Bohumil Hrabal

James Wood

What is funny and forlorn, where is the comic pathos, in the following sentence? ‘A fortune-teller once read my cards and said that if it wasn’t for a tiny black cloud hanging over me I could do great things and not only for my country but for all mankind.’

Instantly, a person opens before us like a quick wound: probably a man (that slight vibration of a swagger), grandiose in aspiration but glued to a petty destiny, eccentric and possibly mad, a talker, rowdy with anecdote. There is a comedy, and a sadness, in the prospect of an ambition so large (‘for all mankind’) that it must always be frustrated, and comedy, too, in the rather easy and even proud way that this character accepts his frustration: is he not a little pleased with the ‘tiny black cloud’ that impedes his destiny? – at least it is the mark of something. So this character may be grandiose in his ambition, but also in his fatalism. And isn’t that phrase ‘tiny black cloud’ done with great finesse? It hints at a man whose sense of himself has so swelled that he now sees himself geographically, like a darkened area experiencing a bout of low pressure on a weather-map of Europe. ‘Tiny’, above all: a marvellous word, because it suggests that this man, while possibly proud of his handicap, might also disdain it, or believe that he could just brush it away whenever he wanted and get on with the business of doing great things.

Such are the goods packed in a typical comic sentence by the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, who died in 1997. The character relieving himself of this little confession is a garrulous cobbler, who admits to being ‘an admirer of the European Renaissance’, and is the narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. But many of Hrabal’s comic heroes are equally talkative. There is Hanta, the narrator of Too Loud a Solitude, who has been compacting waste for 35 years, and educating himself on the sly using the great books he rescues from the trash. He wanted to grow up to be a millionaire, he tells us, so that he could buy ‘phosphorescent hands for all the city clocks’ in Prague. Now he reads his rescued Kant and Novalis, and dreams of going on holiday to Greece, where he would like to visit Stagira, ‘the birthplace of Aristotle, I’d run around the track at Olympia, run in my underwear’. Hanta doesn’t take baths because he suspects them of spreading disease, ‘but sometimes, when a yearning for the Greek ideal of beauty comes over me, I’ll wash one of my feet or maybe even my neck.’

And there is Ditie, the picaresque hero of I Served the King of England, a waiter in a Prague hotel, who once served the Emperor of Ethiopia, and worked with a head waiter who once served the King of England. Ditie is usually wrong about everything – he marries a German athlete just as the Nazis are invading Czechoslovakia – but sometimes he says something wise or prescient, and whenever he is complimented for this, he replies, ‘modestly’: ‘I served the Emperor of Ethiopia.’ And there is Milos Hrma, the young, timid railway signalman in Hrabal’s most famous novel, Closely Observed Trains. When he discovers that the stationmaster may become an Inspector of State Railways, he is excited, and reverently asks: ‘An inspector, like that … that’s the same rank on the railways as a major in the Army, isn’t it?’ Yes, it is, says the stationmaster. ‘Ah, and then,’ Hrma cries, ‘instead of the three small stars you’ll have just one, but bordered with the inspector’s field!’

Hrabal’s obvious model for these buffeted heroes is the Czech soldier, Svejk, Jaroslav Hasek’s comic simpleton, who finds himself entangled in the First World War. Svejk is a kind of Sancho Panza, living on into an age that is no longer epic, not even comic. Hrabal deeply admired The Good Soldier Svejk, and in Total Fears, a selection of letters written to an American scholar of Czech literature, he praises the way Hasek’s novel is ‘written as though he tossed it off with his left hand, after a hangover, it’s pure joy in writing’. Svejk resembles many of Hrabal’s heroes, a ‘little man’ who seems to wander cheerfully into large historical events. As Svejk effectively talks himself into being arrested by a secret policeman, and is later sent to the front, so Hrabal’s absurd waiter, Ditie, who has become rich, is outraged to hear that the Communists have arrested all the millionaires in the country, but have somehow overlooked him. Since he has always wanted nothing more than to be a millionaire, he goes to the police, bank statements in hand, to argue that he should be immediately taken in. (He is, though not without some effort on his part.) Svejk’s apparent idiocy hides an intelligence bent on thwarting the authorities with whom he only seems to comply; similarly, Hanta, the man who rescues books from the compacting machine in Too Loud a Solitude, is not only a uselessly learned autodidact, but a little rebel against a large book-censoring regime.

Like Hasek, Hrabal kept his ear close to the pub table. He sat for hours in his favourite Prague establishment, the Golden Tiger, listening to beer-fed stories foam. Those who knew him recall a man who liked to pass himself off as a beer-drinker rather than a writer, content to sit silently and gather – the community’s generous beggar. Ondrej Danajek wrote a eulogy for Hrabal in 1997, and remembers ‘a very spiritual artist and free-thinker with the ways and looks of a labourer. You were as likely to find him (maybe smiling shyly) in the already slightly drunk crowd at a Third Division football game as overhear him commenting on the game quoting Immanuel Kant or another of his philosophical gods.’

Hrabal, who was born in 1914 in Moravia, started writing poems under the influence of French Surrealism. The poems quickly squared their shoulders and became paragraphs: prose poems, epiphanic jottings, broken anecdotes. The Prague Revue (No. 5) recently printed a number of these early poems, written in the 1940s, and many of them are touched with a characteristic Hrabalian oddity: ‘In the little pub overhanging the river, in a corner by the window, I was reading. You were weeping, I too was weeping and the tubby landlady was weeping.’

In the early 1950s, he was a member of an underground literary group run by the poet Jiri Kolar. His poems had now become stories, but he did not submit them for publication. Instead, he read them aloud to the group’s members (who included the novelist Josef Skvorecky). The tale is told – it is rather like those ‘symbolic’ stories about rulers that were collected by Tacitus and Plutarch – that one day Hrabal overheard Kolar, who was selling dolls at the time, being asked: ‘Kolar, do you have another death?’ The question referred, apparently, to a marionette of the Grim Reaper, popular in Prague, but to Hrabal’s ears, it suggested a new way of writing, whereby heterogeneous elements could be forced against each other, in a natural, comic manner, arising out of ordinary human business rather than the obviously surreal.

Hrabal began to experiment with an unlimited, flowing style, almost a form of stream-of-consciousness (he admired Joyce, Céline and Beckett) in which characters associate and soliloquise madly. He called it pabeni, to which the closest approximation, according to Skvorecky, is ‘palavering’. This palavering is really anecdote without end. The lovely truancy with which Hrabal’s work vibrates has to do with its hospitality to an abundance of stories. Often, one senses that Hrabal has taken a brief comic tale heard in the pub, and exaggerated its comic essence. The narrator of Dancing Lessons tells us, just in passing, of a man who hangs himself on the cross marking his mother’s grave, at which the local priest becomes very angry because he has to reconsecrate the whole churchyard. Hanta, in Too Loud a Solitude, is accosted by a man who puts a knife to his throat, starts reciting a poem celebrating the beauties of the countryside at Ricany, then apologises, ‘saying he hadn’t found any other way of getting people to listen to his verse’. In I Served the King of England, a general arrives at the hotel where Ditie works. He is very greedy, but has a curious habit. After each sip of champagne and each capture of an oyster, he shudders with disgust and denounces what he has just consumed: ‘Ah, I can’t drink this swill!’ This reminds one of Chekhov (Hrabal loved both Chekhov and Babel), who stole stories from the newspaper and from Ivan Bunin, and who kept a notebook full of whetted enigmas, such as this one:

A private room in a restaurant. A rich man, tying his napkin round his neck, touching the sturgeon with his fork: ‘At least I’ll have a snack before I die’ – and he has been saying this for a long time, daily.

Chekhov is more gloomily scrupulous than Hrabal, who likes to heat his caught enigmas, his snatches of story and strange facts, so that they begin to emit a magical vapour. He is quite capable of a Chekhovian realism (Hanta recalls a village market, at which a woman was standing selling only ‘two bay leaves’), but always watchful for the splendid or sublime in a story – what he called ‘the pearl on the bottom’ of a tale – he more usually allows his garrulous narrators to run on, prolonging and stretching their stories. A peerless example occurs in I Served the King of England, which was written in the early 1970s, though not published until 1983. Ditie has been telling us about the different travelling salesmen who stayed at the Golden Prague Hotel. One of them represents a famous tailoring firm from Pardubice, and he has brought with him a revolutionary fitting technique. It involves putting pieces of parchment on the body of the client, and writing the measurements on them. Back at the workshop, the strips are taken and sewn together on a kind of tailor’s dummy with a rubber bladder inside that is gradually pumped up until the parchment strips are filled out; they are then covered with glue, so that they harden in the shape of the client’s torso. When the bladder is removed, the torso floats up to the ceiling, permanently inflated, and a cord with a name and address is tied to it. The client’s mannequin ‘is up there among several hundred colourful torsos, until he dies’.

Ditie, predictably, is enthralled by this absurd and wonderfully pointless innovation, and longs to order a new dinner jacket from this prestigious firm, ‘so that I and my mannequin could float near the ceiling of a company that was certainly the only one of its kind in the world, since no one but a Czech could have come up with an idea like that’. He spends his savings and is fitted with a suit. He travels to Pardubice to pick it up, and this ‘little man’ (Ditie is, in fact, very short, and wears double-soled shoes) is overwhelmed by the social grandeur of the firm’s torsos:

It was a magnificent sight. Up near the ceiling hung the torsos of generals and regimental commanders and famous actors. Hans Albers himself had his suits made here, so he was up there too … A thin thread bearing a name tag dangled down from every torso, and the tags danced gaily in the breeze, like fish on a line. The boss pointed at a tag with my name and address on it, so I pulled it down. It looked so small, my torso. I almost wept to see a major-general’s torso beside mine, and Mr Beranek the hotelkeeper’s, but when I thought of the company I was in I laughed and felt better.

Hrabal may have heard from someone about a real company’s mad scheme, but he takes the story and passes it through the madness of his escapist hero, and in doing so, glazes it with a further strangeness. There is a magic in Hrabal’s determination to visualise this anecdote, to colour its enigmas, so that we are not just given the suggestion of the company’s method, but invited to picture a room full of dangling torsos. Hrabal is sometimes called a cinematic writer, probably because a successful film was made of Closely Observed Trains. But this visual quality, oddly enough, poses a problem for cinema, since it invites film simply to mimic it. Yet a curious element of scenes like this one is that, although they are pictorial, they retain a kind of hypothetical status, which is the status of dream. Isn’t this scene, in some sense, Ditie’s dream, despite the fact that it is undeniably happening? Hrabal’s descriptions often have a paradoxical visibility and invisibility about them. They are vaporous. The invitation, we feel, is not simply for the reader to see these hanging torsos, but to imagine someone imagining them, which is a little different.

In some respects, Hrabal is an early magical realist, and superficially he resembles some of those contemporary writers who are fond of abundant stories, exotic coloration, jokes and puns, and farcical escapism: Rushdie, Grass, Pynchon in his most recent novel, David Foster Wallace, even Zadie Smith. In novels by those writers, we have lately encountered terrorist groups with silly names, a genetically engineered mouse, two clocks having a conversation with each other, a giant cheese, a baby who plays air guitar in his crib, and so on. These kinds of magical happening are nowadays assumed to be evidence of great creative powers. Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. But this is more like hysterical realism than magical realism: it borrows from the real while evading it. These novels are profligate with what might be called inhuman stories: ‘inhuman’ not because they could never happen, but because they are not really about human beings. By contrast, Hrabal’s magical stories are comic and human – they are really desires embodied. And as such they are, paradoxically, not as parasitical on the real as some magical realism. They inhabit a utopian province, the realm of laughter and tears. How funny and sad it is to imagine Ditie impressed by the celebrity of the dangling torsos, and how fine that Ditie is seen to be as impressed by the presence of the torso of Mr Beranek, the hotel-keeper, as he is by those of the major-generals and actors.

Hrabal was never a strongly ideological or allegorical writer. Nevertheless his first book of stories, Lark on a String, was withdrawn a week before it was due to be published, in 1959. It appeared four years later, as Pearl on the Bottom. According to Skvorecky, this book ‘launched its author on a meteoric career that elevated him to peaks of popularity no other Czech writer had enjoyed before him’. Dancing Lessons appeared in 1964, Closely Observed Trains a year later. The film’s success made Hrabal untouchable. Yet he could still be unprintable: once the Soviet tanks rolled in, Hrabal, who was always a prolific author (his collected works run to 14 volumes, and only a handful of these writings have been translated into English), was silenced again. Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia for Toronto, where he would publish Hrabal and others in émigré editions.

Hrabal began work on I Served the King of England during this period of prohibition, in the early 1970s. It was circulating in samizdat form by 1975, and Hrabal is said to have been especially keen for it to be formally published. Karl Srp, writing in the Prague Revue, has given a gripping (and often comically Hrabalian) account of how he and his colleagues in the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union semi-legally published the novel in 1983, in the form of a ‘private’ edition for its members. ‘Boys,’ said Hrabal, ‘publish just one copy and I can go ahead and die.’ They printed five thousand copies and distributed a leaflet telling people that they could come and collect the novel at the Jazz Section’s offices. Hrabal’s drinking friends were turning up, Srp writes, with beer coasters on which was written: ‘Give him one copy of I Served the King of England – B. Hrabal.’ Karl Srp and other members of the Jazz Section were imprisoned in 1986. Party members, having found boxes of the novel, sold them to each other as Christmas presents. Srp and his friends were released in 1988. ‘Shortly afterwards,’ as Skvorecky nicely cracks, ‘Communism went bust.’

I Served the King of England is a joyful, picaresque story, which begins with Baron Munchausen-like adventures, and ends in tears and solitude, a modulation typical of Hrabal’s greatest work. Ditie, the book’s narrator, is a cloud always chasing the sun of experience – a scudding, flighty, mobile simpleton, who naively pursues one world-historical event after another. Awarded a medal with a fine blue sash by the Emperor of Ethiopia for his exemplary service, he takes out the sash every so often and puts it on, just to remind himself and others of what a personage he is. In fact, he is a fool, though he learns a fool’s wisdom. When he marries the Nazi athlete, he is ostracised by his friends, and later imprisoned for collaboration. Released, he becomes a millionaire, and runs a successful hotel. ‘But the guests who came now were sad, or if they were gay it was not the kind of gaiety I was used to, but a forced gaiety.’ It is 1948. Hrabal shows subtlety in allowing this little shard of political critique to be wielded by such an unreliable and fantastical man.

Having forced the new Communist authorities to arrest him as a bona fide millionaire and confiscate his property, Ditie is eventually released and ends his days mending roads in a remote village, sharing his cottage with a horse, a dog and a goat. The novel has suddenly thinned out, as if Hrabal had been walking through a train and finally come to the last carriage, with almost no one in it. The ending is beautifully bereft. Sitting in the pub, Ditie asks each of the villagers where they would like to be buried. They are wordless. Ditie himself nominates a graveyard at the top of the local hill, and a grave straddling its crest, his body balanced like a boat, so that his remains would trickle down each side of the hill, one part into the streams of Bohemia, and the other part over the border into the Danube. In a rising aria, mixing both absurd aspiration and genuine solemnity, Ditie explains: ‘I wanted to be a world citizen after death, with one half of me going down the Vltava into the Labe and on into the North Sea, and the other half via the Danube into the Black Sea and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.’

As with the narrator of Dancing Lessons and his ‘tiny black cloud’, Ditie has expanded into the realms of geography. He has fulfilled, ridiculously, the Czechoslovak dream of being both a nation itself and something more than a nation: he is a posthumous citizen of the world at large. The depth of this desire, and its comic thwarting, are Hrabal’s abiding themes. At one point, Ditie refers to the uncle of a colleague, an old bandmaster who wrote a number of polkas and waltzes for his military band in the time of the Habsburg Empire. Since this music is still played, says Ditie, the uncle always puts on his old Habsburg uniform when he goes out to chop wood. This is not so far, in impulse, from Hanta, the narrator of Too Loud a Solitude, who longs to run around the track at Olympia in his long johns, fulfilling his dream of the Greek ideal of athleticism. What is moving about all these characters is the enormity of the gulf between their aspiration and the limited means by which they often satisfy it: Ditie is, in a way, content to wear his Ethiopian medal and to dream of being a ‘world citizen’ in death. When Hanta feels like being ‘Greek’, he washes a leg or an arm, and reads a bit of Aristotle. And then, in a marvellous twist of the dialectic, the limited means of satisfaction come to seem equivalent in size to the original aspiration, come to seem a big enough fulfilment, and then become the source of a new kind of swagger for these characters: the old man chopping wood in his Austro-Hungarian uniform is not really defeated. Grandiose in ambition, grandiose in fatalism.

Hrabal’s comedy, then, is complexly paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise. Politically, it is not a dependably radical humour: Hrabal described himself as one taught by Hasek to be ‘a man of the Party of Moderate Progress, that is my modus vivendi in this Central Europe of mine’. His heroes want to be everything; but they are hardly aware of the size of those wants, and settle for less, without knowing that they are doing so.

It is a comedy of blockage, of displacement, entrapment, cancellation. Hardly surprising, then, that Hrabal sometimes said that he rooted his comedy in one of his favourite findings, a dry-cleaner’s receipt, which read: ‘Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.’ In Total Fears, Hrabal glancingly commends Freud’s writing about comedy and jokes, and calls it ‘typically Central European, and especially typical of Prague’. Freud, it may be remembered, distinguishes humour from comedy and the joke. He is particularly interested in ‘broken humour’ – ‘the humour that smiles through tears’. This kind of humorous pleasure, he says, arises from the prevention of an emotion. A sympathy that the reader has prepared is blocked by a comic occurrence, and transferred onto a matter of secondary importance. In Ditie’s case, the solemnity we feel as he contemplates death is comically blocked by his instructions for burial. This is blocked humour about blocked people. Hrabal, in Freud’s terms, is a great humorist.

And a great writer. His finest book, Too Loud a Solitude, enacts an even more acute modulation, from early buoyancy to late despair. Hrabal, who himself worked for a while as a trash-compactor, creates, in Hanta, his subtlest ‘idiot’. Hanta may also represent the closest Hrabal came to a self-portrait. (Hrabal, like Hanta, rescued books from the compacting machine, and built a library of them in the garage of his country cottage outside Prague.) Hanta’s wide reading allows Hrabal to use all the mental resources of his hero, however insanely, and the result is a free-flowing prose of extraordinary flexibility, a prose with many interiors within interiors, like some of the Dutch Masters – or perhaps many false bottoms. That would be the proper, unsolemn, Hrabalian image.

Hanta is put out of work, effectively, by the arrival, on the outskirts of Prague, of a much larger, industrial-scale trash-compactor. He visits it, and does not like what he sees. It is clear that this machine does not simply compact trash, with the occasional discarded book, as his small press does, but is swallowing thousands of books. The books are lined up on lorries. It is a giant metal censor, and the harbinger of a sinister new era. But although Skvorecky describes this novel as Hrabal’s ‘poetic condemnation of the banning of books’, this is too heavy a reading. For how nimbly Hrabal describes a comic crescent around obvious political allegory. Having seen this huge machine, what is Hanta’s response? He returns to his one-man press, and tries to increase his output by 50 per cent, so as to keep his job. As usual in Hrabal, political critique is slyly neutralised by the unreliability, indeed in this case the madness, of the narrator.

Hanta’s increased production little avails him. He is sacked, and wanders through Prague, stopping every so often to drink a beer. He sits in the park, and watches naked children playing, noticing the stripes across their midriffs from the elastic in their pants. This sets in train a succession of observations and allusions, in a passage of stunning vivacity which runs on a thousand feet, a passage which alone and without any context at all, should secure Hrabal’s prestige in world literature:

Hasidic Jews in Galicia used to wear belts of loud, vivid stripes to cut the body in two, to separate the more acceptable part, which included the heart, lungs, liver and head, from the part with the intestines and sexual organs, which was barely tolerated. Catholic priests raised the line of demarcation, making the clerical collar a visible sign of the primacy of the head, where God in Person dips His fingers. As I watched the children playing naked and saw the stripes across their midriffs, I thought of nuns, who sliced head from face with one cruel stripe, stuffing it into the armour of the starched coif like Formula One drivers. Those naked children splashing away in the water didn’t know a thing about sex, yet their sexual organs, as Lao-tze taught me, were serenely perfect. And when I considered the stripes of the priests and nuns and Hasidic Jews, I thought of the human body as an hourglass – what is down is up and what is up is down – a pair of locked triangles, Solomon’s seal, the symmetry between the book of his youth, the Song of Songs, and the vanitas vanitatum of his maturity in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

This torrent of speculation is true and wise and lofty and simultaneously madly comic. It is also the thought of a man in despair, the fruit of Hanta’s 35 years of compacting trash and rescuing great books – a thief of ideas, his very mind a compacted bale of allusion. All this is aquiver in this short, flying passage.

On 3 February 1997, Bohumil Hrabal, sick and in despair, haunted by what he called his own ‘loud solitude’, and obsessed by the idea of ‘jumping from the fifth floor, from my apartment where every room hurts’, fell from the fifth floor of a hospital while he was trying to feed the pigeons. Some stains can only be removed by the destruction of the material itself. But if what is up is down, then what is down is up.