Kral Majales

In the spring of 1993 I spent a few weeks in Prague wandering about the streets and staying briefly with a Czech couple in their cramped apartment on the outskirts of the city.  Most of the time, however, I rented a cheap room at the Hotel Merkur, which featured hard narrow beds, thin sheets and shared bathrooms down the hall.  I remember my room had an ancient radio that received only one station. I would lie in bed at night listening to somber dirges and reading Ivan Klima's novel Love and Garbage.

I was surprised, then, to run across the photo at left.  It's a picture of Allen Ginsberg outside the Merkur.  In 1968 he had been invited by the Czech government to come to Prague.  They very quickly dis-invited him after he was crowned the King of May (Kral Majales) and led an unsanctioned and very joyous parade through the streets of the city.  Ginsberg subsequently wrote a poem about his ejection from the country while taking a jet from Prague to London:

And the Communists have nothing to offer but fat cheeks and eyeglasses and
lying policemen
and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the
Naked,
and the Communists create heavy industry but the heart is also heavy and the beautiful engineers are all dead...
People may not remember it today, but there was a kind of hipster rush to Prague immediately after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.  The ex-pat scene was breathlessly compared to Paris in the 20s.  By the time I rolled through in '93, that "scene" had already moved on.  Budapest or Krakow were where it was at, or so the guide books said.  There are two things you can usually be sure of.  If it's in a guide book or if I am present, the scene has definitely moved on.  The beautiful engineers are dead.

Anyway, after running across this photograph, I searched through some old boxes in the basement and found the diary from those years, which included the following sketch:
Sitting at the train station--the de riguer soot-blackened train station.  At the tattered restaurace, the tables cloths are soiled with ash and axle grease.  What a bedraggled country this is, a gray-undershirted-peeking-through-a-1970s-double-knit-jumper of a country.  Yet all around me there is filthy magnificence.  Art noveau columns rise to my left and right, and between them a stained-glass archer draws back his bow while a virginal maiden gathers her gown before her begrimed white breasts.  Below, at the tables, Turks cut currency deals amid the cigarette haze.  Cracked speakers blare out English techno-pop and  a Czech next to me coos in his soft, melodic tongue to a bruised tart with deep-set Eastern European eyes.  It's 9:15 pm, the eleventh of May, and I sit here scribbling notes about my surroundings. 
Over twenty years have passed since I was in Prague.  I doubt I'll ever get back (despite having dutifully rubbed the toe of some martyr's statue that is said to guarantee one's return).  Ginsberg never went back, which is fitting.  According to legend, the May King is a fertility figure. During his brief reign he is allowed to impregnate any woman in the village.  When the day is done, though, a ritual sacrifice commences.

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