Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima and Vaclav Havel – why you simply must read these writers on Prague …
Bohumil Hrabal lived from the outbreak of the First World War until 1994 – five years after the fall of Communism, so he experienced many changes in his country. Some of his work could not be published under the Communist régime, including I Served the King of England which could only appear in samizdat form (1975) to begin with. I must admit to having watched the wonderful film of this novel before reading the book, but once I started reading Hrabal’s work I just wanted more and more of it. I think Too Loud a Solitude is my favourite.
But let’s start with I Served the King of England, probably his best-known work. It’s narrated by Ditie, a very small waiter (his name means ‘child’) who works in various Prague hotels and restaurants. Always with an eye to the main chance, he – unlike most of his compatriots – is happy to serve the Nazis when they take over. He even marries one – a German woman who, before being killed in an air-raid, provides Ditie with a case full of valuable postage stamps stolen from Jews. It is by this means that he acquires enough money to buy a hotel of his own, and pretty soon he’s a millionaire. But then come the Communists …
The pattern of the book could be expressed in two contrasting graphs – Ditie’s financial health expressed in a line that gradually rises, only to fall abruptly, while his moral health takes the opposite trajectory. And the little waiter’s story is entwined – like so much modern Czech fiction – with the story of his country. But this does not exclude charm, delight, and wonderfully vivid descriptions of the ‘thereness’ of life’s everyday details.
In an excellent introduction to I Served the King of England, Adam Thirlwell describes Hrabal’s ‘strange brand of storytelling‘ as being ‘bitter with irony, and buoyant with unreality.’ But, as with the seemingly ‘unreal’ tales of Kafka, there is a profound reality in all of it – though much more in the way of ordinary human joy than poor F.K. could muster.
Thirlwell also refers to Hrabal’s giving us ‘the illuminations inherent in the everday.’ This is particularly evident in my favourite Hrabal novel, Too Loud a Solitude (1976) whose narrator has spent thirty-five years as a paper compactor (one of the many humble trades of which Hrabal had experience, despite having qualified in law at Prague University.) As the waste paper arrives and he presses the buttons on his machine to compact the waste ready for collection, he occasionally rescues one of the many books to be destroyed and takes it home.
Other great works of European philosophy and literature he will open and stow in the centre of the compacted bales. But in the cellar where he works there are many, many mice – nests and nests of them and their babies. Most of these end up being compacted along with the paper, and it’s hard not to see this as a way of talking about what was visited upon the Jews of Europe. But if it were possible to reduce this complex and moving little book to a ‘subject’, one would have to say love and compassion.
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) is the monologue of a garrulous old cobbler entertaining an audience of young ladies. Appropriately, it’s written entirely without full stops or paragraph divisions, though there are plenty of other punctuation marks to indicate how it ‘sounds’. It’s a tumble of images and little narratives and character sketches, funny, earthy, touching, hilarious, tragic, but with the everyday energy of ordinary life transformed by a baroque imagination.
It’s like a suddenly animated version of a Breughel painting, while the unstoppable running of the old man’s narrative brings to mind the continual flow of water in Czech composer Smetana’s musical picture of Prague’s Vlatava river from his nationalist composition ‘My Fatherland’.
A must-watch film
The other key novel by Hrabal is Closely Observed Trains (1965), which draws on his experience of working as a railway linesman. Set during the period of Nazi Occupation, this short book is considered an absolute classic of postwar literature (and has been filmed). It has Hrabal’s trademark combination of humour and horror, cruelty and kindness, the poignant and the perverse, indignation and imagination. It was turned into a must-watch film in the sixties with some extraordinary cinematography. His short story collection, Mr Kafka and Other tales from the Time of the Cult (1965) are also a delight.
Although Milan Kundera (b. 1929) became a French citizen in 1981 and now writes in French, wishing his work to be categorised as ‘French literature’, it is difficult not to think of him as a Czech writer: his most famous novel – and the one which shot him to international fame – is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), which is very much a ‘Prague novel’ set against the background of the continuing Soviet presence.
A supporter of the reformed brand of Communism of the Prague Spring, Kundera eventually gave up his optimistic dreams and, by the mid 1970s, had moved to France. Despite having been involved in politics, he doesn’t regard his novels as being ‘political’ in any but the broadest sense. In the quintessentially post-modern The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Prague is very much a city of great personal and cultural potential trapped within a repressive regime and whose inhabitants are juggling conflicting identities. A film adaptation of it was made in 1988. (As far as I remember, there is a great deal more sex in the film than in the book … though I may be mistaken.)
Once very much the flavour of the month all over Europe, Kundera’s popularity has declined somewhat as his particular fictional mode has been eclipsed by different preferences on the part of readers.
One of my favourite contemporary Czech writers has to be Ivan Klíma (b. 1931) – widely honoured and much loved both at home and abroad, his work accessible but intelligent. By a miracle, he and his family survived their incarceration in the Theriesenstadt concentration camp. Living through that, and then the hope that initially seemed to come with Communism, followed by disillusion at the unforgivable repressions of the régime, Klíma came to focus on the values of personal integrity in the face of the world’s cruelties. I have particularly enjoyed No Saints or Angels (1999, translation 2001), set in post-Velvet Revolution Prague but uncovering a society still processing its recent history. It’s told in three voices, beginning with that of Kristyna, the mother of a troubled teenage daughter. Kristyna herself is the daughter of a mother grieving over the recent death of a husband whose obsessive allegiance to the Communist Party his daughter has not found easy to understand.
The country is still unravelling the truths and lies of its recent history, with people meticulously examining the now available archives that reveal who was and wasn’t an informer, and so on. Kristyna’s husband (she threw him out after countless infidelities) is dying of cancer, yet she finds enough compassion within herself to visit him and do what she can – though the book’s unforgettable opening contains something of her feelings about him!
I killed my husband last night. I used a dental drill to bore a hole in his skull. I waited to see if a dove would fly out but out came a big black crow instead.
It could perhaps be seen as an image for post-1989 Prague: prising a hole in its surface reveals its ‘contents’ not to be the hoped-for dove of peace and promise but all the dark matters symbolised by the big black crow. It’s an extraordinary novel in the way it deals with a particular place at a particular time but governed by a wisdom and humanity that rise above its specific circumstances.
I also recommend Klíma’s earlier novel, Love and Garbage (1986, translation 1990), in which a banned Czech writer finds employment with a team of Prague streeet-sweepers. Humour, grace, anguish and good story-telling. The narrator’s experiences are close to Klíma’s own, including the childhood years in a concentration camp. The technique of interweaving the outer world – cleaning the city’s streets with a vividly drawn collection of colleagues – with the inner world of memory, desire, and reflection makes for very rich reading. It also provides a valuable insight into life in Prague under Communist rule and a very physical sense of the city’s streets as the orange-clad cleaning team does its work:
It was getting on for nine o’clock and our orange procession was moving down Sinkulova Street towards the water tower. The street is cobbled and in the cracks along the kerb clumps of dandelions, plantains and all kinds of weeds had taken root.
A rich, deep, satisfying novel reaching far beyond the constrained political conditions under which it was written and which forms the background to its story. Read it for itself as well as for its ‘Pragueness’!
Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) embodies, more than anyone, the deep links between literature and politics in this part of the world. A dissident playwright and frequently imprisoned activist for freedom, he became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia after the collapse of Communism, and then the first president of the Czech Republic after its peaceful separation from Slovakia. We’re not generally dealing with dramatists in this book, but he’s someone who should be ‘on the radar’ of anyone looking at Czech literature. And his Summer Meditations (1992), written while he was president, provide a valuable insight into the period if you prefer non-fiction.
Click here to discover some wonderful earlier writers on Prague, including Franz Kafka. And for a taste of Prague history – you really can’t ‘get’ Czech writers without knowing a little about Prague’s past – check here.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.