MARCH 19, 2020
EVERY CZECH OLD ENOUGH to remember the summer of 1968 can tell you exactly where they were when the Warsaw Pact tanks invaded Prague. Novelist Bohumil Hrabal’s story is perhaps more vivid than most.
The morning of the invasion, Hrabal was driving from Prague to the nearby town of Český Krumlov to be the best man at the wedding of one of his closest friends, the avant-garde artist Vladimír Boudník. Hrabal’s misadventure and subsequent absence from the wedding are indelibly recounted in The Tender Barbarian, a collection of texts from the early 1970s recently translated into English for the first time: “I could not get out of Prague, not by driving through the center nor by driving through the outskirts, because fraternal armies had shown up to quash something that didn’t exist.”
Hrabal’s statement about the incoming armies and their motivations could be unpacked endlessly — and, given Hrabal’s propensity for wry irony, it certainly should be — but he simply makes the comment and moves on with his story. That the invasion is no more than an inconvenient detour for Hrabal illustrates how politics, even the most significant turning points of history, were events taking place outside his window, just out of reach, figures in the writer’s peripheral vision as he focused on his destination. In this case, it was the wedding of a friend, but it might as well have been another planet.
Hrabal is having a moment in English. Already one of the most internationally recognized Czech writers (perhaps only Milan Kundera and Ivan Klíma have been more widely translated), Hrabal has appeared in several new English versions in the last two years, including The Tender Barbarian (translated by Jed Slast, 2019), Why I Write? (translated by David Short, 2019), and Murder Ballads and Other Legends (translated by Timothy West, 2018). Taken together, these books show the development of Hrabal’s famously rollicking prose style, striking imagination, and flawless ear for dialogue. They also reveal some of his strategies for remaining true to art and expression under an oppressive regime.
The Tender Barbarian seamlessly combines fact and fiction to chronicle the avant-garde intellectual bromance between Hrabal and the two people who were most important to his development as a writer: Vladimír Boudník and the writer and philosopher Egon Bondy. The eponymous main section of the book (which also includes beguiling prints and texts from Boudník) narrates the trio’s misadventures as they explore the streets of Prague and the limits of the creative imagination — with which they perpetually strive to stay in touch. Appropriately, Boudník and Hrabal live together on a street called, as the narrator periodically reminds us with humorous sincerity, The Levee of Eternity.
Boudník is the hero here, the tender barbarian of the title. Bondy plays the artist’s dialectical opposite, while Hrabal writes down the details. For Hrabal as for Bondy, there is no question about the genius of Boudník, an artist who “achieved a greatness with his active prints on par with what Pollock and Mathieu achieved with action painting” before his tragic death in 1968.
Boudník was the founder of Explosionism, a one-man movement that inspired him to frame cracks and discolorations on urban facades and invite passersby to interpret the abstract images. The resulting spectacle inevitably got the artist into trouble with the authorities, who in Hrabal’s telling denounced the fact that Boudník produced “nothing” while the rest of the country’s workers were selflessly laboring toward a communist utopia.
One point here is the absurdity of two-bit communist inspectors expressing opinions about art. Boudník’s interventions into public space also suggest that art, the eternal, is always present if we have eyes to see. And if we do, the fulmination of plainclothes inspectors means nothing. But even aesthetes should be aware enough of their surroundings to know when the inspectors are coming, for entertainment if not to avoid them entirely.
“Always pay attention both to what you’re doing and what’s going on around you,” advises Boudník, who’s far cannier than his bohemian artist persona would suggest. This harmonizes with two ideas Hrabal expresses fondness for in Why I Write?: Lao Tse’s “To Know How Not to Know,” and Nicholas of Cusa’s doctrine of learned ignorance. Wise idiocy in Czech literature goes back at least to Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921), but for writers living under communism, knowing more than you expressed was both a creative strategy and a necessity for survival.
For Hrabal and his peers, working as artists and writers in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s meant being steeped in the intricacies of class struggle, the Marxist dialectic, and the concept of proletarian revolution. But for them, “[a]ll ideologies, all worldviews, are distinguished without exception by their intolerance.” Instead of pitting themselves against the regime, however, Hrabal and his friends bypassed it, seeking eternity through creativity. Despite occasional interference from the regime, they were able to create their art and literature, if not always able to show it publicly. They did so by mostly keeping politics at arm’s length. Hrabal’s method was what he called “total realism,” an attempt to fully capture the moment at hand, not only because the greatest stories are unfolding all around us, but because “[a]ll it takes is the courage to leap head first into the irreversible present to find yourself at once in the very heart of eternity.”
Boudník the artist and guide to eternity also appears in Why I Write? and Murder Ballads and Other Legends. This allows the reader to compare English translations, as well as Hrabal’s different versions of the same material, the publication history of which is helpfully explained in the informative translator’s introductions and back matter of all three of these volumes. For example, the street where Boudník and Hrabal live is “The Levee of Eternity” in Jed Slast’s translation of The Tender Barbarian and “The Embankment of Eternity” in Timothy West’s English version of Murder Ballads. Both translations reflect Hrabal’s belief that the true artist lives on close terms with the eternal, though “levee” also connotes the vast, powerful depths being somewhat precariously held back. Even the most strictly literal translators leave their marks on the text, and of these three, Slast’s translations feel the most inspired, rendering Hrabal’s infectious enthusiasm in vivid English.
Murder Ballads and Other Legends, a collection of stories first published in 1968, shows Hrabal writing confidently with all the trademarks of his mature style, which included a great deal of palavering, the endless winding talk of his Uncle Pepin, and the barflies of Prague’s legendary pubs. “The Legend of Lammertz Needles,” one of the funniest tales in the book, presents the storytelling of a Czech traveler returned to Prague from New York City. Each time he relates something incredible about the Big Apple, his barber Mr. Zámečník boasts of a similar sight or service in Prague with increasingly ludicrous insistence. The exchange humorously conveys how most citizens on both sides of the Iron Curtain were less concerned with politics than creature comforts.
Hrabal’s fiction was steeped in and focused on the quotidian, but a wide range of writers, artists, and philosophers influenced his creative worldview — one text in Why I Write? mentions Rabelais, Celine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Schopenhauer, and “my latest teacher” Roland Barthes. Toward the end of his life, Hrabal cultivated the reputation of a country bumpkin who spent most of his time with his cats and only came to the city to drink beer in his favorite pubs. While that representation was not completely lacking in truth, Hrabal was also a dedicated writer and intellectual, a master prose stylist with a doctorate in the history of law.
Even as a young writer, Hrabal kept close tabs on the European avant-garde. Why I Write? shows the influence of Czech surrealists like the prolific poet Vítězslav Nezval on Hrabal’s earliest work. Hrabal honed his eye for detail in stories such as “Those Rapturous Riflemen,” where a man with a missing thumb “looks sadly at the fin that used to be his right hand.” This darkly humorous tale describes life in a Czech village where two brothers “get a whiff of simple graves” every time they ride past the local World War I memorial. These stories will give Anglophone readers a disconcerting awareness of how casually Europeans of Hrabal’s generation lived alongside catastrophe. As one Hrabellian narrator blithely remarks: “And then came the war.”
Hrabal’s novel Closely Watched Trains — made into an Academy Award–winning film by Jiří Menzel in 1966 — is more directly concerned with political and historical events than much of his other work. Presented in Why I Write? as the short story “Cain” and in Murder Ballads and Other Legends as “The Legend of Cain,” these early versions, like the novel they became, culminate with a plot to bomb German military trains during World War II. But even here, Hrabal’s protagonists focus on their own lives and desires as history literally passes by the window, in this case on train tracks. Hrabal’s oblique view of political history and his ability to find humor in the admonishments of the regime’s policemen and bureaucrats was both a successful creative strategy and a commentary on existence under an oppressive regime, where the political climate affects everyone and everything, but life, for the most part, goes on as usual.
Hrabal’s greatest works emerged from his experience, from the Czech experience, combined with his voluminous reading and searching intellect. He strove to meet the highest demands of art as represented by unquestionably devoted figures like Boudník. He understood what it meant to be in touch with eternity, but above all, he knew the labor required to produce pages day after day for decades. For a writer there is no other way, regardless of who is in power. Hence the palpable admiration for the lowly worker at the end of “Ballad of a Public Execution” in Murder Ballads and Other Legends:
It’s through personal experience that we recover the shared firmament, and from year to year, and that includes 1968, we build a stairway of tender wishes, much like the Libeň collier who added up all the stairs he’d climbed during thirty years of bringing people their coal and found he’d carried his scuttle all the way to the moon.