By Meira Eliot
Walking into the rather cramped room, you will see among other items on the heavy desk, a much used Consul typewriter, an opened, slightly crumpled pack of cheap cigarettes, a couple of pencils, a coffee mug, and an opened hardback book. Behind the desk in the simply furnished room, on bare floorboards, stands a bookcase containing a modest selection of 20th-century Czech literature. Other exhibits include the author's old jacket, walking stick and cap, and the sailor's cap of his famous uncle Pepin. This is the workspace of Bohumil Hrabal, reconstructed in the Ethnographic Museum at Nymburk. We are an hour's train ride from Prague, in a picturesque little market town lying on the river Elbe, which flows through the Czech Republic and on through Germany up to Hamburg and the North Sea. The museum blends in with its surroundings so deftly that I have walked past the entrance twice before even noticing it. The writing desk, unlike the dainty, ladylike one of Jane Austen, which resembles more of an occasional table, is of solid, although hardly elegant proportions. It has clearly weathered a storm or two. To those who remember the Communist era the almost palpable drabness that was the hallmark of the age still hangs around the exhibit like a kind of socialist incense.
And yet this space exudes another, more authentic life than the one disclosed at first glance. There are hard edges, character and substance here. Although acclaimed as the greatest Czech prose writer of the late 20th century, Hrabal knowingly lived and worked on knife-edges. He was criticized, despite having been banned for years at one stage, for editing his writing to accommodate Communist censorship. In spite of his efforts he was not able to escape censorship entirely: the film version of "Larks on a String," was not put in general release until 1989 and is still barely known outside the Czech Republic.
Hrabal has been praised for his portrayal of real working people. Although a law graduate, he held a variety of manual jobs before becoming a writer in his middle years. He worked variously in a steel foundry, on the railways, as a waiter, a stage technician and in a paper recycling depot. Following his literary baptism in surrealist poetry, like many writers Hrabal eventually found his voice by writing about what he knew best. Hrabal's working-class characters are not cardboard cut-out optimists waving red flags: they are three-dimensional, flesh and blood heroes, quirky sometimes to the point of deviance:
"With me, those who seem to be the last come first."
Readers of WWB may already have heard of Hrabal through Pawel Huelle's book Mercedes-Benz. Z Listow do Hrabala. As an English writer living in Prague, my own first encounter with Hrabal was through the film versions of his works by the Czech New Wave director Jiri Menzel. The best-known of these films is the Academy award-winning Closely Watched Trains (1966). For readers who are new to Hrabal, whose prose can be complex, Closely Watched Trains is probably the best way to ease into his prose.
A successful working partnership between Hrabal and Menzel continued for decades and produced several classic masterpieces of cinematography, such as Cutting it Short, the film version of Hrabal's book about his parents, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, and most recently a film version of I Served the King of England.
What I love about these films is their unique combination of earthiness, satire and lyricism. But above all, it was Hrabal's characters who captivated me. They seemed like people I knew. Born in Yorkshire, where people have a reputation for being blunt and pithy, I felt an immediate affinity with Hrabal's ability to cut through to the essentials:
"Later he came to the realization that he must learn to accept what is, live life as it is, and have faith in the lot prescribed for him in the Lord's prayer."
There are the Bladerunners of the creative arts, the Mozarts and Baudelaires, who live lives of spectacular excess, with Alpine peaks and troughs of experience, burning themselves out or even dying at a young age. There are others whose daily lives are economical almost to the point of perversity. The English poet Robert Graves springs to mind. Graves chose to move to Deia on the island of Majorca at a time when such a choice seemed like an act of almost wanton asceticism (he lived to be 90). He kept regular hours, getting up in the morning and writing until lunchtime. No spectacular bursts of creative genius until the small hours, preceded and followed by carousing, partying and illicit substances. On the surface his life was almost dull. But he was doggedly prolific, producing some 140 published works.
If the uncluttered model is a viable lifestyle for a writer, then Hrabal outdid even Graves in his simplicity. He largely shunned the middle-class literati life in Prague, spending much time at his simple cottage in Kersko in the Bohemian woodland countryside. Even the most charitable visitor would have to describe his home there as a dump. Reassuringly though, Hrabal had his indulgences. He loved his Czech beer and was quoted as saying that it was a bad idea to let oneself get completely sober in the political climate of the time. He had a prodigious memory for the works of the literary canon and could recite long passages from Tolstoy and other great works at the local pub over his beer.
Hrabal's writing marries a unique sense for the extraordinary heroism shown by ordinary people leading ordinary lives, with a powerful sense of discomfort at the perversity inherent in conformity. He predicted his own death, which occurred suddenly at the age of eighty-two when he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Motol hospital in Prague. As he had already written about such an occurrence, it has been speculated that it was suicide. At all events Hrabal pronounced when he was admitted to hospital that he would never leave, adding that he had reconciled himself to death. Perhaps, like Oscar Wilde, who in most other respects could scarcely have been more unlike him, Hrabal believed that life imitates art. Although complex at times, Hrabal's prose does not allow the reader to forget the essentials of life:
"Be nice to people, or they won't come to your funeral." In Hrabal's case, they did.
Born in North Yorkshire in the UK, Meira Eliot graduated in Middle Eastern Studies at Durham University, going on to take a doctorate in Social Anthropology at Oxford, where her main interest was the Turkish community in Berlin. She has spent most of her adult life in the Czech Republic and Germany and served a long apprenticeship as a translator from German and Czech before recently embarking on her fiction career. In her own writing, Meira is interested in issues of cultural and spiritual identity, and enjoys poking fun at corporate institutions. She is married with one teenage son and lives in Prague, Czech Republic.
The first two parts of her novel Moldavite are available for download at: Smashwords.com
Published Feb 17, 2009 Copyright 2009 Meira Eliot