These first English translations, based on original manuscripts, of two books by Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) mark the hundredth anniversary of the Czech master’s birth. Both date from the years of so-called normalization that followed the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Two freshly printed Hrabal titles were destroyed in 1970, he was banned from publishing anything new, and his latest works were circulated only in samizdat form. Then, in January 1975, Hrabal expressed what was widely interpreted as his support for the regime in an interview for the official cultural weekly Tvorba. The dissidents called him a whore and some burnt his books, but he achieved his aim of getting new books published. Many of the stories now translated in Rambling On: An apprentice’s guide to the gift of the gab first appeared in Slavnosti snéženek (1978; The Snowdrop Festival), while Harlekýnovy milióny(Harlequin’s Millions) was published in 1981.
Both texts were brought before Czech readers in corrupted form. Six stories now reinstated inRambling On were excised from Slavnosti snéženek: two tales poking fun at cooperative farmers and a socialist policeman, one celebrating a kindly nun who cares for handicapped children, and three experimental compositions, including the stream-of-consciousness story that has given the English collection its title. Passages in Harlequin’s Millions on the post-war transfer of Germans from the Sudetenland to Germany and on the treatment of the “bourgeoisie” after the Communist Party takeover in 1948 were toned down to give the impression that Hrabal approved of what had happened when, in fact, he lamented the victims’ suffering. By adding full stops and deleting some of the repetitions, the editors also interfered with one of the most striking and expressive features of his writing – its musicality. Hrabal’s unending sentences create a distinct melody, and his constant repetitions provide a metre which changes with the style of narration. Nevertheless, the truncated books still thrilled the Czech public and Jiří Menzel, who had already won an Oscar in 1968 for his Hrabal-based Closely Observed Trains, turned Slavnosti snéženek into a popular film.
Rambling On and Harlequin’s Millions were both written in the country cottage in Kersko, a small settlement in the middle of a forest, to which Hrabal exiled himself at the beginning of the 1970s. With its charming illustrations, courtesy of Jiří Grus, Rambling On is the more upbeat of the two. Inspired by the behaviour of his neighbours in Kersko, Hrabal draws absurdist sketches of, among others, a morbidly obese glutton obsessed with salami, a bargain hunter devoted to purchasing useless and faulty but irresistibly cheap objects, and two groups of hunters waging a typically Czech petty squabble over a wild boar carcass. But Hrabal does not condemn; he is only gently amused, celebrating the Czech aptitude for finding enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life, however harsh the circumstances. His condemnation is reserved for cruelty to animals. Here the jokes stop and Hrabal, who at one time shared his cottage with as many as twelve cats, delivers piercing accounts of animal suffering.
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