Richard Fidler has a rare gift for words: seemingly effortlessly engaging with both his subject and the reader, transporting the latter through fact upon fact revealed by his in-depth research, yet also with a lightness of touch, compassion, eloquence and gentle humour.
Having devoured two of his earlier books Saga Land and Ghost Empire I eagerly turned my attention to his latest book – The Golden Maze : A Biography of Prague.
It had been several years since my last visit to Prague, but thanks to Richard Fidler I was transported back to that enchanting city. Once again, I was on the Charles Bridge; exploring the massive castle and Hradcany district; standing in front of the Astronomical Clock; admiring the statue of Saint Wenceslas.
The little guide book I had taken with me had been fine, and had given me a good résumé of Prague, but having read The Golden Maze, I realise just how little I knew about this ancient city, said to have been founded in the 8th century by the legendary, and mystic, queen of Bohemia, Libussa who saw ‘a great city. Its glory will touch the stars’.
Of course, there is only so much you can squeeze into a pocket guide book; whereas the text alone for The Golden Maze covers 512 pages, neither does it purport to be a guide book (though guide in places it most certainly does), this book truly is a cleverly constructed biography of a city covering the years since its humble beginnings as a settlement on a river bank, up to 2019.
Fidler guides us through the early days when a Celtic tribe settled by the banks of the river Vltava, and into the sixth century when Slavic tribes arrived and made it their home. They built a fort on the Hradcany bluff where the castle stands today. We learn about Libussa, and the violent, grim and murderous years that followed; of Wenceslas – a duke rather than a king as the carol would have us believe; and of another young man also called Wenceslas who changed his name to Charles. It was this young man who dreamed of creating a great capital city by renovating the royal palace, building a splendid bridge (which bears his name) plus a new town, and founding the St Vitus cathedral.
But rulers come and go, as can a city’s prosperity, and so it was for Prague. But at the end of the 16th century Prague entered its golden age of science and art, and indeed the occult. New palaces were built, astronomers – such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler – along with alchemists, artists and inventors flocked to the exciting new city.
Moving on in time Richard Fidler brings us more up to date with his aptly named chapter ‘Sleeping on a Volcano’ chronicling the years between 1815 – 1935 and their effect on Prague with police informers and unrest; before heading deeper into the pre-war years of 1935-39 including the arrival of Hitler in the city, on into the even darker years to 1948, and onto the days under communism and the Prague Spring. Fidler continues through the unrest in Prague that took place in the 1970s and 1980s and into the years under Vaclav Havel’s presidency and to his death in 2011.
Richard Fidler concludes his Biography of Prague in 2019 when he returned to the city and made his way to Wencelas Square to join the crowds who had congregated there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach, commenting that he felt that the ceremony was ‘as much about the present as it [was] about the past’.
Bearing in mind Prague’s somewhat uneasy past, readers may wonder, as I did, about the future of the city – I hope it will be golden. Time will tell.
Richard Fidler’s The Golden Maze – A Biography of Prague is an astonishing, fascinating and thought- provoking book. I for one, await with eager anticipation the next book from this brilliant writer.
The Golden Maze: A Biography of Prague. Richard Fidler. ISBN: 978 0 7333 3526 6. Hardback £20. ABC Books an imprint of HarperCollins.