This Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most significant Czech authors, Bohumil Hrabal, who died in 1997. Events commemorating the author of Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England, are being held at venues around the country. I took the opportunity to discuss Hrabal’s life and work with Jakub Chrobák, a professor and specialist on Czech literature at the Silesian University in Opava.
“It is really both. Hrabal noticed or created characters who were at the bottom, the little man but not quite like Hašek’s Švejk. It was more someone who was on the periphery of society, but had not yet given up on life. Someone almost crushed under the boot of fate but is doing what was left to them: shouting at the top of their lungs. His characters can behave in a crazy fashion but at the same time they are understandable to us. Then there is the language: Hrabal understood how rich language was in its possibilities and meaning.”
The author was fascinated with individuals pushed to the periphery when he first began writing in the early 1950s, a period of heavy Stalinist oppression. The Surrealists but also authors such as Joyce were also an inspiration, and eventually in his work Hrabal worked towards the “long sentence” – dropping punctuation and letting words flow on the page. Jakub Chrobák again:
“How sentences follow or flow one after another, create a remarkable tension and perhaps it is the flow of thoughts as you’d have them at the pub or tram, untethered and unprepared, thrown together, that is the closest, metaphorically-speaking, to life.
Among the authors greatest works are Too Loud a Solitude and I Served the King of England, both written in the 1970s, the period of so-called Normalisation that followed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hrabal had been officially banned but wrote both I Served the King of England, about the peripatetic experiences and exploits of Dítě, and Too Loud a Solitude then. Jakub Chrobák suggests that it was a shift away from the limelight, paradoxically during an unpleasant period of censorship, which helped the author write his masterworks. Professor Jakub Chrobák:
“The years from 1969 up until 1976 were very productive for him. It was the period when he wrote I Served the King of England, and Too Loud a Solitude. In ordinary walks and quiet visits to the pub - not in literary evenings and intellectual discussions – he found solitude again and was consequently able write some of his most remarkable work.”