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, a wastepaper compactor, and a theater stagehand. “The bleak, coarse side of reality came whooshing toward me,” he wrote of his younger days, “blinding me like a blizzard. And I, instead of dreaming and reflecting, I took a great liking to reality just as it was.”

The Gentle Barbarian, a semi-autobiographical essay-novel originally written in 1973 and available now in the United States in English for the first time, in a translation by Paul Wilson, follows Hrabal, Boudník, and Bondy as they drink Pilsner, make art, wander Prague, and avoid the secret police through the 1950s and ’60s. The book centers on Boudník, the titular gentle barbarian. Hrabal had been asked to write something as part of a collection to mark the fifth anniversary of Boudník’s death and celebrate what would have been his fiftieth birthday. Hrabal says he just kept going until he had these hundred-plus pages. The memories unwind as if Hrabal was trying to get everything down at once, to pay homage to a friend by topping each outlandish story with one more outlandish.

Hrabal has a reputation, self-made and otherwise, as a large-hearted soul who spent most of his time in pubs, drinking beer and eagerly listening and watching for the material to transmute into his popular tales. This image is not necessarily caricature: the adjective “wide-eyed,” so often a pejorative, describes both the rigor and effect of his best work. Hrabal’s capacity for simultaneous wonder and attentiveness—for a cold shrewdness matched by overflowing sympathy—is his most astonishing quality as a writer. Jiří Pelán, in his generous and illuminating literary biography of Hrabal (also recently made available in English), remarks that Hrabal “was surprisingly systematic whenever he touched upon traumatic moments in Czech history.” Hrabal’s unconventional method arises from his programmatic commitment to inefficient and intuitive ways of working, playing, and thinking, the better to collect and describe the debris of life.

Hrabal’s portrait of Boudník exemplifies this process. Boudník lived by an intense, life-swallowing philosophy of art-making he called “Explosionalism,” a one-man movement that involved, among so much else, “finishing” what one could already see in everyday materials. In its simplest form: if a crack in a wall reminds you of a tree trunk, draw in the branches. (“Look around you!” he wrote in his first Explosionalist manifesto. “At the grimy wall, marble, wood grain . . . what you see is your interiority.”) Inspiration was to be found in the sensory world. He spread his message through street lectures and bizarre demonstrations that veered toward what Allan Kaprow was calling “happenings” in the United States. Boudník relished the way his work as a lathe operator complemented his convictions: “When I whip up my graphics from all that debris on the factory floor, it’s a short leap from there to the highest impulses of my soul. Ha ha!”

Boudník was tall, handsome, charismatic, and something of a maniac. He whispered advice on art-making to sleeping houseguests “as if beseeching them while rhythmically waving my hatchet over them,” Hrabal recalls. He threw his beloved wedding ring out the train window just to revel in the sadness of loss. Hrabal, who considered himself shy and fearful, with hang-ups about meeting the standards set by the literary greats, envied this man who recognized no influence or artistic parenthood beyond the material world. “All the vices of the age,” writes Hrabal,

flowed through Vladimír: a fondness for mischief and play-acting, pathological anger, pet peeves, playing the fool and the imbecile, dogmatism, romantic melancholy and dreaminess, a hatred of neckties, a fondness for posters and banners (he loved being the flag-bearer in parades), intolerance, contempt for intellectuals, humility, delusions of grandeur, a taste for obscenity, backyard gossip, hysteria, tetchiness, narcissism, sentimentality, paranoia.

Boudník provided an example to Hrabal of how living outside the strictures of society could give one a better position to observe it.

Born in 1914, Hrabal grew up in a small village where his stepfather managed a brewery. He did poorly in school but had a knack for collecting amusing stories. He studied law at Charles University, but the Nazis interrupted his schooling. He later completed his degree but never practiced law, hence the ironic honorific “Doctor.” By the 1940s, Hrabal was sharing his writing at small readings in Prague. In 1959, he nearly had a story collection published, but the Soviet censors reversed their decision a week before the book’s release. His writings, though not political in origin, were strange perversions of socialist realism. They had realism, but in the wrong places, and uplift, but lifting up to what?

Mass publication eluded him until 1963, when relaxing censorship standards allowed the release of his first collection, Pearls of the Deep. It became a best-seller, and Hrabal a sudden literary star in Czechoslovakia. He was already forty-nine years old. Two celebrated late-modernist novels, Closely Watched Trains and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, followed in the mid-1960s among other story collections. As the cultural thaw continued, Hrabal worked quickly to edit and repurpose old material for publication. A film adaptation of Closely Watched Trains, directed by the Czech New Wave filmmaker Jiří Menzel from a script developed with Hrabal, won Best Foreign Language Film at the 1968 Oscars. At the height of the Prague Spring, Hrabal’s status as an oppositional and innovative prose writer of the emerging culture seemed secure.

But the period known as “normalization” that followed Soviet occupation attempted to erase recent reforms and effectively eliminate the years from 1963 to 1968 from public life. The “displaced planet was returned to its old orbit,” the Czech political commentator Milan Šimečka wrote. A smug and mediocre official culture sprang up overnight. Nearly all members of the literary and oppositional political culture found themselves liquidated from working in the arts, journalism, or academia. Hrabal was once again unpublishable. Copies of his 1970 novel Buds, already printed and awaiting release, were pulped. Like all of his peers, he was harassed by the secret police.

Under these conditions, Hrabal wrote even more quickly. (I Served the King of England, perhaps his most celebrated novel, was written in eighteen days in 1971, with minimal edits.) He continued to mine his past and his nation’s, still in exaggerated detail, though with more nostalgia. By 1973, underground presses in Prague began to publish liquidated writers in hand-typed editions that were passed from person to person. It’s in this samizdat form that The Gentle Barbarian first appeared in 1974, when Hrabal himself bound and distributed five copies. The writer Ludvík Vaculík’s makeshift imprint, Edice Petlice, soon added twenty more, and future president Václav Havel’s Edice Expedice released its own copies. Many of these first readers would have been those who were connected to the emerging dissident culture in Prague, some of whom would have known Boudník personally.

As Jonathan Bolton shows in Worlds of Dissent, his excellent overview of Czech politics and the everyday reality of resistance during this period, because of harsh parasitism laws, liquidated workers had to perform all kinds of odd jobs, and often the easiest to find were in manual labor: the ousted individuals sweated in boiler rooms, operated heavy machinery, and delivered baked goods. Milan Jungmann, former editor of the influential magazine Literární noviny, washed windows; playwright Havel rolled barrels in a brewery. Hrabal’s portrait of the two preceding decades, with its tales of factory labor, artistic ambition, and lurking secret police, would have looked like a funhouse mirror version of the 1970s to these readers.

Hrabal’s Boudník is Christlike: He can transform ideas, objects, and feelings into their opposites. He bears stigmata from his work with metals. He is “always on the point of giving up the ghost, but only in order to rise from the dead, grow young again, renew the strength to break through walls with his head, to push through to the other side.” According to Pelán, The Gentle Barbarian in its formal structure often reads like a Dionysian twist on the Gospels: Boudník does or says something outlandish, Hrabal repeats it to Bondy, and Bondy, here caricatured as someone lost in the world of thought, reaffirms Boudník’s uniqueness and greatness in the world of action. Hrabal and Bondy are mere disciples who survive to interpret and promote the prophecy.

Hrabal’s comfort with violence and moving between life and death is also biblical, and it gives many of the anecdotes a sickening edge. To psych himself up for a date with a young woman from the Čimice district of outer Prague, Boudník sets the drop hammer at the steelworks to fall just above his nose. He lies down with his head in the machine, and a coworker hits the release.

Later, at twilight, as he walked with her along the Čimice road, he undid his tie, attached it firmly to the bough of an apple tree, then quickly wound it around his neck and partially hung himself, while the girl fled home through the gathering dark. Next day, Vladimír came back to the same grove of trees near Čimice, where his tie was still hanging from the branch, and he re-enacted his profession of love while a photographer took a picture of him with his tongue hanging out.

The book is full of stories like this. (If you find the energy here to be a little too mad lad, an antidote can be found in Hrabal’s trilogy of autobiographical novels, which are told from his wife Eliška’s perspective.) But this one is particularly grim: the reader already knows from the book’s first few pages that Boudník died in early December 1968, having tied one end of a rope around his neck and the other around a doorknob. Apparently, auto-asphyxiation was a game of his. Elsewhere in the book, he lectures on its benefits in front of another man with the same predilection, who soon afterward dies in the same manner. On his last day, Boudník simply figured that someone would arrive before his death, “but this time,” Hrabal writes, “no human hand, as it always had in the past, arrived to offer help.”

The critic Becca Rothfeld has noted that in Hrabal’s fictions, “characters share with slapstick comics a strange invulnerability,” playing with death and surviving. In The Gentle Barbarian, Hrabal cannot ignore Boudník’s mortality, just as the reader cannot ignore that the protagonist loses his game with death at the end of a momentous year. Boudník’s hanging, on the eve of normalization, seems no less a coincidence than when the tanks rolled into Prague on his wedding day. Czech samizdat readers at the time may have sensed an implicit analogy, though Hrabal, as a rule, said his only commitment in his writing was to evoke “delight, bliss, longing.” His pábení style was his “defense against politics.”

Those familiar with Hrabal’s biography might be tempted to make another comparison. His own death is one of the most mythologized parts of his biography. In 1997, at the age of eighty-two, Hrabal fell from a fifth-floor window of Bulovka University Hospital in Prague, apparently while trying to feed pigeons. He was ailing, old, and lonely, and he had placed a number of images of people falling from fifth-floor windows—initially a reference to an entry in Kafka’s diary—in his fiction and essays. That morning he had told his doctor that a favorite poet, buried in the cemetery visible from his hospital room, had beckoned to him. Later, it impressed the doctor that Hrabal had found the strength to get out of bed and build a stool of books to reach the window. Who can really say? There is an inevitable frisson in reading about Hrabal’s death, because he is a writer of death’s aesthetics. The image of his death—brutal, pure, slippery—seems willed by his own imagination. It’s suspiciously neat, like a perfect murder.

To secure stable meaning from either Hrabal’s or Boudník’s death would be a disservice. Hrabal found value in concreteness and in rendering it with a garrulous flourish, and he didn’t feel the need to provide answers for the uneasy feelings his juxtapositions sometimes created. (Many one-star Amazon reviews of Hrabal’s All My Cats register shock and anger that this memoir about love for felines includes so much violence done unto them. One reviewer calls the book an “excellent blueprint for serial killers in training.”) Sometimes, to play up his aversion to definitive meanings, Hrabal coyly labeled himself a “recorder” instead of a writer. In an interview he applied the characterization to Kafka, too. “Up to World War II hardly anyone knew Kafka,” he said. “Anyone reading The Trial or The Castle would have their work cut out for them to plough through all those symbols, but it took the arrival of the Wehrmacht, the annihilation of the Jews, the concentration camps, to cause the symbolic and transcendental Castle or The Trial to become simply reportage. Or a vision?”

The Gentle Barbarian’s most potent symbols arise not only from the Boudník-Hrabal-Bondy trio but from the incessant intrusion of small stories about Prague. Hrabal has Gogol’s gift for secondary characters, and a wide variety of Czech persons parade onto these pages, say their piece, and leave. Who can forget Mr. Kopič, the soccer player turned train engineer, who saw a father drag his son in front of his moving train? “He’d seen the son struggling to escape, but the father was stronger, like Abraham when he was about to sacrifice his son Jacob, except that God reprieved Abraham at the last minute, whereas the easygoing Mr. Kopič, though he applied the brakes, ran over the father and son, and all he saw was their legs flopping about. The tale moved Vladimír to tears,” Hrabal writes. If his prose approaches anything like a vision of reportage, it’s in the profusion of such stories throughout The Gentle Barbarian and his contemporaneous works, the plots of which amount, as the 1970s progress, to little more than the flow of time in Czechoslovakia.

Given normalization’s goal to smooth out time’s bumps, Hrabal’s narratives, which teem with unheralded lives and histories, are a form of agitation in themselves. His works from the early 1970s all conform to this pattern: begin at a moment in the recent Czech past and hurtle forward toward the present, risking sentimentality to speak lyrically about what could easily have been forgotten. These reflections, though rose-tinted, are anything but sanitized or easy to totalize. Tale after tale, blurred dreamily by an alla prima writing method, lull the reader so they may miss how the years pass—or regimes rise and fall—until a fraternal army interrupts a wedding. This is a line of thinking that extends beyond the official version of the present. The Gentle Barbarian, an opportunity to lament a dead friend and an important artistic inspiration, is also an opportunity to scatter conventional political markers of eras while daring to hint at a relationship between the new repressions of an occupying government and death finally catching up to a proud, gleeful artist.

This creative foregrounding of everyday myths may explain why, though he was no dissident himself, Hrabal was so lauded by many major figures of the dissident movement. (The novelist Ivan Klíma called him “the most remarkable Czech prose writer”; Havel even tried to cook the impossible meal served to the emperor of Ethiopia in I Served the King of England, minus the camel.) Though a clear friend of oppositional causes, Hrabal didn’t organize or participate in the post-1968 cultural networks beyond publishing in samizdat. He didn’t sign Charter 77, the catalyzing human rights declaration to the Soviets, when the time came. He spent much of his time in pubs or his cottage in Kersko. His remove from politics didn’t necessarily protect him; a birthday party at a pub near his cottage was broken up by secret police when a reform-era Communist official attended. Mortality was facing him in a more ordinary way, too: He underwent painful gallbladder surgery. He turned sixty. In 1975, an interview with Hrabal appeared in the state-sanctioned literary magazine Tvorba, in which he gave lip-service support for the government to unnamed interlocutors. The words didn’t sound like Hrabal, and he says he never wrote or said them. It’s easy to imagine secret police cowing him into signing off. He was exceedingly scared of them, as he drives home again and again in his autobiographical trilogy of novels and in his correspondence in Total Fears: Selected Letters to Dubenka.

Despite the hopes of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, no other writer followed Hrabal’s lead. His state-sanctioned works all featured key, corrupting redactions and images changed or excised, while he continued to publish many of the uncensored versions as samizdat. He was perhaps the only writer to enjoy both official and unofficial publication within the country. Up until the Velvet Revolution, secret police continued to invite him into their offices, sit him down with dark politeness, and ask about these latest, strange works available underground. In those meetings, Hrabal may have remembered Boudník, who once suffered an all-night interrogation after landscape painting in the countryside. The officials were worried, Boudník complained, that “with a little imagination, beyond that stand of trees, beyond those bright tree-trunks, you can see the Kladno steel mills, and if our painting were to fall into enemy hands, they’d know their exact location.” A little imagination, applied to reality, risks becoming a report, or a vision. It’s also one way, Hrabal showed, of defining death.

Matt Weir is a writer based in New York.

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