Bohumil Hrabal’s Forest Chronicles
By Zuzana Slobodová
These first English translations, based on original manuscripts, of two books by Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) mark the hundredth anniversary of the Czech master’s birth. Both date from the years of so-called normalization that followed the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Two freshly printed Hrabal titles were destroyed in 1970, he was banned from publishing anything new, and his latest works were circulated only in samizdat form. Then, in January 1975, Hrabal expressed what was widely interpreted as his support for the regime in an interview for the official cultural weekly Tvorba. The dissidents called him a whore and some burnt his books, but he achieved his aim of getting new books published. Many of the stories now translated in Rambling On: An apprentice’s guide to the gift of the gab first appeared in Slavnosti snéženek (1978; The Snowdrop Festival), while Harlekýnovy milióny (Harlequin’s Millions) was published in 1981.
Both texts were brought before Czech readers in corrupted form. Six stories now reinstated in Rambling On were excised from Slavnosti snéženek: two tales poking fun at cooperative farmers and a socialist policeman, one celebrating a kindly nun who cares for handicapped children, and three experimental compositions, including the stream-of-consciousness story that has given the English collection its title. Passages in Harlequin’s Millions on the post-war transfer of Germans from the Sudetenland to Germany and on the treatment of the “bourgeoisie” after the Communist Party takeover in 1948 were toned down to give the impression that Hrabal approved of what had happened when, in fact, he lamented the victims’ suffering. By adding full stops and deleting some of the repetitions, the editors also interfered with one of the most striking and expressive features of his writing – its musicality. Hrabal’s unending sentences create a distinct melody, and his constant repetitions provide a metre which changes with the style of narration. Nevertheless, the truncated books still thrilled the Czech public and Jiří Menzel, who had already won an Oscar in 1968 for his Hrabal-based Closely Observed Trains, turned Slavnosti snéženek into a popular film.
Rambling On and Harlequin’s Millions were both written in the country cottage in Kersko, a small settlement in the middle of a forest, to which Hrabal exiled himself at the beginning of the 1970s. With its charming illustrations, courtesy of Jiří Grus, Rambling On is the more upbeat of the two. Inspired by the behaviour of his neighbours in Kersko, Hrabal draws absurdist sketches of, among others, a morbidly obese glutton obsessed with salami, a bargain hunter devoted to purchasing useless and faulty but irresistibly cheap objects, and two groups of hunters waging a typically Czech petty squabble over a wild boar carcass. But Hrabal does not condemn; he is only gently amused, celebrating the Czech aptitude for finding enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life, however harsh the circumstances. His condemnation is reserved for cruelty to animals. Here the jokes stop and Hrabal, who at one time shared his cottage with as many as twelve cats, delivers piercing accounts of animal suffering.
Long after nothing persists and the people are dead, after things are broken and scattered, the smells and tastes stay poised, every drop holding the vast structure of recollection.
unto thee i
the bowl crackles
upon the gloom arise purple pencils
fluent spires of fragrance
a flutter of stars
a turbulence of forms
delightful with indefinable flowering,
the air is
deep with desirable flowers
thou lovest incense
for in the ambiguous faint aspirings
the indolent frail ascensions,
of thy smile rises the immaculate
of thy low
hair flutter the level litanies
unto thee i burn
incense,over the dim smoke
straining my lips are vague with
ecstasy my palpitating breasts inhale the
of thy beauty,my heart discovers thee
A name only once
crammed into the child’s fitful memory
in malnourished villages,
vast deliriums like the galloping foothills of the Colorado:
of Mohawks and the Chippewa,
brought cheap at the tail of the war
to Africa. Where indeed is the Mississippi panorama
and the girl that played the piano and
kept her hand on her heart
as Flanagan drank a quart of moonshine
before the eyes of the town’s gentlemen?
What happened to your locomotive in Winter, Walt,
and my ride across the prairies in the trail
of the stage-coach, the gold-rush and the Swanee River?
Where did they bury Geronimo,
heroic chieftain, lonely horseman of this apocalypse
who led his tribesmen across deserts of cholla
and emerald hills
in pursuit of despoilers,
from a despoiled Europe?
What happened to Archibald’s
soul’s harvest on this raw earth
of raw hates?
To those that have none
a festival is preparing at graves’ ends
where the mockingbird’s hymn
closes evening of prayers
and supplication as
new winds blow from graves
flowered in multi-colored cemeteries even
where they say the races are intact.
A man builds a bridge. To his anxieties
of confinement and to the fear of falling
the bridge says, I will carry you there safely.
Not for themselves do the bridges proliferate
platform and arch, the reach of their weathered limbs,
but for the laden cart, the traveller with his dream.
The exquisite judgement of bridges! They reach up
and traverse space to touch the exact spot
where a sandal dismounting alights onto firm, dry land.
A bridge is all its particulars, though fashioned
of this wood or that, as a verse is its own text.
By such singular means our lives prosper.
Contradiction is flat. The wisdom of bridges
is to rise not against, but across. The adversary,
who was there first, is thereby allowed his place.
I dreamed of a hundred bridges. My dream itself
was a bridge, rising out of another place
to the edge of the waking world.