You Laugh Uncontrollably

Bohumil Hrabal at the Canadian embassy in Prague, summer 1990
Tomki Němec
Bohumil Hrabal at the Canadian embassy in Prague, summer 1990

Bohumil Hrabal’s complete works in Czech add up to nineteen volumes, of which at least twenty books have been translated into English, an achievement not many foreign fiction writers of the recent past can claim. I first heard his name when I saw Closely Watched Trains, a film based on his short novel of the same title that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1968. But we had to wait until his other books started appearing in English in the 1990s to get to know his work.

The recent publication of Mr. Kafka, his collection of early stories, which I found as enjoyable as everything else of his I’ve read, made me go back and reread the books I already knew and all the ones that have been translated since, and as I did so, my admiration for Hrabal grew. He is not only a consistently entertaining storyteller, but some of his novels and stories are comic masterpieces that I wouldn’t advise bringing on planes or to doctors’ waiting rooms, where those overhearing your cackling may get the wrong idea and summon someone in authority to intervene. Serious works of literature that make us laugh uncontrollably are rare. When one remembers that Hrabal lived in a country and at a time in European history when there was absolutely nothing to laugh about, one’s amazement at what he accomplished is even greater.

Hrabal was born in 1914 to an unmarried mother in Brno, in what was then a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; his father was a friend of hers from the same neighborhood. Her parents opposed the idea of her marrying the young man since he was about to be inducted into the army; he ended up on the Italian front in World War I and was subsequently discharged as an invalid. His son never met him. Up to the age of three, he lived with his grandparents in Brno while his mother worked as an assistant bookkeeper in a brewery, where she met her future husband, Frantíšek Hrabal.

The family moved in 1919 to Nymburk, a small town on the banks of the Elbe where his stepfather became the manager of another brewery and where Hrabal, his parents, and a half-brother lived comfortably until the father lost his job in 1948 after the Communist takeover. The future writer was a mediocre student in school. He read a lot on his own, but regularly failed courses in Czech composition, jesting in his seventies that it had taken him until that moment to understand what the pluperfect is. With the help of private tutors he somehow finished school and enrolled to study law at Prague’s Charles University, but didn’t graduate until 1946, since Czech universities were…

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