Hrabal Bohumil

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains

In the ever-escalating war against buying too many books, I recently adopted a new policy. I would not buy any books by an author who has unread books already on my shelves. So when I saw that Vintage Classics had reissued two novels by Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, I resisted buying them even though the last title of his I read, Too Loud a Solitude, still resonates two years later. Instead I plucked out a book of his I bought back then. See, Vintage Classics? Your handsome repackaging is powerless against me, at least for another month or so.

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains

Closely Observed Trains (1965; tr. Edith Pargeter 1968) is perhaps the best known – or least obscure – of Hrabal’s works, having been filmed a year after publication. The film has been described as “deadly serious and comic”, which is an apt description for Hrabal’s fiction generally. As with Too Loud a Solitude, the book begins in a spirited style, introducing the idea that on the Eastern front, in 1945, the Germans were losing control of the air-space over the narrator’s town.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the timetable, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

When a German plane is shot down over the town, its detached wing crashes into the deanery garden, and “within five minutes our townspeople had made a clean sweep of all the plates and sheet-metal from this wing, and the pieces reappeared the very next day as little roofs for rabbit-hutches and hen-houses.”

The man describing all this to us is Miloš Hrma, a 22-year-old apprentice on the railway, whose happy-go-lucky surface (concerned mainly with losing his virginity), is betrayed by our knowledge that he has just returned to work after three months’ absence after he slit his wrists in the bath. “I plunged both hands into the hot water, and watched the blood flow slowly out of me, and the water grow rosy, and yet all the time the pattern of the red blood flowing remained so clearly perceptible, as though someone was drawing out from my wrists a long, feathery red bandage, a filmy, dancing veil…” Hrabal, in his seductive way, leaves much for the reader to determine, and keeps the comic tone intact.

Hrabal also maintains his reputation as (in Adam Thirlwell’s words) “a writer of hectic digression”, and in just over 80 pages, he introduces a wild variety of characters and subjects, from pigeon-fancying to branding a young woman’s thighs with official railway rubber stamps. At times, when the digressions pile up, it’s easy to see why Hrabal has been considered an untranslatable writer. But although Hrma does divert his narrative long enough to lose his virginity with some tenderness (“…then she was kind to me…”), the narrative builds in the end to a quite perfectly sober and devastating climax. This concerns Hrma’s involvement in a plan to attack a German ammunition train which is due to pass their station.

The Germans are fools. Dangerous fools. I’d been a bit of a fool myself, too, but to my own hurt, while with the Germans it was always to the hurt of someone else.

In this brilliant overturning of the reader’s emotions, the book again resembles Too Loud a Solitude, and makes clear that Hrabal’s comic charm conceals considerable literary intelligence. The edition I read (Abacus, 1990) includes at the back a selected bibliography of Hrabal’s from the 1960s. Some of these I know of – ‘Dancing Lessons for Older and Advanced Pupils’ will be the one-sentence novella recently reissued (though note the different translation of the title) – but why haven’t we been given English translations of ‘A Pearl in the Depths’, ‘The Enthusiasts’ or ‘Sales Notice on a House in which I no longer wish to live’? Perhaps I’d better read the existing available titles first.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

I was inspired to revisit Bohumil Hrabal by his appearance in Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert, described there as “a writer of hectic digression” with “a comic refusal to be polite, and to stop talking.” I’ve read two of his books before, the other one being the epitome of his comic refusal to stop talking, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which comprises one sentence that lasts for a hundred pages. I didn’t feel fit for that much hectic digression, so Too Loud a Solitude it was.

Too Loud a Solitude

By contrast, this hundred page novel is made up of, oh, at least a dozen sentences. Or at least some of them last a page or more. But it’s a readable and charming story, where the narrator, Haňťa, opens almost every chapter with a variation on a theme:

For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story…

For thirty-five years I’d compacted wastepaper in my hydraulic press, never dreaming it could be done any differently…

For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting old paper, and if I had it all to do over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years…

Each opening allows him to spin off into, well, hectic digression, on his life in a police state, where for a living he pulps books deemed unsuitable by the authorities. Of course, the first lesson is that ideas cannot be flattened down into print and that “inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” In other words, “How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anyone wanting to compact ideas had to squelch human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped, because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work.”

The squelching of human heads is an indicator of the comic grotesquerie that Hrabal delights in, and the book has a fine line in scatological slapstick; indeed the only thing I remember about Too Loud a Solitude from first time around is a lesson in the dangers of al fresco defecation while wearing skis.  I’m not proud.

Haňťa combines his earthy humour with great erudition, because for thirty-five years now, he has been rescuing books from his pulper and taking them home:

Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, never bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don’t know.

As such the tale is littered with literary references, spliced in with his memories and observations, and the whole is told in a spiralling narrative that returns to its themes over and over amid the apparently inconsequential diversions, “and so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”  Which is not to say that the tale doesn’t have a direction, and an ending, which it does: as appropriate and devastating as one could wish for.

Hrabal’s achievement in Too Loud a Solitude is astonishing: to bring together elements of modern European history and aspects of humanity in a story which is simultaneously horrifying and absurdly funny.  My only regret was that I know I would have got so much more out of the book if I knew the slightest thing about Czech culture, literature and history.  Well, there’s one way to help that: read more Bohumil Hrabal.