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.” Continue reading