A Friend to the Dissidents

A Friend to the Dissidents

The late Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal said his style was a “defense against politics.” But by collecting and describing the debris of life, he made the everyday seem mythic and earned the affection of the dissident movement.

Bohumil Hrabal in 1995 (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

On the night of August 20, 1968, neighbors woke the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal and his wife, Eliška Plevová, to tell them that the Soviet Union was invading. Already their occupiers, the Soviets were now coming to put an end to the reforms of the Prague Spring. By morning, planes were flying low overhead, and soldiers and tanks filled the streets. One tank pointed its cannon directly at the offices of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers in Wenceslas Square. Hrabal, however, was eager to fulfill his duties as the best man at the wedding of his friend, the graphic artist Vladimír Boudník, in nearby Český Krumlov. “I set out in my car,” Hrabal writes in The Gentle Barbarian, “but I couldn’t get out of Prague, either through the city centre, or by using back routes, because the fraternal armies had arrived to liquidate something that was not there.” So he returned home, tried to attend a gallery show on modern American art (sorry, closed), and later relayed his troubles to his and Boudník’s mutual friend, the writer and philosopher Egon Bondy. Bondy, who called Hrabal by his nickname, Doctor, explodes in a frenzy of jealousy and admiration for Boudník:

Goddamn it! That Vladimír! Will I ever have the good fortune to have so many armies set in motion because I’m getting married? The only thing that beautiful, Doctor, was when you took my greetings to Rudi Dutschke, and you went into his apartment building just as they were carrying him out after he was shot in the head. But mobilizing five armies just to stop a wedding, that’s something I’ll never fathom. Why? Because Vladimír has always attracted great events and great misfortune. That’s just how it is. Goddamn it! What amazing luck the man has!

This foolish exuberance for life and its endless variety, modern American art and lurid despotic violence alike, is characteristic of the Hrabalian universe, as is the offhand, jarring mention of the attempted assassination of Dutschke, a leftist student leader in Germany. In Hrabal’s writings, history is a portentous, dynamic background, the slaughter bench on which rests the well-told tale. Hrabal, one of the most celebrated figures of postwar Czech literature, recorded Czechoslovakia’s twentieth century in a gregarious, wandering, pub-chattering style often called pábení (translated by writer Josef Škvorecký as “palavering”), which melded a conversational rhythm to arresting images at society’s periphery. He read widely of the surrealists, nineteenth-century German thought, the Beats, and much else, but he liked to say he found his greatest aesthetic inspiration in his material circumstances, shaped for much of his adult life by Nazi and Soviet occupiers and the restrictions they imposed on his ability to live and work. Before making his living by writing, Hrabal had been a train dispatcher, an insurance agent, a steelworker...