Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lit Matters: The fantastic humanity of Bohumil Hrabal

July 24, 2015 by Keagan Hawthorne, contributing writer


“I was always lucky in my bad luck,” quipped Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech writer famous for his lovable characters and raucous plots.

In his novels, a wastepaper compacter quotes philosophy, a man narrates a whole book in a single sentence, and an innocent, clumsy young train-station attendant manages to blow up a Nazi munitions train, but only after he loses his virginity.

Hrabal’s characters are always well-meaning fringe dwellers, like eccentric uncles who come for a fortnight and stay for fourteen years, or misbehaving housewives who scandalize small towns. His hallmark style comes with a distinctive raconteur’s flair. Hrabal, who had a law degree, laboured for many years at odd jobs (from salesman to stagehand), taking inspiration from the real-life characters that surrounded him.

Later in life he, famously, found his inspiration while drinking beer in the Golden Tiger Pub, where he spent most of his time when not writing and where he once shared a pint with then-president Bill Clinton.

Part of his comic genius lay in his penchant for unexpected turns of phrase. “No book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep,” he said with characteristic humour, “it’s meant to make you jump out of your bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out.”

But beneath the humour lay a mastery of craft and a love of literature and ideas that was forged during the oppression of mid-century dictatorship. His irreverence towards stolid institutionalism earned him the attention of the communist censors, and many of his books were banned in Czechoslovakia, appearing only in underground samizdat publications or printed, in translation, abroad.

The incredible human warmth and outlandish foibles of the people who populate his novelsŃpresented with loving detailŃwas a conscious reaction against the cold, faceless concrete of dictatorship and censorship.

Hrabal reminds us that, however flawed we each may be, we can have a lot of fun if we remember our humanity.

Bohumil Hrabal must-read:
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still
(GVPL Emily Carr Branch, Adult Fiction)

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