated – at least in English. Nevertheless, what is available is excellent and diverse. And a lot of it is a little bit weird. But that’s to be expected when one of your literary superstars has a word that means surreal and nightmarish named after them (FYI: that word is Kafkaesque). However, as is often the case with translated fiction, the Czech books about Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic that are available pertain to the darker parts of Czech history.
Because there are so many amazing and unknown Czech authors, I have chosen not to include Franz Kafka or Milan Kundera on this list. You should definitely read them, though. Although these are books to read before visiting the Czech Republic, they’re mostly books about Prague because that is what is predominantly available in English, However, these will still provide insight into Czech life and culture.
A quick note: Czechia has been in use as the shortened form of Czech Republic since 1993 and became official in 2013. Some prefer the use of Czech Republic and some Czechia, but both are correct (it is similar to calling the United States of America simply the states or the US).
1. Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated by Helen Epstein
I first read Heda Margolius Kovaly’s fictional murder mystery, Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street, which is a book set in a Prague cinema during the 1950s under Soviet rule. While I think I prefer Innocence as a story, Under a Cruel Star is one of the best Czech books about everyday life in Prague during the time – especially for Jews.
Heda’s life was seeped in tragedy, and her account is raw and brutally honest. Under a Cruel Star begins when the tragedy begins: her whole family is uprooted from Prague and transported to the Łódź ghetto. Heda went on to survive both the Łódź ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau before escaping back to Prague during a death march to Bergen-Belsen. Heartbreakingly, this was not the end of her struggle.
2. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink
Translated by Carlo Mainoldi
One of the most enduring legends of Prague is the Golem of Prague, protector of the Jews. The Golem of Meyrink’s novel is more metaphysical than monster, but still a fierce prescence throughout.
The Golem is as much a book about Prague, as its protagonist, Athanasius Pernath, a resident of the Prague ghetto in the 1910s. Pernath may or may not be hallucinating the Golem, a creature who comes to life every 33 years and embodies the pain and suffering of the ghetto.
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3. A Bouquet: Of Czech Folktales by Karel Jaromír Erben
Translated by Marcela Malek Sulak
This collection of dark fairy tales is one of the best Czech books for poetry lovers. That’s right, every creepy, twisted tale in this book is written in verse. A Bouquet was originally published in 1853, this Czech classic is considered one of the best fairy tale collections available in the region. Supposedly it has even been a source of inspiration for many Czech artists, including composer Antonín Dvořák.
4. The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser
The Book of Dirt is an autobiographical novel based on Bram Presser’s research about his own grandparents (Jakub Rand and Dasa Roubicek) and their lives during WWII. Both of whom were Czech Jews who survived the Czech concentration camp Terezín (also called by the Austrian name Theresienstadt in the book) and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau.
While at Theresienstadt Jakub is assigned the task of cataloguing Jewish books for Hitler’s Museum of the Extinct Race. He painstakingly goes through each document and verifies it… until he finds a book with a hollowed-out middle and a pile of dirt.
Part memoir, part mystery, part historical fiction, this is a truly unique book.
5. HHhH by Laurent Binet
Translated by Sam Taylor
I would be remiss if I didn’t include any books about Prague that include the period known as the Heydrich Terror on this list. Reinhard Heydrich was one of the cruelest Nazi officers, assigned to Prague to eliminate the Czech resistance. But Heyrdrich was assassinated by members of the Czech resistance. It was called Operation Anthropoid and it was the only successful assassination of a high ranking Nazi official and it changed everything.
HHhH is a fictionalised account of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination by Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, two members of Operation Anthropoid. But it is also the story of Laurent Binet trying to write about the event and agonising over what liberties he should and shouldn’t take with real people’s lives, emotions and conversations.
In case you’re curious about the title HHhH was a nickname given to Heydrich that stands for for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” and translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”
6. Bliss Was It in Bohemia by Michal Viewegh
Translated by David Short
Bliss Was It in Bohemia is a surreal romp from the 1960s to the 1990s through the lens of one family. The protagonist Kvido, and his eccentric family are clearly stand-ins for the Vieweghs. Laugh along and bang your head as they navigate life under communism, get approved for an apartment and befriend famous Czech literary figures.
If you want to read what modern day Czechs are reading, czech out (sorry) Michal Viewegh, one of the most popular modern Czech writers.
7. The Danny Smiřický series by Josef Škvorecký
Translated by Paul Wilson
This is a loose series tied together by a common protagonist: Danny Smiřický. Smiřický is a semi-autobiographical character based on Škvorecký experiences in Czechoslovakia before he fled to Canada in 1968 following the Warsaw Pact invasion.
It’s kind of a cheat to include the whole series, but every story is totally unique and examines a different aspect of life under communism, often in different cities or villages. Škvorecký’s books of are full of delightfully dark humour and harsh disparagement of the current regime with thinly veiled versions of real people. For this reason, most of his books were banned by the communist party.
8. I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Paul Wilson
Hrabal is one of Czech Republic’s most famous and beloved authors, so you can’t leave him off of a Czech book list! But he isn’t for everyone, he loves absurdism and ridiculously long sentences (one of his books is just one long sentence).
In I Served the King of England we meet Ditie, a man of small stature and an employee at the Golden Prague Hotel who is instructed by his boss on the first day that he must see nothing and hear nothing, but also see everything and hear everything. From there it only escalates as Ditie is called to serve Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, falls in love with a Nazi and tries to pass a German purity test. At times this feels like a much darker Grand Budapest Hotel, and that’s why it’s so good.
9. Prague Noir by Pavel Mandys (Editor)
The stories here delve into the dark side of Prague. Not just Prague’s dark past, like some of the books above, but the side tourists rarely encounter, one more reminiscent of Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares (minus the paperwork).
Throughout Prague Noir you are transported to a Prague carnival, on the run from the Vietnamese mafia, unsure if you are being stalked or investigated, trying to unravel the mystery of unexplained disappearances on a bridge, and more!
One of the best things about the Akashic Books Noir series is that they tend to feature works by authors who have never been translated [into English] elsewhere. And Prague Noir is no exception!