Twenty-five years ago, the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal died at the age of 82 after falling from a fifth-floor hospital window in Prague. Apparently, he had been trying to feed pigeons. The jury is still out on whether his death was suicide or an accident but the former seems likely. In his last years he wrote about how he had reached ‘the peak of emptiness’ and now fantasised about ‘jumping from the fifth floor, from my apartment where every room hurts.’ Worse than this, ‘the whole world hurts.’ When he was admitted to hospital, he knew it was his final destination. ‘That’s the end,’ he reportedly said. ‘I have tuned myself to death.’
These comments strike a jarring note when set against choice cuts from Hrabal’s lively fiction. His work brims with rambunctious energy, madcap antics and ribald humour. Many of his protagonists like a beer or three. Only Hrabal could have invented a character who praises Prague’s statues not for their beauty but for providing him with ‘a marble or a sandstone arm to lean on’ when staggering home sozzled.
They are also given to ‘palavering’ – a trait that fellow Czech writer Josef Skvorecky defined as ‘surreal raconteurism.’ Hrabal’s garrulous characters share the same genes as the good soldier Svejk, that memorable creation of another compatriot, Jaroslav Hasek. Hrabal took that template of a wise fool and his picaresque misadventures and meandering yarns and embellished it by incorporating his own unique voice and distinctive style.
‘I am a corresponding member of the Academy of Palavery,’ Hrabal declared in an introduction to a collection of his stories, The Death of Mr. Baltisberger. ‘I am a negative genius, a poacher in the meadows of language, I am a game warden of comic inspiration, a tried and true ranger in the fields of the anonymous anecdote.’ Newcomers to Hrabal should take him at his word and revel in the chaos.
He didn’t set out to be a writer. He was a train dispatcher during the Second World War and after it he graduated from Prague’s Charles University with a law degree. Instead of embarking on a stable career he became something of a jack-of-all-trades. So began years working in a variety of jobs: insurance agent; travelling salesman; manual labourer; paper packer; stagehand. His railway experience informed his most famous novel Closely Observed Trains (1965), his time on the factory floor of a steelworks inspired a selection of short stories, and his years grafting in a recycling mill were put to good use in his 1976 masterpiece Too Loud a Solitude.
Hrabal’s fiction began to materialise in the early 1950s while he was a member of an underground literary group. His writing career took off and then reached dizzying heights in his homeland when Jirí Menzel’s adaptation of Closely Observed Trains won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. However, that same year Soviet tanks brought a halt to the Prague Spring and artists’ creative freedoms. Hrabal, along with the likes of Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, and Václav Havel, fell foul of the censors. Some writers emigrated; Hrabal stayed put, became regarded as a dissident writer and only saw his work in print in samizdat form. It wasn’t until after the Velvet Revolution that his books found a wider audience and he achieved international renown.
Each of those books comes stamped with Hrabal’s trademark brand of comic absurdity. It is on full display in Cutting It Short (1976) and its companion piece The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, a book, though written in 1973, didn’t see the light of day in Prague until 1989. The twin narratives depict high-jinks and upheavals in a small town in Bohemia between the wars. There is mayhem when people start shortening things (heads of hair, a horse’s tail, the working week). There is also humour by way of slapstick moments (a wedding congregation on its knees scrambling around for a dropped ring) and Uncle Pepin’s beer-soaked tall tales. One story involves drunken dentists pulling each other’s teeth out. ‘Mind you,’ says Pepin, ‘Adolf was dead lucky there was no drunken gelders around that night…’
Hrabal’s 1964 novella Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (which unfurls in a single breathless sentence) is both boisterous and bawdy. Its narrator, a loquacious cobbler, spins one freewheeling tale after another while at the same time boasting about sexual conquests with his ‘beauties’ and reminding his reader he is an admirer of the European Renaissance. But he is no Renaissance man. Instead of vast knowledge and multiple abilities he has instead a stash of recollections and a talent to amuse. Take this farcical episode from his army days: ‘…they called out my name among the fallen in action, date of birth and all, and when I shouted, Hey, I’m alive! they called me in and gave me two weeks in the can for talking during roll call…’
Three of Hrabal’s wittiest novels are fronted by endearing comic heroes whose mindsets and mishaps make a deep impression. Despite occupying lowly positions, all three are content with their lot. Ditie, the pint-sized hotel waiter in I Served the King of England (1971), is buffeted by the forces of history and ends up making one ill-timed blunder after another – such as marrying a German athlete on the cusp of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Milos Hrma, the young apprentice signalman in Closely Observed Trains, tries to do his job in 1945 but there are distractions on many fronts, from news of a sordid encounter between the duty dispatcher and telegraphist in the station-master’s office to his own sexual frustrations. Hrabal serves up more humour in the form of cartoonish violence (Milos’ great-grandfather gets routinely beaten up by the labourers he taunts and has to be brought home in a wheelbarrow; his grandfather attempts to repel German invaders with his hypnotic powers but instead gets run over by a tank) and by having fun with his fresh-faced protagonist’s charming naivety.
And then in Too Loud a Solitude there is Hanta, who for 35 years has been compacting wastepaper and books. He has also been educating himself by rescuing great works from his hydraulic press. He imbibes their contents while downing beer after beer. Not that he enjoys it. ‘I loathe drunkards,’ he says, ‘I drink to make me think better, to go to the heart of what I read.’ His skewed logic permeates his many monologues, each one the riotous outpouring of a singular mind.
But Hrabal’s world isn’t all lunacy and frivolity. His characters frequently veer between pleasure and pain. Milos slits his wrists in the bath. Ditie ends up in obscurity with a dog, a horse, and a goat for company. In Harlequin’s Millions (1981), set in a retirement home, there is pathos as the narrator and other residents take trips down memory lane, share regrets, (‘I forgot about love, which had slipped through my fingers before I knew it’) and hold out for Sunday visits from relatives.
Elsewhere, Hrabal allows dark, chilly shadows to encroach upon happy scenes. Uncle Pepin is caught dancing in the wake of the death of Reinhard Heydrich (‘thereby expressing approval of the assassination of the Herr Reichsprotektor’) and narrowly avoids being sent to a concentration camp. One of Hanta’s old flames is not so lucky. She was picked up and taken away by the Gestapo, he tells us, ‘and whether she was burned to death at Majdanek or asphyxiated in an Auschwitz gas chamber, she never returned.’ Sometimes Hrabal prompts laughter in the dark; other times, when hilarity gives way to barbarity, there is no laughter at all.
Hrabal laid bare his own suffering in his confessional memoir All My Cats, which he wrote in 1983 while recovering from a serious car accident. On one level it is about his relationship with his feral cats and his bond with nature at his country retreat outside Prague. But as he starts to feel ‘derailed and afraid and alone’ when separated from his cats and then is forced to cull unwanted kittens, it becomes a candid account of one man’s mental breakdown and his attempt to save his sanity.
It isn’t clear how many of Hrabal’s characters are truly sane. Some are booze-addled, some have spent too much time in too-loud a solitude, and some just don’t know when to stop palavering. But all of them are captivating presences in what are expertly crafted tragicomedies. Twenty-five years on from Hrabal’s death, his writing has never felt more alive.