Invisible Designs: On Bohumil Hrabal

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Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Jan. 12, 2016

BOHUMIL HRABAL DIED only once — in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997 — but there are at least two versions of the story.

In the first, Hrabal — one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order) — slipped from a window while feeding birds at the hospital where he was being treated for arthritis.

In the second, Hrabal, whose books had been periodically banned by the government and burned by dissidents, now tormented by loneliness, became consumed with jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment, “where every room hurts.” He wrote about others who had fantasized about jumping from the same floor: Kafka, Rilke’s character Malte Brigge. And on a winter’s day, a couple of months shy of his 83rd birthday, he threw himself from a fifth-floor hospital window.

Because this is Hrabal, in whose work beauty, pity, sorrow and high silliness come tightly braided, both versions have prevailed; there is no official narrative. He leapt and fell to his death. He died of an excess of despair and enthusiasm, both retreating from life and nourishing it.

It’s a death out of his own fiction, with the grave absurdity of his greatest novels — “I Served the King of England” (1971); “Too Loud a Solitude” (1976); “Closely Watched Trains” (1964), made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966 — that mournful laughter in the dark. He once said his comic sensibility was shaped by a warning on a dry cleaner’s receipt: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.”

Today Hrabal is revered, if rarely read outside his homeland. But a book of his has recently been translated into English for the first time, a violent and merry collection of stories from the 1950s called MR. KAFKA AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TIME OF THE CULT (New Directions, paper, $14.95). It’s a slender book, perhaps his bleakest, and a reminder that we ignore Hrabal to our detriment. The “political novel,” so frequently an anemic assemblage of thesis statements, is, in Hrabal’s hands, antic and unpredictable, full of eccentric strategies for imaginative resistance. “One single book by Hrabal does more for people, for their freedom of mind, than all the rest of us with our actions, our gestures, our noisy protests,” Milan Kundera wrote.

But this approach, which I put forth so ponderously, is gauzy in Hrabal, lightly, artfully deployed. He is a spider of a writer: subtle and sly, patient, with invisible designs. He never proclaims — he never needs to. He envelops. His muse was his Uncle Pepin, who once arrived for a two-week visit and didn’t leave for 40 years. Lazy, loquacious Pepin had the comic melancholy of Chaplin, Hrabal recalled, and a meandering storytelling style. From him, Hrabal must have learned how to snare the reader with charm and plain language and logic slightly, sweetly askew. Many of his books take the form of digressive monologues — the novel “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” famously unfurls in one 90-page sentence — by stouthearted, ­simple-minded narrators. Ditie, from “‘I Served the King of England,” is representative: He’s whiling away his time as an apprentice waiter in a series of crumbling hotels, scooping ice cream into his boots to cool his aching feet, when he bumbles into history by marrying a Nazi.

Hrabal’s own date with destiny came earlier in life. Born in 1914 in Moravia, he was first a poet, in thrall to the French surrealists. Sediments of this fascination can be detected in his prose: a taste for the unexpected detail, for cockeyed metaphor — in “Mr. Kafka,” a man vomits and “the liquid runs out of his mouth as though he’d dropped a pocket watch on a chain.” Hrabal shared his work in underground literary circles, but in 1949, he was carted off to work in the steel mills, in a Communist campaign that consigned intellectuals to harsh labor (he would also work as a postman, stagehand, train dispatcher and dealer in scrap paper). That world of soot and black slag proved to be his great inspiration — and the setting for many of the stories in “Mr. Kafka.” “If you knew how much I love the Poldi steel mill, you’d be jealous,” he wrote later. “It was there that I saw everything, and from the moment I saw her, I became a seer.” What he saw was the strangeness in ordinary life. He became its transcriber, and many of the passages in his writing that still pulse with life have the feel of observations caught on the fly, jotted down in the street — a man thrashing about in a felled tree to the great amusement of his family, a woman collapsing in a puddle and curling up, “a photograph in an oval frame.”

In 1970, two new books of his were pulped and he was officially banned from publishing — however cloaked in comedy, his parables about ordinary life in Prague under the Nazis and Soviets found their mark. He kept writing, though, and he kept being read, circulating novels including “I Served the King of England” in samizdat. The ban was lifted in 1975 after he made what were seen as conciliatory remarks about the regime in a newspaper interview, infuriating dissidents. But he was deemed “rehabilitated” and permitted to publish, though the censors continued to show lively interest in his work. But throughout, the fiction was only rarely explicitly ideological. Like Orwell, Hrabal is attuned to how power renders us ridiculous, but his critique is slant, sometimes obscured. James Wood notes that he lessens the sting of his political observations by putting them in the mouths of his most flagrantly unreliable characters. And when politics seeps into the story, it does so naturally. One is reminded of Kafka’s laconic diary entry for Aug. 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.” Public life never supersedes the private sphere; everything is brought to the same level: the indignities of war and marriage, of aching feet that require ministrations with ice cream.

Hrabal liked quoting Rilke, that the writer has been created to stroke his age the wrong way, against the grain. His mode of provocation was a construction of a sensibility and style in opposition to totalitarian logic. If totalitarianism reduced the world, in Kundera’s words, to a place of answers, a world of slogans and simplistic logic, Hrabal’s work slyly resists by being impossible to sum up — for a long time it was even considered untranslatable. Morals or messages cannot be squeezed from his stories, like juice from a rind. The meanings are in the stories themselves, in their structure, their casual unfurling — a style Hrabal called pabeni, palavering. “I Served the King of England” is no more “about” an apprentice waiter than it is about any number of anecdotes that threaten to hijack the narrative — of a passing salami salesman or of a tailor who prepares fittings on balloon models of his clients’ torsos that float around his shop.

“My credo was always delight, bliss, longing,” he said, and for him beauty was most reliably found in human muddle and folly — in watching a man and woman coming to blows in the street, and seeing their small dogs start to spar, too. And then all four picking themselves up, shaking themselves off and walking down the street in perfect harmony, the dogs only a bit bloody. Beauty is the Poldi steel mill. It’s the wastepaper scrap heap in “Too Loud a Solitude” from which the narrator salvages and builds a library (as Hrabal did). “The world is a beautiful place,” he wrote in “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.” “Not because it is but because I see it that way.” It’s this adherence to a way of seeing — attentive, idiosyncratic, tender, perverse — that allows his characters to preserve some measure of selfhood, as they’re chewed up by history. And so throughout his work there are scattered injunctions to hone one’s attention, to see more clearly, to use one’s senses to the hilt: Put your hands in your pockets, a man with prosthetic hands scolds in “Mr. Kafka.” “Experience those pockets to the full.”

Virginia Woolf wrote that if a writer were free, “if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.” Is there a better description of the work of Bohumil ­Hrabal — the riffing and digressions and lolling pabeni? Not even his death, it turns out, can be pithily summarized. Suppressed and censored and yet somehow so strangely free, he never surrendered the sovereignty of his vision, the liberty he found in looking, his doughty, native independence. “You can’t rid yourself of freedom the way you’d rid yourself of lice, brother,” he writes in ­“Mr. ­Kafka.” “Do you understand?”

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One thought on “Invisible Designs: On Bohumil Hrabal

  1. Dear Ms. Sehgal,

    Thank you so much for this article. It means a lot to me and the Czech community. Bohumil Hrabal was one of the key icons when I and my contemporaries were growing up in Czechoslovakia under communism. Mr. Hrabal’s writings kept a lot of us sane under the circumstances.
    Thank you for highlighting his personality and contributions to world literature.

    Renata

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