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 shut down during the Nazi occupation. Like Franz Kafka, he was a doctor of law who never practiced. During the war he worked on the railway, and after that as a manual laborer at the Kladno steelworks and, following a serious injury in a paper recycling mill, as a stagehand in a theater, and somewhere in between these, as an insurance agent and traveling salesman. He married a waitress and lived in Prague and in a village not far from the city, shuttling between his small cottage overrun by weeds and cats and his small apartment and favorite pub in the city.
It’s amazing to discover how well read Hrabal was in his youth and how much his compatriots read. They had to compensate as a nation, he said later, for having no ocean, and instead had to have oceans of knowledge. One Christmas his uncle gave him Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, not a book you’d normally give to someone young, but the fantastic tales and the bawdy humor of the French Renaissance physician, humanist, and classics scholar made a lasting impression on him. Of course, he read Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek and other Czech writers, plus Chekhov, Babel, Céline, Bruno Schulz, but far less predictably, the stories of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Nelson Algren—all that and much more thanks to tireless translators and publishers in Prague who seemed not to have missed a book worth reading in another language, not only in the years before the war, but also afterward, under communism, when translations that were made with no hope of ever being seen in bookstores were circulated privately in manuscript.
Hrabal started as a poet whose idols were Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and the French Surrealists. A book of his poems was published in 1948, but like many other books was withdrawn from circulation after the Communist coup d’état. Two stories followed in 1956, but his first novel, Palaverers, did not appear until 1963 and was followed shortly after by two of his finest novels, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age and Closely Watched Trains in 1964 and 1965. From that time onward, Hrabal could call himself a writer, except that living in a country where books were banned even after being printed and bound didn’t make the life of a writer easy. Two of his most popular novels in Czechoslovakia, I Served the King of England (1971) and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (1973), were published in samizdat editions.
In 1975 Hrabal gave an interview that shocked his readers at home and abroad, in which he made “self-critical” comments that enabled him to publish, a privilege he preserved to the end of Communist rule in 1989. Understandably, he wanted his work to circulate beyond the underground network of blacklisted writers, but not so understandably, it did not seem to embarrass him to accept the perks that went along with being a writer approved of by the regime, such as being allowed to travel abroad and even visit the United States, while having his full artistic freedom curtailed at home. In January 1977 he did not sign Charter 77—the famous protest against the Communist government by prominent writers, intellectuals, and public officials that eventually gathered eight hundred signatures—joking afterward that while his most sensitive friends chose emigration, he emigrated inwardly during those years to the Golden Tiger, his watering hole of choice in Prague.
“I have never described myself as a writer,” he said in an interview. “I have always said I am a recorder, or minute-taker. Most of those lovely stories I hear from others.” Drinking beer and shooting the breeze in pubs were his favorite occupations. On his visit to New York in 1988 he made himself at home at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street and met friends there throughout the day. With that daily routine, he resembled his compatriot and literary hero Jaroslav Hašek, the author of The Good Soldier Švejk, one of the funniest novels of all time, whose own drinking and carousing were legendary in the Prague of his day.
“The folklore of the city is my aesthetics,” Hrabal said. That doesn’t strike me as quite right. The action in his books more often takes place in small towns. He said that he always had the impression that people who kept rabbits, hoed their own potatoes, and butchered animals lived more intensely. In the midst of some ordinary story, they’d surprise you by saying something extraordinary. Such moments were his building blocks, Hrabal claims, the driving force behind his writing. As true as this may have been, any reader of his work realizes sooner or later that there’s a lot about him and his family in his fiction. Every job he ever held and practically everything his parents ever did while they were alive is recounted, starting with The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and ending with Harlequin’s Millions (1981), which describes their final years in a magnificent baroque castle turned into an old people’s home.
It was inevitable that he’d write about them. His mother was a freethinking woman who scandalized the citizens in the little town where her husband was a brewery manager and made a few young women envious seeing her ride a bike in a short skirt. She occasionally told amusing stories; his uncle Pepin didn’t stop telling them. He was the inspiration for Hrabal’s dazzling early novel Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, marvelously translated into English by Michael Henry Heim. The book consists of a single sentence strung together by a former shoemaker, former Austro-Hungarian army private, ladies’ man, and beerhall philosopher in a rambling monologue, 117 pages long. Numerous farcical stories with frequent digressions on other subjects bring to life a character who would find himself at home in any of the great picaresque novels that his creator read and admired. Here is how he sounds:
Here I am pushing seventy and having the time of my life with you like the emperor with that Schratt lady, promising you red leather pumps like the ones I once made for Doctor Karafiát’s sister, who was a beauty, but had one glass eye, which is a problem, because you never know what it’s going to do next, a hatter from Prostějov once told me he took a woman with a glass eye to the pictures and she sneezed and it flew out and during the break they had to go crawling under the seats for it, but she found it and wiped it off, pulled up her eyelid, and pop! in it went, by the way, baking is as much of an art as shoemaking, my brother Adolf was a trained baker, you slide the shovel into the oven like it’s a billiard cue, and if the inspector catches you licking your fingers when you’re making rolls you’ll get a bop on the beezer, and every time a baker does number one he’s got to wash his hands, while a shoemaker can pick his nose all day if he likes, a butcher has to watch himself as well, we had one in our platoon by the name of Kocourek, Miroslav Kocourek, and this Kocourek had a bandaged finger, and one day he was stuffing liverwursts and the bandage disappeared into one of them, and because chances were an enlisted man would get the one with the bandage he forgot about it, but guess what, young ladies, it was the doctor! that’s right, he was on his third liverwurst, and the minute he cut into it he recognized his handiwork and puked and Kocourek was sent to the front, but did he die there? no, he turned hero and won all kinds of medals, I spent some time pushing goats tied together in a wheelbarrow to the butcher’s, and one day two little kids gamboled along next to me and the goats kept licking my hands, and when I stopped in a field to rest, the kids started licking my hands, and I wept bitter tears, what was I doing with a butcher?
This is how people told stories to one another when there was no radio or television, Hrabal says. Indeed, how else did they pass the time and amuse themselves for all those centuries before Twitter and the Internet? “In the vegetable garden grows the elder tree, and uncle is in Kiev,” a Russian proverb says. Someone starts a story, which soon reminds him of another, and that one of another and still another. Beyond that point, the storyteller either forgets how he began, or miraculously, after many additional detours, he manages to pick up the thread of the original story. Of course, if these digressions are entertaining, as they almost always are in Hrabal’s work, only a reader eager to know the point of the story gets impatient; the others sit back and enjoy the ride. Telling a story in that way tends to be a habit of those with interesting lives, long memories, inventive imaginations, and a belief that even unrelated events and minor details need to be a part of their narrative in order for their listeners to get the full picture.
Of course, there were literary prototypes for this sort of rambling narrative: Rabelais and Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, Gogol, and of course Hašek’s Švejk with his cock-and-bull stories. A blend of folk humor and storytelling filtered through an educated and irreverent intellect is what we get. That being so, every conceit men and women are prone to becomes a butt of the jokes. This kind of humor has no inhibitions; it doesn’t put up with our charades but strips us down to our underwear. Being a fool is our destiny, our second nature, it tells us. Those who can laugh at themselves now and then know that to be true. “I was always lucky in my bad luck,” a waiter in Hrabal’s I Served the King of England says. Even our tragedies can be comical, though most of us would be reluctant to admit it.
Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, beautifully translated by Paul Wilson, was written in the 1950s but not published in Czechoslovakia until 1965. The stories take place during the time of political and social turmoil after the Communists came to power and set out to remake Czech society along Stalinist lines by consigning members of the defeated classes either to prison or to manual labor. Four of the stories come from Hrabal’s own experiences at the Kladno steelworks, where former businessmen, professors, judges, policemen, priests, and female convicts unloaded truckloads of scrap metal for blast furnaces—one of the trucks carried rusty crucifixes and angels taken from village churchyards—while swapping tales about their former lives and comments on their current predicaments. “Humanity will forgive you if you’re a horse’s ass, but if you speak five languages,” one them says, “they’ll never let you live it down.”
This, one must remember, was the heyday of socialist realism in the People’s Democracies, when writers, like their Russian counterparts, were expected to write about workers building socialism, portraying their lives in a heroic and idealized manner. Instead, Hrabal writes about pitiful, isolated people, history’s losers, destined to become extinct.
One of the stories is called “Strange People,” and they are indeed that, a cross-section of Czech society, including former prostitutes. A few of the workers decide to call a strike because everybody’s quotas have been raised without their consultation, a decision that flies in the face of the principles of comradely conduct, as one of them points out to the shop steward. “Look here, comrades,” the steward tells them, “the imperialists are closing in and there’s no time to waste. We have to pour the molten steel of peace down their bellicose throats.” In other words, forget it.
What makes these tales powerful is their brutal realism, the wretchedness and hopelessness of people who’d been promised a workers’ paradise now laboring in a place where the perpetual smoke and fire from furnaces recall to me the depictions of hell in Hieronymus Bosch. With that kind of life, a bit of black humor or an occasional act of kindness from a guard who looks away while some worker and a former female prisoner are making out is all one can expect:
“Things are getting much better, doctor,” said Bárta, the loader. “Christian Europe is consolidating.”
“What Europe?” asked the doctor of philosophy derisively. “And what d’you mean ‘Christian’? It’s more Jewish than ever before….”
“It is Christian,” said the merchant.
“That’s crap,” said the doctor of philosophy, raising his hand. “At one end of the spectrum you’ve got one brilliant Jew, Christ, and at the other end you’ve got another genius, Marx. Two specialists in macrocosms, in big pictures. All the rest of it is Mother Goose territory.”
“Mr. Kafka,” the title story of the new collection, is about a day in the life of a lonely young man living in Prague fully aware that he bears the last name of the famous writer. He works at a lowly job, in a store with five floors of toys, roams the city in his free hours, and has all kinds of interesting encounters. The narrative feels like a montage. “I don’t actually write,” Hrabal once said in his talks with readers. “I cut, and then glue the cut-outs together into collages.” Short scenes and stunningly original bits of poetic description alternate to create a lyrical mood and convey the state of mind of the hero adrift in a grim and impoverished metropolis. A streetcar rumbles by with a few dead men inside hanging by their hands. A pedestrian stumbles to his knees and tries to ignite a cobblestone. Parakeets flit about in their cages like poetic metaphors. In a church the Mother of God’s hands are locked in cement so she can’t cover her son’s eyes. A little girl looks at a falling leaf and says, “That leaf’s hands are sore, so it had to let go.” Strolling by the river where the city appears to walk on its hands, he wonders why the cars are driving along the river upside down, their wheels in the air as though sledding along on their roofs, and why passersby greet each other as though they were scooping water into their hats.
The influence of Surrealist poets and painters on some modern novelists has been overlooked. Would Hrabal and the South American magic realists write the way they did without the Surrealists’ example? Silent film, both American and European two-reel comedies, also had an unacknowledged part here and there. Reading the story “Breaking Through the Drum” in this collection, about a movie usher who takes tickets and shows people to their seats, made me think of Harold Lloyd’s maniacal character in his comedies. When he was in primary school the usher (and narrator) of “Breaking Through the Drum” loved drawing the class’s seating plans for the teacher, and once he grew older, still obsessed with discipline and order, he’d ask a whole row of people in the movie theater to move so he could seat some customer precisely where he wanted them to be. After years of this, he gets promoted and works as an usher in bigger theaters, concert and lecture halls, becoming more and more strict.
Classical music ruins the narrator’s career. It begins with him falling in love with the sound of a string quartet and reaches its finale in an open-air performance of a symphony orchestra. As the conductor appears and taps his baton on the music stand and the audience falls silent, a brass band playing a polka in a beer garden over the adjoining wall can be heard. We can hear the Symphonie Pathétique, with the conductor directing the orchestra like a high priest on one side, and the deafening racket of brass on the other. The Czech nation is split in half, with lovers of both kinds of music climbing walls, shaking fists at their compatriots on the other side, the insults culminating in a free-for-all with the unhinged usher flying head first, arms spread wide, and crashing into the drums of the polka band.
Unlike the people in the other stories in this book, the usher in “Breaking through the Drum” is a far more developed character, his obsessions affectionately and astutely rendered. What made Baudelaire so great, Hrabal said in an interview, was the French poet’s profound compassion. He noticed poor street girls and destitute old men, and so does Hrabal. His stories and novels are not only hilarious, but are full of extraordinary depictions of the suffering of people and animals. He even took pity on defeated Nazi soldiers running for their lives in 1944. “The highest law is love, the love that is compassion,” says Hanta, the hero of his most autobiographical novel, Too Loud a Solitude. Like Hrabal, Hanta has been compacting wastepaper and books in a recycling plant, while quoting from Schopenhauer.
Everything changes the moment one takes pity on a human being or a mouse cowering in a corner. All of a sudden, a different world appears before our eyes, both more terrifying and more beautiful. That’s what makes Hrabal’s stories and novels genuinely moving. And so was his end. He died in 1997 at the age of eighty-two, falling out of a hospital window in Prague while apparently reaching to feed some pigeons.