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  Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains

by Mats Larsson

  "BOHUMIL HRABAL TRAGICALLY DEAD," ran the headline on the front page of the daily Mladá fronta, 4 February 1997. The 82-year-old Hrabal died instantly when, on 3 February, he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He had been at the hospital's orthopedic clinic since December 1996 for back and joint pain and was schedule to be released soon. According to witnesses, Hrabal was trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on tipped and fell.

It's interesting how young poets think of death while old fogies think of girls, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) writes in "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age".



The particular - and almost eerie - significance of the fifth floor in Hrabal's life and work prompts speculation as to whether his death truly was an accident and not suicide. His Prague apartment was located on the fifth floor, and his fear of falling from this floor was known. Moreover, the motive to commit suicide by jumping from a fifth floor reoccurs several times in his writings. Ultimately, his exit made an appropriate ending point for an exceptionally vital and powerful career.

During Hrabal's lifetime, nearly three million copies of his books were printed in his native Czechoslovakia, and he was translated into twenty-seven languages. Among Hrabal's best-selling works, "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" (Tanecní hodiny pro starsí a pokrocilé, 1964), an exceptional story written in a single sentence, also came out in more editions than any other of his works. And Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1965), his book about the little train station Kostomolaty under German occupation, is one of many of his novels adapted to film; directed by Jirí Menzel, the movie won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1967. Another of Hrabal's gems, "Cutting it Short" (Postriziny, 1976), also adapted to the screen by Menzel, features Hrabal's mother giving an unforgettable account of life at the brewery in Nymburk and how uncle Pepin came to visit for fourteen days and stayed for fourteen years.

The Swedish cover for ”Cutting it Short”. Hrabal describes the special pleasures of the brewer's wife the night after the butchery and the making of sausages (transl. James Naughton):

”That night I slept alone in the bedroom, cold air streamed in through the open window, on planks between chairs the sausages and puddings glittered on their rye straw, right by the bed on long boards lay cooling the dismembered parts of the pig, the boned and apportioned hams, the chops and roasting-joints, the shoulders and knees and legs, all laid out according to Mr Myclik's orderly system. As I got into bed I could hear Francin in the kitchen getting up and pouring himself some lukewarm coffee, taking some dry bread to chew with it, it had been a tremendous blow-out, all the members of the management board ate abundantly, only Francin stood there in the kitchen drinking lukewarm coffee and chewing dry bread with it. I lay in the feather quilt, and before I fell asleep, I stretched out a hand and touched a shoulder, then I fingered a joint and went dozing off with my fingers on a virginal tenderloin, and dreamed of eating a whole pig. When towards morning I woke, I had such a thirst, I went barefoot to fetch a bottle of beer, pulled off the stopper and drank greedily, then I lit the lamp, and holding it in my fingers, I went from one bit of pork to the next, unable to restrain myself from lighting the primus and slicing off two lovely lean schnitzels from the leg. I beat them out thin, salted and peppered them and cooked them in butter in eight minutes flat, all that time, which seemed to me an eternity, my mouth was watering, that was what I needed, to eat practically the whole of the two legs, in simple unbreaded schnitzels sprinkled with lemon juice. I added some water to the schnitzels, covered the pan with a lid, out of which angry steam huffed and puffed, and now I laid those schnitzels on a plate and ate them greedily, as always I got my nightdress spattered, just as I always spatter my blouse with juice or gravy, because when I eat, I don't just eat, I guzzle ...”

Readers loved Hrabal most of all for his inimitable prose - at times richly orally descriptive, other times sensually lyrical - which so completely captured life: from everyday dialogue - taken directly, it seems, from pubs and workplaces - via lyrical descriptions of nature, to philosophical expositions on the innermost meaning of life. Often, Hrabal fills his texts with odd characters, individuals from the fringes of society - anti-heroes of a sort - who possess a never-ending joy in their existence, a joy manifested foremost verbally. Moreover, Hrabal is a genuinely entertaining writer with a sense for the comically absurd in life. Hrabal stands alone in his ability to tell a story - often with the assistance of the authentic uncle Pepin - which sends the reader into fits of sensual delight:

My cousin was a twin and a real card, he was christened Vincek and his brother was christened Ludvicek, and when they were a year old their mother was bathing them in a tub and popped out to a see a neighbor, and when she got back half an hour later one of them had drowned, and they were so much alike nobody could tell which one, Ludvicek or Vincek, so they flipped a coin, heads for Lucvicek, tails for Vincek, and it came up Ludvicek, but when my cousin Vincek grew up he began to wonder - and he had plenty of time for it, he was always out of a job - he began to wonder who really did drown, whether the person walking around on earth wasn't really Ludvicek and he, Vincek, was up in heaven, which led him to drink and to wander along the water's edge and go in swimming, testing the waters, so to speak, till at last he drowned, by way of proof that he hadn't been the one to drown back then, " (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, 1995 . Transl. Michael Henry Heim.)

Bear in mind that all of what Hrabal wrote derived from actual events; nothing is invented, only displaced in time and rearranged. As one of his admirers put it, instead of a brain, Hrabal had hard disk, which stored everything. While sitting amidst his admirers at the pub the Golden Tiger, Hrabal could effortlessly recite long passages from books he had read during his youth-from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to Batista's text on matrimonial bliss, and Anna Nováková's book of dreams.

Appropriately, Prazská imaginace, a small publishing house run by Hrabal enthusiast Václav Kadlec, planned to release the nineteenth and last volume of Hrabal's collected works 28 March 1997, Hrabal's eighty-third birthday. Instead, the volume, which Hrabal had already seen in proofs, came out at the beginning of March.

Hrabal's death came at a point when, according to the author, he had said everything he wanted to and could. He had described his years growing up with his mother and uncle Pepin at the brewery in Nymburk, east of Prague, his experiences as a train dispatcher at Kostomlaty outside of Nymburk and from several different occupations (clerk, insurance agent, traveling salesman, steelworker, paper packer, stage hand, and film extra), and he had accounted for his years in Prague and Kersko.

Due to the circumstances of World War II and the normalization of culture under communist rule, Hrabal, who started as a poet, was forty-nine before he had his first breakthrough as a writer of prose with the collection of short stories "A Pearl on the Bottom" (Perlicka na dne, 1963). From 1963 to 1968, he published eight original works including two other collections of stories, "The Palaverers" (Pábitelé) and "An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore" (Inzerát na dum, ve kterém uz nechci bydlet), as well as "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" and Closely Watched Trains.

From Jiri Menzel’s famous film ”Closely Watched Trains" from 1966.


After 1968, Hrabal was banned from publishing; only after 1975, when the weekly Tvorba carried his perplexing proclamation of government support, did he regain the right to put out books. Between 1976 and 1979, the writer came out with his first trilogy of memoirs: Cutting it Short, Lovely Wistfulness, and Harlequin's Millions (Postrizingy, Krasosmutnení, Harlekynovy miliony). These works recount Hrabal's early years, the war, the communist take over and the first years thereafter. Nevertheless, several of his most important works could only be published abroad, including the novels The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (Mestecko, dke se zastavil cas) and I Served the King of England (Jak jsem obsluhoval anglického krále), as well as the novella, Too Loud a Solitude (Prílis hlucná samota), about a paper press operator who for thirty-five years keeps company with destroyed books and their thoughts.

In 1986 and 1987, Hrabal published his second trilogy of memoirs. In these books, The Weddings in the House, Vita nuova, Vacant Lots (Svatby v dome,Vita nuova, Proluky), his wife Eliska tells of their life in Prague during the 1950s, 1960s, and the first half of the 1970s. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, a number of Hrabal's previously banned books were published; the first of his collected writings came out in 1991.

Even with the publication of Hrabal's collected writings in nineteen massive volumes - which, since he regularly reworked, revised, and returned to his texts, contain only a fraction of the work he produced during his life - and despite a number of monographs on the writer, research on Hrabal's work can only be considered in its infancy. In Prague, Hrabal devotees are in the midst of setting up a project to post his collected writings on the Internet; at the same time, the question remains what to do with the enormous amount of material left behind by the author.

Meanwhile, fans can occupy themselves with weekend trips to the regions of Nymburk and Kersko to verify local names or track down people included in Hrabal's texts. While there, one can sample the bittersweet Czech pilsner, Hrabal's faithful lifelong companion. The Hrabal research industry is itself truly worth investigation, charting all the enthusiasts who scrutinize his texts or who, in the best of intentions, have built up a court around the unpretentious poet.

For a translator, Hrabal's use of idioms - seemingly lifted directly from eavesdropped conversations - prove an obvious challenge. All the odd characters who figure into his texts acquire their personalities from the verbal play which pepper their speech. And the greatest chatterer of them all is Hrabal's uncle Pepin, whose volubility overflows with military slang, obsolete profanities, and Moravian provincialisms. How, for example, should the unmistakable linguistic features of the Moravian countryside be conveyed? When Pepin opens his mouth, the Czech reader immediately understands what he's about: with the choice of words and special suffixes, he gives away his geographic roots. One prime example is found in the fourth chapter of "Cutting it Short," when he spins a yarn about uncle Metud who was bored and bought a raccoon:

Well now, Uncle Metud over in the Great Lakes he's begun to get a wee bit strange, and one day he read a notice in the paper: Suffer from boredom? Get yourself a racoon. And Uncle Metud, what with having no kids and that, he replied to the ad, and in a week's time the beast arrived, in a packing case. Well that was a thing now! Just like a child, it made friends with anybody going, but there was one special thing about it, you see, the German for racoon is Waschbär, and whatever that racoon saw, it simply had to wash it, and so it washed Uncle Metud's alarm clock and three watches, till nobody could put them together agai,n. Then one day it washed all the spices. And again, when Uncle Metud took his bicycle to pieces, the racoon went and washed the parts for him in the nearest creek, and the neighbours were comimg along saying: Uncle Metud, would you be needing this piece of junk at all? We just found it over in the creek! And after they'd brought him several bits like that, Metud went to have a look himself, and that racoon had gone off with practically the whole bang shoot. [...]

Further translating difficulties ensue from the technical terms related to the various professions and settings found in the books - from a steel mill and a paper recycling plant, to a pork slaughterhouse and a perfume boutique.

In closing, a section of Too Loud a Solitude, where the paper press operator Hanta tells of his experiences during World War II, serves as a good example of Hrabal's lyrically invigorating - and often subtly political - prose:

For thirty-five years I've been compacting old paper, and in that time I've had so many beautiful books thrown into my cellar that if I had three barns they'd all be full. Just after the war the second one - was over, somebody dumped a basket of the most exquisitely made books in my hydraulic press, and when I'd calmed down enough to open one of them, what did I see but the stamp of the Royal Prussian Library, and when next day I found the whole cellar overflowing with more of the same - leather-bound volumes, their gilt edges and titles flooding the air with light - I raced upstairs to see two fellows standing there, and what I managed to squeeze out of them was that somewhere in the vicinity of Nové Straseci there was a barn with so many books in the straw it made your eyes pop out of your head. So I went to see the army librarian, and the two of us took off for Nové Straseci, and there in the fields we found not one but three barns chock full of the Royal Prussian Library, and once we'd done oohing and ahing, we had a good talk, as a result of which a column of military vehicles spent a week transporting the books to a wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague, where they were to wait until things had simmered down and they could be sent back to their place of origin. But somebody leaked the hiding place and the Royal Prussian Library was declared official booty, so the column of military vehicles started transporting all the leatherbound volumes with their gilt edges and titles over to the railroad station, where they were loaded on flat-cars in the rain, and since it poured the whole week, what I saw when the last load of books pulled up was a constant stream of gold water cum pitch and printer's ink flowing down from the train. Well, I just stood there, leaning aginst a lamppost, flabbergasted, and as the last car disappeared into the mist, I felt the rain in my face merging with tears, [...]

Works by Bohumil Hrabal available in English translation: "Cutting It Short"/"The Little Town Where Time Stood Still" (transl. James Naughton), Pantheon, 1993, Abacus, 1994; "Too Loud a Solitude" (transl. Michael Henry Heim), Harcourt Brace, 1990, 1992; "Closely Watched Trains", (transl. Edith Pargeter) Northwestern Univ. Press, 1995; "Closely Observed Trains, a Film" (script written by Hrabal together with Jiri Menzel), Lorrimer, 1971; "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" (transl. Michael Henry Heim), Harcourt Brace, 1995; "I Served the King of England", Vintage Books, 1990.


There are two Web sites devoted to Hrabal, with texts almost entirely in Czech: and Further on more original texts by Hrabal will be published here.

This article is  © copyright Mats Larsson 1997.
Translated from Swedish by Kathryn Boyer.

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