‘A crane fell on top of me in Kladno in 1952, after which my writing got better,’ Bohumil Hrabal (who died in 1997) once wrote, with typical self-deprecation and comic timing; but there are other versions of what made him change from being an almost rococo engineer of magic realism (‘building my house from the roof on down’, as he put it) to the flawlessly brisk comic writer he became. (Another story: a dry-cleaner’s receipt which said ‘some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself’). He was sent, along with tens of thousands of other white-collar workers, to a factory; in his case, the steel mill in Kladno (named, curiously enough, after Wittgenstein’s mother). ‘From the moment I saw her,’ he wrote, ‘I became a seer.’
But also a hearer: and it was his ability to just sit down and listen to other people’s conversations and transcribe them, like a benign state spy, and then recast them into the framework of a narrative, that made him one of the most popular writers in Czechoslovakia from the 1960s onwards; almost, but not quite, untouchable to the censors. The huge international success of the film of his novel Closely Observed Trains (A.J.P. Taylor’s favourite film, and utterly wonderful) didn’t hurt, either.
Hrabal said he preferred it to his novel.
And so, apart from the opening and closing stories of this collection, which date back to his earlier style, and are best approached as semi-surreal prose poems that contain seeds of his future greatness, we see what it is like in a topsy-turvy world, where, for example, a judge is sent to work in a steel mill: ‘The judge pressed the button. This time, it was the right one’ is its own little story, but also a running joke, not overstretched.
For some reason, the Czechs have punched above their weight when it comes to producing sharp, funny, and brilliant writers. One might say that because of Czech communism they had the material laid out for them on a plate; but it all goes back to Hasek, and his immortal good soldier Svejk, whose dumb insolence, masquerading as helpful idiocy, skewered the pretensions and rhetoric of the state many years beforehand, when communism was only a rumour from Russia.
Written 50 years ago, in a country whose system of government is utterly alien to our lived experience, these stories are still laugh-aloud funny on pretty much every page. (The original title of the collection was An Advertisement for the House I Don’t Want to Live in Anymore.) And this is a deeply humane humour, with no malice or cruelty behind it, as self-deprecating as that remark about the crane: it’s the Svejkian tease, and the joke is king. In ‘Ingots’, a doctor of philosophy, imprisoned for his politics, relates his time in jail:
[An overseer] pointed his whip at me and asked, ‘So what are you in for?’ and I said, ‘I’m ashamed to tell you,’ and he gave me a taste of his whip, so I said, ‘I fucked a goat,’ and he ate it up.
I’m sorry if I’ve spoiled one of the jokes here for you, but rest assured that there are many, many more.
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