The Seven Churches: A Gothic Novel of Prague

Written by Milos Urban
Review by Mary F. Burns

This unusual, almost-science-fiction novel plays with the historical sense of time and culture and poses some questions: Is humanity “better” now than say, 600 years ago? Have we really progressed, or are our technological advances just window-dressing and makeup that cover a growing inhumanity? It doesn’t take long to see on which side of this question our protagonist – who calls himself “K” – comes down, especially when he is taken up by a mysterious, modern Knight to help him in a private quest.

K is, in modern terms, a loser. He is a disappointment to his long-divorced parents, he’s too shy to approach women, he dropped out of school, he’s been fired from his police job – but he’s smart and perceptive, and in love with all things medieval. But even K cannot foresee the pivotal role he will play, and the consequences to himself and his beloved city, when he discovers his supernatural ability to access the reality of past times by merely putting his hand on the ancient stone wall of an historic church.

The writing is lyrical and literary, the plot is nearly as convoluted as a Kafka story (Kafka was a native of Prague), and the names are well-nigh unpronounceable (to non-Europeans, at least), but Urban has a fresh, intriguing style and an interesting point of view about modern times that are well worth the labor of reading this book. I wish there could have been a little more description and time spent in the past than we’re given, to provide an even better contrast with the hellish modern world that K and the Knight dislike so much, and that rings all too familiar a bell.

Radio Prague calls Urban the “Czech Republic’s answer to Umberto Eco,” and while I would give that a slight nod, my own experience with Eco leads me to say that Urban is definitely more readable and entertaining.