Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains

"BOHUMIL HRABAL TRAGICALLY DEAD," ran the headline on the front page of the daily Mladá fronta, 4 February 1997. The 82-year-old Hrabal died instantly when, on 3 February, he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He had been at the hospital's orthopedic clinic since December 1996 for back and joint pain and was schedule to be released soon. According to witnesses, Hrabal was trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on tipped and fell. 

The particular - and almost eerie - significance of the fifth floor in Hrabal's life and work prompts speculation as to whether his death truly was an accident and not suicide. His Prague apartment was located on the fifth floor, and his fear of falling from this floor was known. Moreover, the motive to commit suicide by jumping from a fifth floor reoccurs several times in his writings. Ultimately, his exit made an appropriate ending point for an exceptionally vital and powerful career.

During Hrabal's lifetime, nearly three million copies of his books were printed in his native Czechoslovakia, and he was translated into twenty-seven languages. Among Hrabal's best-selling works, "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" (Tanecní hodiny pro starsí a pokrocilé, 1964), an exceptional story written in a single sentence, also came out in more editions than any other of his works. And Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1965), his book about the little train station Kostomolaty under German occupation, is one of many of his novels adapted to film; directed by Jirí Menzel, the movie won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1967. Another of Hrabal's gems, "Cutting it Short" (Postriziny, 1976), also adapted to the screen by Menzel, features Hrabal's mother giving an unforgettable account of life at the brewery in Nymburk and how uncle Pepin came to visit for fourteen days and stayed for fourteen years.

Readers loved Hrabal most of all for his inimitable prose - at times richly orally descriptive, other times sensually lyrical - which so completely captured life: from everyday dialogue - taken directly, it seems, from pubs and workplaces - via lyrical descriptions of nature, to philosophical expositions on the innermost meaning of life. Often, Hrabal fills his texts with odd characters, individuals from the fringes of society - anti-heroes of a sort - who possess a never-ending joy in their existence, a joy manifested foremost verbally. Moreover, Hrabal is a genuinely entertaining writer with a sense for the comically absurd in life. Hrabal stands alone in his ability to tell a story - often with the assistance of the authentic uncle Pepin - which sends the reader into fits of sensual delight:
My cousin was a twin and a real card, he was christened Vincek and his brother was christened Ludvicek, and when they were a year old their mother was bathing them in a tub and popped out to a see a neighbor, and when she got back half an hour later one of them had drowned, and they were so much alike nobody could tell which one, Ludvicek or Vincek, so they flipped a coin, heads for Lucvicek, tails for Vincek, and it came up Ludvicek, but when my cousin Vincek grew up he began to wonder - and he had plenty of time for it, he was always out of a job - he began to wonder who really did drown, whether the person walking around on earth wasn't really Ludvicek and he, Vincek, was up in heaven, which led him to drink and to wander along the water's edge and go in swimming, testing the waters, so to speak, till at last he drowned, by way of proof that he hadn't been the one to drown back then, " (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, 1995 . Transl. Michael Henry Heim.)
Bear in mind that all of what Hrabal wrote derived from actual events; nothing is invented, only displaced in time and rearranged. As one of his admirers put it, instead of a brain, Hrabal had hard disk, which stored everything. While sitting amidst his admirers at the pub the Golden Tiger, Hrabal could effortlessly recite long passages from books he had read during his youth-from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to Batista's text on matrimonial bliss, and Anna Nováková's book of dreams.

Appropriately, Prazská imaginace, a small publishing house run by Hrabal enthusiast Václav Kadlec, planned to release the nineteenth and last volume of Hrabal's collected works 28 March 1997, Hrabal's eighty-third birthday. Instead, the volume, which Hrabal had already seen in proofs, came out at the beginning of March.

Hrabal's death came at a point when, according to the author, he had said everything he wanted to and could. He had described his years growing up with his mother and uncle Pepin at the brewery in Nymburk, east of Prague, his experiences as a train dispatcher at Kostomlaty outside of Nymburk and from several different occupations (clerk, insurance agent, traveling salesman, steelworker, paper packer, stage hand, and film extra), and he had accounted for his years in Prague and Kersko.

Due to the circumstances of World War II and the normalization of culture under communist rule, Hrabal, who started as a poet, was forty-nine before he had his first breakthrough as a writer of prose with the collection of short stories "A Pearl on the Bottom" (Perlicka na dne, 1963). From 1963 to 1968, he published eight original works including two other collections of stories, "The Palaverers" (Pábitelé) and "An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore" (Inzerát na dum, ve kterém uz nechci bydlet), as well as "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" and Closely Watched Trains.

More here.


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