‘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.