Guided Tours of Hell by Francine Prose

BOMB 58 Winter 1997

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


On the bus to the death camp, Landau searches for an image, some brilliant incisive metaphor for the fields of stunted brown sunflowers, their fat dwarfish heads drooping stupidly on their crackling stalks. These are not Van Gogh sunflowers, these are … Anselm Kiefer, their dead round faces fatally kissed by a parching breeze from Chernobyl. These flowers that survived the gassing of the Jews are finally succumbing to the asphyxiation of the planet. Or: These flowers committed suicide to protest the death camp’s reincarnation—landscaped, refurbished, a tourist attraction. Honey, look! The delousing chamber!

But the truth is: What the nodding sunflower heads really remind Landau of are human heads, specifically, the heads of last night’s audience, dropping off to sleep, one by one, all through Landau’s reading.

This has been Landau’s problem ever since he got to Prague. Tiny nips of transcendence nibble at his line, but given even the gentlest tug, they slip back into the water, the oily shoals of boredom, ego and resentment, and, let’s be honest, fury at Jiri Krakauer, that terrible poet and memoirist whose only claim to fame is that he survived two years in the camp, where he somehow conducted a love affair with Kafka’s sister, Ottla.

In the four days—the endless four days—that the First International Kafka Congress has been in session here in Prague, Landau has heard Jiri tell a dozen versions of how he fell for Ottla Kafka, a spitfire and a saint, Jiri sculpts the air with his paws, Oof, the curves of a saint, how he was overcome by passion as he watched her breeze through the camp with blankets, water, cups of tea, words of comfort and reassurance. When Jiri tells the elderly rabbi from Tel Aviv or the critic from Toronto, Ottla was kissing the shiny bald heads of the tiny ailing grandpas. But when he tells the feminist novelist from Croatia, the professor of Slavic languages from Vassar—the women hear how Jiri never saw Ottla without a baby in her arms and how he last saw her defiantly heading the children’s transport to Auschwitz.

And what did Ottla see in Jiri? No one has to ask. That gangsterish mane of snowy hair, Mr. Larger-than-Life. Eventually everyone wants to know: What did Ottla say about Kafka? And Jiri has no problem repeating himself: Ottla always said how kind and gentle her brother was, how he cared about the workers whose disability claims he processed at the insurance firm, and how the Kafka family worried about his digestion and how boring it was to sit and watch him Fletcherize his food. Jiri imitates Kafka chewing every bite 30 times, and the professors show their slick pink gums and laugh their knowing laughs at this detail so irreverent they know it has to be true.

Well, better chew it a million times, the shit these people eat, no wonder Kafka was constipated, the man never saw a green vegetable. The fat stringy pork, the dimpled yellow pods clinging to the duck skin, the deep-fried cutlets oozing grease, every morsel daring Landau to push aside the most lethal delicious parts as Jiri Krakauer’s handsome face wrinkles lightly with scorn. Kafka was permitted his stomach complaints. But Landau, apparently, isn’t, so he is trying not to think about the low-grade nausea and diarrhea from which he has suffered since he arrived in Prague, probably thanks to the very same toxins that have turned the sunflowers such a crispy shade of dark brown.

Jiri is several rows back on the bus, but Landau can hear every word he bellows at his seatmate, Eva Kaprova, the Kafka Congress Director. Why shouldn’t Jiri tell the whole bus: “This fucking country looked better when I was on my way to the camp!”

And all of Landau’s metaphors are pulverized into rubble under the weight of experience that gives Jiri the right to say this. All of Landau’s false metaphors: In fact the sunflower’s problem isn’t Chernobyl, their problem isn’t the camps, but rather the summer-long heat wave that last week warped the train tracks so that the Kafka Congress had to change plans and hire a bus for the trip to the camp.

Outside, the greasy black landscape streams by, lumpy hills striped with stubble, powdery slag heaps, and compounds hidden behind high walls.

“Pigs!” Jiri announces. It takes Landau a moment to realize they’re passing a pig farm.

“Ha, ha,” says Landau pathetically, but Jiri isn’t listening.

Landau wants Jiri to notice him, wants to ask him a million questions, Jiri is living history, an eyewitness to what Landau can’t even bear to imagine. Unlike the Kafka scholars, those pussies and old maids, Landau would have the balls to ask: What was the camp like, exactly? What single true thing has Jiri left out of all his memoirs and stories and poems?

But it’s neither Chernobyl nor the War that’s poisoned the air between them. It’s ego, Landau’s ego, pettiness, resentment. Jiri is a star here, a celebrity based on nothing but bad luck, then good luck, endurance, nerve, resilience, no Survivor Guilt for this guy. Mr. Appetite-for-Life has a story to tell and they eat it up, these pathetic Kafka groupies, these idiots who dozed through Landau’s reading of his play To Kafka from Felice.

Landau knew that the reading was strange. His drama in letters, his made-up lost half of that brilliant correspondence, was, after all, a one-woman play, to be read by a serious actress, as it was in the off-off-Broadway production that got such terrific reviews. Those female outcries of wounded pride and love were scored for a contralto with a sonorous vibrato for moments of hope and pain (Landau suspects that Felice’s voice was a good deal shriller) and not for Landau’s tenor, his dash of a Brooklyn accent. But that was no reason for landau to look out over his audience and see vacant faces, half-shut eyes, the nodding tops of heads.

Only after Landau sat down did the etherized crowd regain consciousness, make a miraculous recovery, and instantly go hog wild for Jiri’s booming oration of his goopy narrative poem about the children’s art class at the camp, about a little boy who keeps drawing people burning in a furnace, though that didn’t happen at this camp but at Auschwitz, miles to the East, so there was no way the boy could have known, etc., etc. In tears, the audience listened as Jiri ended his poem with the art teacher bravely leading her students toward the transport to the East, hand in hand with the tiny artist who had already foreseen this. They rose to their feet to cheer Jiri’s last line, “I was that little boy!”

Afterward they’d mobbed Jiri, begging him to sign copies of his books in a dozen languages. No one came near Landau—that is, no one but Natalie Zigbaum, the Slavic languages professor from Vassar, who tried to engage Landau in an earnest discussion of Kafka and Felice, a conversation so screamingly dull that Landau found himself near tears, especially when he looked over Natalie’s head at Jiri, accepting hugs and handshakes like a star athlete after a game.

Landau and Jiri have lots in common, even if no one but Landau knows it. Both are writers, obviously. Both do a little teaching: Landau as an occasional adjunct at Pace and Adelphi, and Jiri at Princeton, where he holds an endowed chair in modern European history. History! What does Jiri know? The history of Jiri Krakauer! Also, both Landau and Jiri know a thing or two about women who want to be good: Ottla Kafka, the saint of the camp, must have shared some personality traits with Landau’s wife, Mimi, a therapist with the lowest fees on the Upper West Side, a woman who not only works long hours for practically no pay but volunteers at a shelter where she gives out her telephone number for battered mothers to call at all hours of the day and night. She spends so much time at the shelter that Landau often asks her to bring home the free-meal leftovers in a doggy bag for his dinner.

Oh, what is Landau thinking! He and Jiri have nothing in common. Mimi Landau, commiserating with her friends about their menopausal woes, Mimi who, to her credit, never directly accuses Landau of having sponged for— how long?—15 years off her hard work and low pay, though she does have one very particular mournful maddening smile that tells the whole sad story of the years she’s supported Landau’s self-indulgent arty plays by listening, hour after hour, to New York’s most self-indulgent—and cheap—neurotics. Mimi is nothing like Ottla Kafka: always young, always lovely, always heroic and tragic …

Among the letters in Landau’s play is one that Landau wrote for Felice in reply to Kafka’s nagging insistence that it would be good for her to work with refugee children at the Jewish People’s Home. Felice (in Landau’s letter) writes that she wants to be good but doesn’t have the gift for it, she has no talent for goodness. What she wants is children of her own, she would be good to them, but she knows that Kafka doesn’t want children, and she respects his wish, so maybe it will be good for her to work with someone else’s children.

Landau knew how this should sound. Mimi had wanted children. He’d read the letter aloud to her, as he had most of the play. She’d gotten up and left the house and didn’t return for five hours. Landau was surprised. He’d expected her to be moved by how well he’d listened and translated her pain into art. He’d felt wronged, undermined by Mimi. He went to make a cup of tea and couldn’t at first find the tea bags and, until he came to his senses, thought she’d hidden them on purpose.

 

Three sharp blasts jolt the passengers: static from the bus driver’s radio, then a blare of jazz, Eastern European Dixieland, Basin Street with a wailing Levantine gypsy edge. Landau turns to look at Jiri, whose memoirs describe the Ghetto Sultans, the jazz band in the camp, free concerts every Monday, until the drummer and the alto sax were sent to Birkenau by mistake.

But Jiri isn’t looking to exchange a flash of recognition with Landau, a shared association on the subject of Dixieland jazz. Jiri is whispering into the ear of the Congress Director, Eva Kaprova, who inclines her head toward him like a gloomy attractive plant.

When Eva shakes the conferees’ hands she stares deeply into their eyes, which Landau finds so magnetic that he feels himself tilting toward her. Landau knows she’s married, but that is clearly not a concern for Mr. Devour-Life-with-Both-Hands, who was the first to figure out that Eva, 40ish and sexy in that sour Eastern European way, is the Congress’s only viable female. Jiri jumped in and grabbed her, which she has evidently allowed, so Jiri’s wife back home in Princeton must not be a problem, either.

Eva’s speech at the plenary session affirmed the Congress’s purpose: to foster peace and friendship between nations and ethnic communities. This, she said, was the true subject of the work of Franz Kafka, who in her opinion was a life-loving guy with a sense of humor and not the quivering neurotic wreck the world chooses to imagine: in other words, like Jiri, not at all like Landau. Eva said all this in the cigarette voice, the smoky tragic tones in which Landau’s To Kafka from Felice should have been delivered.

Right in front of Landau and the other conferees, Eva and Jiri have begun to plan another conference for some time this winter, a private session just for Jiri, at which he will meet the donors and funders of the Kafka Foundation and work his rough magic on them and persuade them to fork over millions. None of the other conferees will be invited to this event, which Jiri and Eva contrive with the breathless urgency of lovers arranging a stolen weekend, a dream escape that may never occur, but still their faces shine as they find every reason to mention it in front of the women who look at Eva, the men who stare at Jiri to discern what secret quality can make a member of the opposite sex behave so shamelessly, abandoning everything, families, duties, decorum, on the sweet unlikely promise of February in Prague.

Now traffic stalls in a stagnant pool of exhaust that makes Landau’s eyes burn. Outside the window, a roadside stand sells huge stuffed animals, plush neon-pink panthers with black button noses sucking up pollution. Landau nudges his seatmate, a depressed Albanian novelist. The Albanian glances over and nods and emits a tragic snort.

Even in the August heat, the Albanian wears a scratchy brown cardigan; a muffler of the same fabric bandages his throat. At the welcome cocktail party, the whole Congress overheard Jiri complimenting the Albanian’s outfit, recalling how in the camps he’d worn every scrap of scrounged clothing. If you “slipped into something more comfortable,” everything else you owned was stolen. The Albanian had made the same melancholy snort with which he’s just responded to Landau. And what is Jiri wearing? An expensive pale blue silk shirt with the top buttons undone, revealing a freckled chest, thatched with white hair, and, even, Christ, a gold chain!

Landau hadn’t wanted to go to the camp; he changed his mind ten times, erasing and rewriting his name until he dug a hole in the sign-up sheet. He hates to think of the Holocaust, or rather he feels it too deeply, unlike all those slobs who take dates to Schindler’s List so they can provide a manly shoulder for their girls to burrow their faces in during the scene in which the naked female prisoners don’t know if the shower will spray water or poison gas.

Isn’t there something by definition obscene about guided tours of hell—except, of course, if you’re Dante? Yet plenty of people visit the camp, for as many different reasons. At the last minute Landau decided to go, to shut up and take his medicine, maybe it would do him good, just as working with children was supposed to be good for Felice. And it isn’t as if he’s making a special effort, going out of his way to satisfy a ghoulish curiosity. The whole Kafka Congress is making the trip, so it must be perfectly normal. Landau will probably feel left out if he doesn’t go. Also he’d hate to look like a coward who can’t even visit the camp where Jiri spent three hellish years, which is another reason not to go: The camp is Jiri’s kingdom.

They turn a corner, and there it is: a solid brick fortress, not unlike the state colleges built after the Vietnam War, after students like Landau ran around smashing windows. And there is the sign over the gate, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Makes You Free. Oh, the fabulous ironies of the German sense of humor, and how amazing, how incredible that you can see it from a tour bus, which for the first time since they left Prague hits a reasonable speed and zips past the camp, then past parking lots crammed with dusty cars, campers, and fully loaded German-made RVs.

The passengers murmur anxiously. Could they have missed their stop? Wait, this bus was hired to take them where they are going! Eva Kaprova holds up a calming hand. The bus is just going to park—miles away from the camp. How will the frail Israeli rabbi manage the long hike back?

But first they must drive past another tourist attraction. Eva Kaprova points out the National Memorial Cemetery, the tidy straight rows of pale identical markers, over which the state has recently erected a monumental gleaming silver cross. The passengers fall silent and gaze dully at the cross.

Then something startling happens. Jiri lopes to the front of the bus. He turns to mug at his colleagues and, with broad clownish gestures, spreads his arms out wide, as if he is hanging on the cross. But he doesn’t look like Jesus. Jiri’s in much better shape, a condor about to flap its wings and fly up through the bus ceiling. The conferees gaze at him worshipfully. Why did Landau come here? He’d told himself it would be worth it for the free ticket to Prague, and—let’s be honest—he was flattered that he’d been invited, that the news of his little play had somehow crossed the ocean.

The bus squeezes into a parking space; its passengers don’t notice. They go on staring at Jiri until he collapses his arms and laughs. The moment’s over, they too can laugh and be released to stand and gather their things and follow Jiri off the bus and up the road to the camp.

Francine Prose is the author of nine novels. Guided Tours of Hell, a novella, will be published in January, 1997 by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.

Francine Prose by Deborah Eisenberg
​Francine Prose 1
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BOMB 58, Winter 1997
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