a novel at war with itself


The American Ambassador’s residence in Prague was built in the late nineteen-twenties by Otto Petschek. The Petscheks were among the wealthiest families in Czechoslovakia, and the mansion was lavish: long curving corridors, ornate bathrooms, a swimming pool in the basement. The Petscheks were also German-speaking Jews, wise enough to foresee the horrors that awaited them: they left Prague in 1938. When the Germans occupied the city in 1939, Nazi officers, with their unerring instinct for such things, seized the huge home, and made baleful use of it until the end of the war. As with many buildings in Europe, the Petschek villa is scored and crossed, like the hide of a whale, with the history of its accidents. Last year, I spent some time in the house as a guest—the current Ambassador’s family and my family once shared an apartment building in Washington, D.C., and we became friends. In Prague, my friend showed me something I will not forget: he got me to lie on my back and peer at the underside of some piece of ambassadorial furniture. There, on the naked wood, was a faded Nazi stamp, with swastika and eagle; and next to it, quietly triumphant in its very functionality, was a bar-code strip, proclaiming the American government’s present ownership.

more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.