Bohumil Hrabal was the brash and boozy child of the Czech twentieth century. Born in Austro-Hungarian Moravia in 1914, he was an infant under monarchism on the cusp of the House of Habsburg’s collapse; later, he became an adolescent under democracy and the first Czechoslovak nation, a railway laborer under Nazism and Hitler’s Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, an insurance salesman, steelworker, paper-packer, and stagehand through the Third Republic and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s 1948 coup d’état, a persona non grata after the failure of “socialism with a human face” and the Warsaw Pact’s crackdown, a celebrity after the Velvet Revolution, and a legend in the newly formed Czech Republic. He wrote lush, lengthy sentences—lines that flowed on for pages, folding memories into memories, stories into stories—that painted a tableau of his ever-changing homeland. Banned from publishing after the 1968 Soviet invasion, he circulated his most popular works illegally in samizdat. He drew leftist ire for avoiding political engagements, his signature notoriously absent from Václav Havel’s Charter 77 protest initiative against the Communist state. Milan Kundera called him “Czechoslovakia’s greatest writer.” The iconic singer-songwriter Karel Kryl called him a “whore.” And, as famous as he’d become, Hrabal was easy to find. All you had to do was head over to U Zlatého tygra (“At the Golden Tiger”) and listen for the loudest voice, the raconteur of the beer hall holding court with hostlers and heads of state alike.
In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.
Originally translated in 1993 by the late James Naughton and newly reprinted by NYRB Classics, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still brings together two of Hrabal’s most iconic works. The first part, Cutting It Short (1976), takes the perspective of the author’s mother, Maryška, a restless, energetic woman constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Hers is the story of how these boundaries change with the passage of time, marked by the introduction of the wireless telephone to the little town of Nymburk. Traditional distances shrink, information picks up speed, and life suddenly has different measures. Newly married to the sweet, if staid, brewery manager Francin, Maryška embodies a raging spirit of youth, rejoicing in the self’s sweet purchase on nothing but itself: “I was young, and hence above all that, what I did, I did, only asking prior permission of myself, and always I nodded my own consent.” This confidence puts Maryška at sharp odds with her neighbors and husband, for whom propriety and tradition are a woman’s paths to a happy life. She scandalizes the town when, taken by the spirit of the times, she cuts short her long, golden hair. As she flies through the square on her bicycle, one resident screams out in shock, transforming Maryška’s bold decision into historical process: “And she pointed me out to our town’s precious visitor, and now I knew that my hair belonged to its historical monuments.” For Hrabal and his heroine, history is a hyper-localized phenomenon, happening on one’s head as in the halls of power, and a haircut might mark the end of an era as much as a declaration of war.
And war does come to Nymburk. The second part, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still(1973), picks up a few years later, swapping Maryška’s point of view for that of her son. Where his mother was the primary source of Cutting It Short’s narrative movement, the unnamed boy (quite apparently Hrabal himself) serves as a conduit for the town’s stories, many of which spill from the mouth of his uncle Pepin. Indeed, Hrabal locates in Pepin his ideal “palaver,” or the rambling fount of stories unique to his style. Pepin’s favorite topic is the good old days in the Austrian army, regarding which he has a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes. His nostalgia for Austro-Hungarian Moravia—for youth and violence, for being “the greatest good-looker” and “the one Captain Hovorka liked talking to best”—creates a kind of rhythm and momentum, as if the true backbone of the novel is nothing but a boastful monologue. For the author, Pepin’s palavering is nothing short of divine: “I knew that the Lord God didn’t actually love the truth so much, in fact he loved mad men, crazy exalted enthusiasts, people like my uncle Pepin.” When Nazi Germany invades and suffocates cultural life with the occupation, Uncle Pepin is unfazed, shouting insults at the Reich’s pencil pusher and dancing away the night of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination. Here again, history is the protest of the dancing body, twirling across a beer hall as though it were a battlefield. In the end, after Hitler is defeated and Nymburk is reorganized under socialism, after an endless flush of stories and drinking and dancing, it’s old age that finally stops the monologue. Uncle Pepin falls silent and dies.
It’s worth pausing on a passage from The Little Town Where Time Stood Still that embodies the Hrabalian sublime, what he termed “the little pearl at the bottom” of the story. When Francin ropes Uncle Pepin into helping him work on an ever-breaking motorbike, Pepin takes the occasion to recount a card game:
“Brother, you’re right there, take that Vlasta girl over at Havrda’s for instance, now you tell me, brother, the lads were playing cards, a game of ‘God Bless,’ and Vlasta says: ‘Come on you old goat pay me a bit of attention!’ But auld Švec had me looking after thousands o’ crowns, there I was sitting next tae him like some Rothschild, who else would’ve had the honour, right? And Vlasta took off her blouse and stuck her arm round my back and says, ‘Tell me about the European Renaissance, d’you hear?’ and there I was holding those thousands and no paying attention, and all of a sudden the lassie undoes the fastening on her bra, and out pops her bosoms, like two half-kegs of beer, and one o’ they breasts thumps me on the head and the other just floored me, and auld Švec fell doon as well, swept the cloth off, and all the players were swept away by that Vlasta lassie’s pair of bosoms, and there she stood over us, it was like a holy picture, Jesus arising from the dead, there we were felled and lying on the ground like the sodgers in the picture . . . ”
It’s a marriage of the high and low, the chaste and lewd, the sacred and profane, all in one breath. Such a juxtaposition is typical of Hrabal, to string along a barstool story before exploding it into the heavens with something as simple as a simile. You can find these shimmering passages through much of his best work, where the everyday seems to teem with grace. Life is as much slapstick comedy as it is Renaissance fresco, so why not just have both at once?
Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Cult of Personality shows off a distinctly different Hrabal than the one English-language readers have grown accustomed to. Most of the work available in translation (Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, I Served the King of England, and others) was written from the mid ’60s to the late ’70s, during what we might call his samizdat period. The stories collected in Mr. Kafka—newly translated by Paul Wilson and published by New Directions—date from the 1950s, a new period for English-language Hrabal readers, and one that shows the author butting heads with the wreckage of war, the rise of Communist bureaucracy, and Czech Stalinism.
Mr. Kafka extends Hrabal’s claim on Czech letters back a decade, and is evidence of why the Party was so keen on banning his work. In “Strange People,” a steelworker’s attempt to negotiate with a production manager over higher quotas is interrupted by the filming of a propaganda movie, “Lunch Break in Our Factories.” “But we’ve got nothing to eat,” a priest objects fruitlessly. The story “Ingots” wraps together two narratives, one of a drunk woman following a man home, where she is subsequently raped, and the other a dialogue between a merchant and a philosopher about the political state of Europe: “All our good old golden days are being smelted down and you don’t even know it’s happening.” “Betrayal of Mirrors” uses the same diptych structure to tell the story of a church being taken apart for scrap against the narrative of a mad artist attempting to craft a statue worthy of the nation: “But just look at the artist. Look how he’s let himself go to seed for the sake of the nation. He never eats a thing, he just drinks, and then there’s the damp.” The final story, “Beautiful Poldi,” is perhaps the closest to the Hrabal we know, presenting a rambling, impressionistic tale about life in the Poldi steel factory, supple in its balance of longing and resignation: “Everything exists in the elasticity of perspective, and life itself is illusion, deformation, perspective.”
The title story takes us on a promenade of postwar Prague, where Mr. Kafka (not F. Kafka, but close) encounters a string of everyday unreality befitting his nom de guerre. In Hrabalian fashion, the juxtaposed images slide by smoothly, as when a lady’s skin is described as “so like silk that when she drank red wine it was as if she’d poured the wine into glass tubes.” Elsewhere, Mr. Kafka pauses to take in an impression of light: “I wondered then why the cars were driving along the river upside down, their wheels in the air as though sledding along on their roofs.” They’re beautiful images floating along the story’s meandering drift, but just below the surface you can feel a different kind of tension, a feeling of exhaustion and frustration and pride absent from the author’s later work. The bungled slaughtering of a pig ends traumatically: “[It] burrowed into the manure pile because it would rather have drowned in piss and shit than once more face the butcher with a knife in his hands.” Like the cars reflected in the river, the city is turned upside-down from the war. Madness and death are merely matter-of-fact: “A streetcar rumbles by with a few dead men inside hanging by their hands. A pedestrian stumbles to his knees and tries to ignite a cobblestone.” Hrabal channels his own version of Kafka to measure the weight and shape of the war’s shadow.