JULY 14, 2014
IN 1988, the year before the Velvet Revolution, Bohumil Hrabal received permission to travel from his native Czechoslovakia to the “Delighted States,” as he liked to call them. A celebrated writer with a network of Czech émigrés and academic friends in the United States, he had been invited to give a series of readings and lectures across the country. Hrabal started his trip in Washington, DC, and was already inebriated upon landing there. Based on his later account of his American travels (excerpts of which are translated into English and published under the title Total Fears), he never quite seemed to sober up. In New York, he frequented the White Horse Tavern, where, he writes, “the Lord’s beloved Dylan Thomas sat and drank himself to death.” And though he insisted that he wanted to spend his 75th birthday there, at Thomas’s table, he was dragged instead to “a posh fish restaurant, down by Pier 17,” with — unimaginable horror for a Czech man just turned 75! — no beer license. “We ate à la carte all the best top restaurant nosh,” he concedes grudgingly, “but what was the good of that, when over at the White Horse they had black waitresses and cold Dutch Heineken beer on tap.”
There is much in Total Fears, written in the final years of Hrabal’s life, that is familiar from his earlier works: a fond irreverence for his literary forebears, an insatiable appetite for beer, and an infatuation with women and the foreign that inclines uncomfortably toward sexism and racism. In Hrabal’s fiction, the men are always drunk and the women are always objects of desire. And the stories in Rambling On, published in English on the event of what would have been Hrabal’s 100th year, are no exception to that rule. But despite the frequency of some problematic motifs, these tales are anything but predictable and ordinary. Hrabal’s lyrical prose is beautiful and charming, subtle in its blending of comedy and tragedy, with elements of Surrealism and Magical Realism. Rambling On —and the rest of Hrabal’s oeuvre of short stories and novels — is well worth reading, and sharing with friends. This new volume, from Karolinum Press of Charles University in Prague, is an excellent introduction to the great Czech writer, in both content and form: the book is beautifully bound into a cloth cover and features an impressive number of collages by Jiří Grus that illustrate magnificently the whimsy of Hrabal’s prose. The book is a delight to hold and to read, and is representative of the many fine Czech editions of Hrabal’s work published over the years.
Hrabal kept a small cottage just a short bus ride from Prague in the village of Kersko, where he would stay with his wife, Eliška, and his many cats, who played an increasingly central role in his life after Eliška’s death. The stories in Rambling On showcase the types of characters Hrabal met in Kersko, as well as his distinct ability to transform their banal, drunken chatter into narratives full of humor and a bitter sort of beauty. These tales are markedly of their place and time, as Hrabal’s characters attempt to preserve a lighthearted and dignified way of life under normalization — “normalizace” as it is known in Czech — the reinstatement of a firm Communist Party rule following attempts at liberalization surrounding the 1968 Prague Spring. In the afterword to Rambling On, Václav Kadlec describes the environment in which Hrabal wrote as “a situation with endless prohibitions of anything under the sun” that lead people to “look for a space of self realization.” Hrabal carves out such a space in the pub, where he and his characters could be unabashedly eccentric individuals. There, in spite of oppressive circumstances, Hrabal’s characters were able to transcend normalization and maintain their individuality.
Kadlec co-edited the eighth volume of Hrabal’s 19-volume Collected Works, in which the stories that comprise Rambling On are included. The original manuscript, which Hrabal completed in the winter of 1975, made its way through a series of editorial changes requested by the state censor before finally being published in 1978 under the title The Snowdrop Festival. For approximately 15 years, Hrabal experienced several periods in which his work was banned by the Czechoslovak Communist Party. But in 1975, he conducted an interview in which he made conciliatory political statements, simultaneously sending ripples through the dissident community while enabling him to publish again, a privilege Hrabal maintained through the end of Communist rule in 1989. The interview was printed in the weekly Tvorba, alongside the story translated here as “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.” Hrabal wanted his work to circulate beyond the underground samizdat network of “unofficial” writers, and was happy to enjoy the perks of officialdom, such as the travel visa that allowed him to visit the United States. But while Hrabal was able to publish more or less freely, he did not have full artistic freedom, as the delayed publication of The Snowdrop Festival suggests. The editors of volume eight of his Collected Works describe the variation between Hrabal’s original vision for the story collection and what was ultimately agreed upon for publication by the author and the Ministry of Culture as the result of a play between “censorship and auto-censorship.”
The collection of translated stories in Rambling On is advertised as a return to Hrabal’s original vision for the book before the arbitration of the censor. However, in the place of censorship we here have editorial intervention. Two stories are omitted from this version with the vague explanation that they “in both form and content seem rather out of line with the rest.” And one story, “The Maid of Honour,” was added on the grounds that it “is entirely in harmony with the other texts in the collection” — a claim I found less than convincing as this particular story takes place in Prague, and calls to mind earlier works of fiction such as “Automat Svět” (famously adapted as a short film by Věra Chytilová in 1965) more than the other stories included in Rambling On. So it is that, political and commercial concerns aside, the editorial vision of the publisher can also interfere with the author’s autonomy. For better or worse, the reader rarely meets the writer unmediated.
Living outside of Prague was one way Hrabal was able to dodge the harsh scrutiny of the censor. However, as the stories in Rambling On show, village life was not outside the view of the state. The local police commandant is a fixture in the book, whose self-defined job description is “to keep myself, the district, the region and even the Interior Ministry informed of what people are thinking, how they live their lives, and what they commit in the way of petty misdemeanors, from which it is only ever one little step to bigger ones.” The commandant’s meddling, inflexible approach leads him to deflate the tires of a former friend’s bike so that he must walk the long journey home rather than ride intoxicated, and even to charge his own son with a parking ticket. Unsurprisingly, this leaves him with only the moon and the pine trees for companionship. “I’m a loner,” he admits frankly. In the woods late at night as he scans the roads for malfeasance, the moon keeps him company, sitting on his lap “like some girl or other, I held out my arms and the moonlight licked my hands like a kitten, or a police dog.” This unlikely companionship between the police commandant and the natural landscape is a humanizing detail characteristic of Hrabal’s fiction; this friend of the state, enemy of the people, is not the only one who finds solace in nature.
For Hrabal, animals and wildlife were at times the most reliable sources of camaraderie under the Communist regime. In one story, “Hair Like Pivarník’s,” the male protagonist encounters a beautiful girl as they are biking down a lane. As they ride side by side and begin to flirt, the girl tells a rambling story about the death of her uncle, who had been exiled from the community because, as she tells it, he “used to sleep with his sheep, and after ten years he smelled like the sheep and he even stopped talking, he just bleated.” When one of his rams is run over by a bus, the uncle collapses from grief. A doctor is rushed in to help, but first has to work her way through his flock crowded around him, and even then does not want to touch his clothing, which is caked in animal filth. Once a thick layer of shirts is finally removed from his still body with a plumber’s shears, the doctor is able to affirm “no more than what the sheep had known at once, that’s why they were shaking, that uncle was dead, of a stroke, because his favorite young ram had got run over.” At the funeral, no one but the niece and the sexton honor the man’s death — his sheep are audibly grieving, but are prevented from attending. Because the sheep will not grieve quietly, their own deaths are not far behind. The girl explains coolly:
When a farmer doth die, his animals cry, so I sold the sheep on the hoof to some butchers […] it was sad, one sheep after another, and they laid them on their backs in among the planks and cut their throats, and you know, dear, I understood why the sheep is a symbol of longsuffering and Christian humility.
The shepherd, described as having no friends left in the village as a consequence of “letting his animals get too close,” in fact had so many, and so loyal, in his flock. At a time when the police commandant could be lurking behind any tree, ready to punish his friends and relatives, Hrabal — who famously cared for a whole slew of cats over his lifetime — finds a loyalty in our relationships with animals that can compensate for a lack of trust among men.
Even when this devotion is not returned (and there are numerous accounts of cruelty toward animals in these stories), the animal’s fidelity is unwavering. This idea is most developed in “Lucy and Polly,” a tale about two cats left to fend for themselves and their kittens after being abandoned by their caretaker, the previous overseer of the local pub. The cats wait for the return of the “man who loved them and whom they loved back” with “something called hope, a memory of wondrous times past.” These are the moments, tenderly sad and magnanimously empathetic, frequent in Hrabal’s stories, that transcend the condition of a normalized state and speak to a more universal experience. Some of us too refuse to let go of the “memory of wondrous times past,” only to be forsaken by those who drive off and out, never to return. Winter will come and the kittens will die, and yet, obstinately, painfully, not the memory of a better time. But it is hope and memory that give Lucy and Polly the “right to be able to warm themselves by the stove,” even if they experience it now from outside the pub, where once they were merrily admitted:
They would stare into the nice warm pub like two little ladies […] the pub that belonged to them with all their joys and woes. And the frost intensified and the ice flowers changed into a polyester curtain that drew a misty veil across Polly and Lucy’s precious world …
Lucy and Polly meliorate the despair of daily life with the memory of what once was theirs, thus maintaining ownership of their past despite the pain in remembering. Throughout the stories in Rambling On, Hrabal’s characters hoard memories and physical traces of the past, collecting useless old junk, wearing one shirt on top of another, and swapping tales in a ceaseless banter. It is in this way that the villagers withstand the humiliations of normalization, laying claim to a life lived on their own terms.
The promise of recurrence is perhaps the defining principle of Hrabal’s prose. Characters within a story often speak in circles that continually draw their yarns back into focus; characters from past stories will pop up again in later ones, adding greater dimension to the people in Hrabal’s tales. Ominously, it is the police commandant who recurs most often. Always interrupting late-night revelries, his posturing is at once sinister and ridiculous. Hrabal, with a wink to the reader, lays his cards bare when the police commandant suddenly appears alongside two wheelchair-ridden friends making their way home in the snow: “I spotted, in one of the side avenues, a Volga parked, with the police commandant leaning against it, lost in thought, just as he always popped up, so he popped up now, whenever he wasn’t expected, up he popped.” The way in which the same characters pop up and are woven through the stories in Rambling On leaves us with the sense that it is more than a collection of fragments of village life, that each story is a chapter in a loose narrative, revealed gradually through the circular reemergence of motifs and individuals. The content of Rambling On is mirrored in its structure; the iconic banter of Hrabal’s characters is replicated on a larger scale, as an organizing principle for the book as a whole.
Hrabal’s oeuvre could be viewed in the same way, as similar ideas and character types reemerge, again and again, over decades of writing. Themes and devices reappear cyclically across the stories in Rambling On and Hrabal’s greater body of work, adding layers of meaning to recurring motifs. Hrabal continuously examines the ways in which circumstances affect perspective, and cause us to reconceptualize our relationship to our surroundings. As the narrator in “Hair Like Pivarník’s” bikes along with his garrulous companion, her thrilling presence transforms the everyday landscape for him:
I looked about me and saw that I was actually seeing something in our woods for the first time, and that was that I was pedaling along behind this girl, whose pedals were spouting tiny lights, and through the girl I was seeing our entire forest range as from a helicopter, that it resembled the trunk of a skeleton, we were riding up its spine and the side avenues were like ribs and ribbing, and as I looked about me I saw that the shadows of our bikes were purple with Marian blue edging, that the six sodium lamps, which were set four hundred meters apart, these lights created a kind of long bridge with six piers and a green river of dark leaves running beneath them.
Somehow, the girl’s presence elevates the narrator, so that he may see the town as from the sky, and witness the forest magically transformed. Almost two decades later, after his return from the United States, Hrabal had the opportunity to take a ride in an air balloon over the Kersko forest. Seen from above, the familiar sights of a soccer pitch and a cemetery take on new measure, and even the road, one that Hrabal traveled often to Prague, deserves special note from this new perspective. Hrabal observes that, “as the balloon descended, the fields, the earth rose up to meet us, and we even saw the road with cars heading towards us …” The ride effectively transforms the “everyday banality” (a popular phrase of Hrabal’s) of the landscape of central Bohemia into something else entirely. Stepping off the balloon and back onto the soil of his homeland, he “experienced something like that which the astronaut Armstrong experienced when he set his foot on the moon.” The air balloon estranges the landscape for Hrabal, and he looks upon it as something unfamiliar, even extraterrestrial. In his oft-cited essay “Art as Device,” the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky describes the concept of estrangement as “the very hallmark of the artistic: that is, an artifact that has been intentionally removed from the domain of automatized perception. It is ‘artificially’ created by an artist in such a way that the perceiver, pausing in his reading, dwells on the text.” Estrangement enters the “everyday banality” of “the perpetuity of normalization” (as Kadlec describes it) through Hrabal’s cats and sheep and pretty girls, making animate an otherwise dreary topography of stultifying regulation. The beauty of a girl raises Hrabal’s character above the forest in which the police commandant lurks; a ride in an air balloon allows a much older Hrabal to witness that same road and forest, so many years later, anew.
In his translation for Karolinum Press, David Short does an excellent job of conveying the nuances of Hrabal’s prose, which allows us to draw connections across stories. Some lines — such as this one, from a story about rabbits kept in the belly of a piano: “these rabbits were so quiet, so calm, as if they were taking the sunlight and a bit of grass and spinning them into the serenity of a cloudless summer morning” — are almost completely literal translations that perfectly capture the lyricism of the original text. Hrabal is notoriously difficult to translate, but Short gives us little indication of this. The English text even looks like the Czech original, with a copious amount of ellipses and a dearth of paragraph breaks. It is rare that the translation detracts from the rich tales being told. (The exceptions, at least for the American reader, are a few Britishisms that might require looking up for full comprehension, such as the use of the term “mine host” to indicate the proprietor of a pub, or “fining” salami to describe what might be translated as “culturing.”)
Those already familiar with Hrabal’s larger body of work will perhaps recognize the concept of pábení: the act of bantering on and on that Hrabal’s characters are so famous for, or as Short describes it, “almost hectoring at one end of the scale to burbling at the other.” The American translator and professor Michael Heim translated the Czech babbler as a “palaverer,” a common English translation on which Short comments only: “what I was not predisposed to do was to sustain the link with previous translations of pábení as ‘palavering’ and of pábitelé as ‘palaverers.’” In his previous translation of Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp for Karolinum Press, Short chose not to translate the tricky word — what he then called “Hrabalesque […] par excellence” — leaving it in the original instead. But this time he settled (somewhat ambivalently, as it would seem from the translator’s notes) on “rambling” as a decent English equivalent, thereby eliminating the presence of a foreign word in the title of the book.
Given the difficulty in translating pábení, and the risk of “An Apprentice’s Guide” ending up in the self-help section, the title initially struck me as a curious choice. But the title story (the last in the collection and what Hrabal called the postscript) does stand apart from the rest, and in some ways serves as a key to understanding the whole collection. Here, as in the preceding story, “Adagio Lamentoso,” Hrabal himself speaks as the narrator and we get a glimpse into the mind from which the earlier, more fictionalized stories spring. Hrabal was a voracious and diverse reader, and he was sure to make that clear before closing a book largely dedicated to the lives of his village pábitelé. In a postscript to the story “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab” he writes:
As I analyze this text, which was meant as the postscript to the present book, a text that I wrote in the course of five hours in irregular breaks between chopping wood and cutting the grass […] I must draw a distinction between the sentences that surfaced as the sum of internal experiences and sentences that I have acquired through reading. I must identify the sentences with provenance that have so fascinated me ever since I first read them that I’m sorry not to have thought of them myself.
The thinkers he goes on to credit are Nietzsche, Novalis, Herder, St. Augustine, and an unnamed Spanish schoolteacher. But by waiting until the postscript to the postscript to give credit where credit’s due, Hrabal has already absorbed and appropriated the thoughts of his forebears into his own text. What is “internal” and what is “acquired” are irretrievably intertwined in “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab,” both as a story and a collection, and through Hrabal’s greater body of work.
In closing, Hrabal attributes the words “Inter urinas et faeces nascimur” (“we are born between urine and feces”) “probably” to St. Augustine — as is common with Hrabal, he’s not quite sure where he read what. And in this case, he’s not willing either to relegate the fact of our birth to the realm of the fetid. Hrabal insists that “we’re so wonderful,” despite our arrival on this planet as a sort of excrement, and goes on to conclude: “‘Our mothers bear us straddling open graves’ […] And yet we’re magnificent and hence we’re here. That’s all.” This is the essence of Hrabal’s fiction: to draw beauty from what isn’t, to find hope where we’re not likely to look. His stories insist on the luminescent and eccentric qualities of the individual, notwithstanding the efforts of the police commandant to punish individual transgression. The police commandant himself is one of the most fully developed and singular characters in these stories, despite himself. Likewise, what makes the shepherd an outcast in the village is what brings him into the fold of his flock. Together, Hrabal’s characters describe a world that is simultaneously inflexible and sympathetic, sorrowful and humorous; individually, they are absolutely unique entities held up with bemused admiration and affection. These are not light stories — the modifier and the noun in “dark humor” are inseparable here — but they are redemptive. Hrabal treats his oddball characters with a deep and tender compassion sprung forth from a conviction that we are all of us “magnificent.”
Meghan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. She is the founder and co-editor of the arts and literary journal harlequin creature.