SINCE ITS GREAT years as capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Prague has experienced all the ways in which a city can decline without dying. It has been home to some of the greatest scientists, artists, musicians and writers of modern times, even while being more or less continuously under foreign, or at any rate alien, occupation. The explanation for this lies in the Czech genius for conceding defeat, which has many times spared Prague from destruction. The only serious attempt by the Czechs to defend their capital took place outside Prague on the %te Mountain in 1620: losing the battle, they lost their nationality; but they did not lose their city. It was the same story in 1938, 1948 and 1968. These more recent occupations have added nothing to the physical beauty of the city; but they have not destroyed it either, and it is partly thanks to alien occupation that the city has acquired, in recent times, its unique spiritual aura. Those who visited Prague during the Communist years were granted the vision of a people oppressed by a diabolical nihilism whde living in the fairy-tale architecture of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It was as though the soul had been driven &m the human shapes that patrolled and queued in the streets, to take rehge among caryatids, pinnacles and domes.
John Banville is one of those who travelled to Communist Prague in an unofficial capacity, and who visited the dissidents in their catacombs. He is also a distinguished novelist who has dramatised some of the more co1ourfi.d episodes in the history of that city, and returned there in recent years