MARCH 26, 2016
IN STALINIST CZECHOSLOVAKIA, show trials led to executions. Once a formidable capitalist industrial power — dating from Bohemia’s time as the economic engine of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the country was pulled into the socialist bloc, and a cadre of functionaries formed central planning committees, assigning both “volunteers” drafted from the educated classes and penal laborers to meet production quotas for steel, coal, and heavy machinery. Prague, not Moscow or his native Georgia, was the site of the world’s largest statue of Stalin. Just days before that 15.5-meter behemoth was unveiled in 1955, the sculptor took his own life.
In short: Things were bleak. This is the stark setting of Bohumil Hrabal’s newly translated collection of seven short stories, Mr. Kafka: and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult. Now deceased, Hrabal remains a writer of acclaim in Central and Eastern Europe, but under-appreciated elsewhere. Both his clean, lyrical writing style and beer-fueled bacchanalia are the stuff of lore.
Composed between the end of World War II and 1962 (the year that Stalin statue was taken down), all the molten metal, prison guards, barracks, scrap heaps, and bile in these stories would be too much gloom to cope with, but for Hrabal’s ability to write beautifully about ugly things. Vomit drips out of a drunk’s mouth “as though he’d dropped a pocket watch on a chain,” and a workers’ dormitory is a “rattrap sprung shut by a perspective constantly narrowing at either end.” Hrabal’s eye for nuance makes the destitution of totalitarianism almost bearable.
“The world is full of art, it’s just a matter of knowing how to look around you and then surrendering to inexhaustible whisperings, to small details, to longing and desire,” Hrabal writes in one story, “Beautiful Poldi,” which is set in the steel works where he was a volunteer worker from 1949 to 1954.
This line captures an inevitable theme of the collection — the clash between the human need to pursue pleasures, however small, and the unrelenting tedium of the Stalinist system. Men watch through a fence as an attractive female convict — a murderer — bathes. “Progress dines at times on roasted youth,” but the narrator notes “there were poets in concentration camps, too.”
Translator Paul Wilson has done an intrepid job of adapting the notoriously difficult-to-translate Hrabal to English. Czechs often refer to Hrabal’s use of language as Hrabalovština, a neologism that might translate as “Hrabalese” and references his singular voice. Hrabal’s lengthy sentences have a buoyant musicality, and Wilson manages to keep up with his manic pace. Hrabal wrote quickly with few revisions and described his own writing style with the Czech word pábení, which is often translated as “palavering” — but it could just as easily be called bullshitting.
“You have to write as if you were fucking in a passageway,” Hrabal once said while holding court in his favorite pub. “Immediately, right now, quickly until it’s done with.”
Assured as Wilson’s translation is, he would admit this collection does not comprise Hrabal’s best work. However, these stories do provide insight into a writer in transition from earlier dabblings in poetry and surrealism — two of the tales were in fact poems later converted to prose — into the first-rate storytelling craftsman of later works, like the novella Too Loud a Solitude and novel I Served the King of England.
The stories in Mr. Kafka: and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult see Hrabal moving toward what he called “total realism.” At times it is hard to tell how much of the lingering surrealist elements are a function of intent, or merely result from the alien nature of the setting to the contemporary reader. Hrabal almost certainly — and knowingly — blends the two, and recognizes his extreme existential circumstance even as he is amid it.
Though Hrabal has some renown today — he collaborated on the film adaptation of his own novel Closely Watched Trains that won the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and his work received greater exposure in the West following Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 — he nonetheless remains one of the most overlooked great writers of the 20th century. Though there are some explanations for this, none have much to do with the merit of his work, which is at once breezy and substantial — like a gust of wind in the desert.
Hrabal’s first work was not published until he was 50 years old, and afterward he published only inconsistently. Most of his the 14 volumes of his collected works are still not translated into English. Living in a totalitarian state, Hrabal neither emigrated nor overtly took up the dissident’s baton, and thus lost out on the international fame enjoyed by contemporaries like Kundera or Havel. Hrabal’s legacy is more complicated. His writing appears to focus on the mundane, but grapples with epochal historical forces.
“During this period,” Hrabal wrote in the 1965 preface to this collection when it was first released in Czech, “I was living with people who felt, or knew, that every era carries in its womb a child in whom one may not only place one’s hopes, but through whom and with whom it would be possible to go on living.”
Hrabal did not rebel against his surroundings. His writing does not attempt to make sense of it, but rather observe in a manner that alternates whimsy and melancholia. Hrabal and his characters display a sense of resignation with their unfortunate condition. One sees much of him in the libertine who wanders the streets of Prague in the story “Mr. Kafka.” As the title character stops to meet an elderly street sausage vendor, she tells him: “If you weren’t surrounded by a little cloud, you’d make beautiful things.”
To readers more accustomed to romantic literary conventions of dissidence and exile, it is this resignation that strikes an awkward note. The greatest myth about authoritarian society is that most people are active resisters of oppression. In fact, the goal of repressive government is to simply make resistance inconvenient. Totalitarianism is only total when it succeeds in mechanizing people for their own repression. Though it is a mistake to downplay brave opposition to injustice, there is little that is shameful about accepting, for example, unpleasant manual labor if in exchange one can immunize their spirit.
In the story “The Angel,” a guard watches over a group of female prisoners as they work. He gives orders and shouts at them on occasion, “but the prisoners knew from his tone of voice that he regretted having to say it.” When a discarded image of a guardian angel catches the guard’s attention, he uses metal shears to cut it out and then slips it under his shirt and between his own shoulder blades. “Nothing could prevent him from continuing — inadequately and against regulations — to protect the women in his care,” Hrabal writes. “And that, in his own mind, was his salvation.”
Like the guard, Hrabal sought a small, autonomous space in an otherwise suffocating environment. He was a writer, not a politician, and “wishe[d] to live in habitations where humor and the possibility of metaphysical escape reign supreme,” he writes.
When Hrabal wasn’t writing, he was otherwise content to spend his free time in any number of pubs. This has added to his legend as a raconteur and man about town, and indeed his favored Prague pub — u Zlatého tygra, or At the Golden Tiger — has immortalized him with bust on its wall.
The same stoic attitude that has almost certainly limited his international acclaim is among the things that endears him to Czechs. Indeed, during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, he was by far the most famed contemporary writer in his own country. His decision to do an interview with the communist cultural paper Tvorba in 1975 is perhaps the biggest black mark on his record, and was perceived by some as tacit support for the communist regime. But it also allowed Hrabal to publish after years of regime-induced silence.
“For the communist regime, Bohumil Hrabal was a hostage,” wrote Karel Srp, who later illegally published Hrabal’s jaunty treasure I Served the King of England in 1983. “The communists knew that they couldn’t imprison him. It would have provoked an international outrage […] The communists knew they would not find an ally in Hrabal, but at least they would not have him for an enemy.”
I Served the King of England tells the tale of a diminutive but ambitious waiter amid the tectonic political forces of communist Czechoslovakia, was published by a club of jazz enthusiasts more than decade after Hrabal wrote it. As Srp notes in a 1998 essay in the Prague Revue, dozens of Hrabal’s friends from u Zlatého tygra turned up with beer coasters signed by the author entitling them to a copy of the book. When Srp was later tried and jailed for the unauthorized print run, the coasters were used as evidence.
Though less irreverent than his other works, Mr. Kafka: and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult does offer a savory sip of Hrabal. Perhaps the only complaint about this engaging collection is the contextual confusion readers might encounter if unfamiliar with Czechoslovak history, or the present day Czech Republic. Though the stories stand on their own, ample references to people and places would almost certainly come to life with a few foot- or end-notes. For example, the Poldi steelworks still exist, and were originally founded by Karl Wittgenstein, father of philosopher Ludwig. Wilson mentions these details in his translator’s afterword, but the readers only encounter them after finishing all the stories and there are myriad other factoids that might be included.
The translator Paul Wilson is worth noting in his own right. A Canadian, he came to communist Czechoslovakia as a young man to teach English and ended up a key member of the psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. In 1976, the band members were given jail sentences for “organized disturbing of the peace,” and Wilson was deported. This spurred the writing of Charter 77, a landmark document that criticized the communist regime on civil rights grounds, which was published in global media and saw many of its signatories sent to prison or harassed by authorities indefinitely. Those same people, including Havel, formed the core of the country’s first post-communist government.
Previous translations by Wilson include an impressive list of Czech writers he knew or knows personally, including Havel, Josef Škvorecký, and Ivan Klíma. This is his second Hrabal translation. In the translator’s note of the first, I Served the King of England, Wilson wrote: “Bohumil Hrabal’s work, Czechs say, is untranslatable. This book is my response to that challenge.” The disparate nature of these stories presented an even greater riddle, but Wilson was, again, up to the task.
When communism collapsed in 1989, the cloud that had followed Hrabal for decades lifted. He was no longer restricted in what he could say, do, or write. His fame grew, but like an inmate after a long prison sentence, he struggled with unchecked sovereignty. He drank more, and wrote less. By the time Hrabal stopped writing in 1994 at age 80, he was a sort of caricatured cult figure in Prague, sharing beer with Bill Clinton when the US president paid a visit to town. In 1997, Hrabal died under mysterious circumstances, either falling or jumping from the fifth floor of Prague’s Bulovka hospital.
At the time Milan Kundera, who fled Czechoslovakia in 1975, wrote from Paris: “Someday the Russian occupation will be forgotten and it will be said of these years that it was a great period of Czech culture when Hrabal lived and wrote I Served the King of England.”
Hrabal’s other can’t-miss work, the novella Too Loud a Solitude, tells of a man named Hanta who works in a basement pulping banned books, but uses the access to great texts to educate himself. He does so while quaffing copious amounts of beer, and the result is a hazy first person metaphysical monologue. On an occasion when Hanta is forced to leave the basement he notes: “I can’t stand fresh air anymore.”
“For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting wastepaper, and if I had it all to do over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years,” he says.
Later on, Hanta kills himself.