As I mentioned in my review of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel “Harlequin’s Millions”, also a contender for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, Hrabal is considered, by many, to be one of the best Czech writers of the 20thcentury. “Harelquin’s Millions” was a runner up in this year’s Award with the judges mentioning “the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences”. The work I review today is a collection of short stories, nineteen in all, published by Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press.
The book contains an afterword by Vaclac Kadlec and “Translator’s Notes” by David Short where the history of these stories and the lyricism and challenges of translation are explained. Our stories are from the 1970’s and it is actually his last collection of short stories. A number of these stories were omitted from the original publication with a number of them also reworked. Submitted in early 1975 it was three years before the book finally appeared. In this edition we are told the published have “sought to preserve the author’s original intention” with the omitted works included and a further two removed along with a 1972 story, “The Maid of Honour” included.
Our work begins with “The St Bernard Inn”, a tale of a dream to take over the local inn, serve local food, furnish the place in style, but it is told via the story of a St Bernard sitting on the patio. Welcome to the rural world of Bohumil Hrabal and more specifically the Kersko Forest. In fact our book contains a map of the region so we can refer to the region where the tales take place.
“A Moonlit Night” brings the local police commandant into our world, telling us of his keeping law and order by letting down bike tyres of drunken citizens:
And then he took himself off with his bike, meek and barely able to walk, it wasn’t just his tyre I’d let down, but his soul, too, and that’s how it should be, when I’m on duty I don’t know even my own brother, I once fined my son for parking in the wrong place, and though he hasn’t spoken to me since, I’m quite happy talking to myself and the Moon, the Moon hanging up there in the sky, I talk to the pine trees when they let out their smell, these are my friends, and I can tell that ditches and streams and ponds are my friends, I don’t care for others any more, I don’t want to know them. I’m a loner. So I sat down, the Moon sat on my lap like some girl or other, I held out my arms and the moon-light licked my hands like a kitten, or a police dog.
Our stories reveal the characters of Kersko , their intricate details, their fears and their idiocyracies. “Mr Methie” is a story about a man who collects worthless bargains, like pairs of shoes with two left feet “Not buy a thing when it’s a real bargain?” A book where we revisit the place “where time stands still”.
“A Feral Cow” tells of a stray dog who had taken up home in a dairy barn and as the dog is causing problems it is shot, frightening a cow, who escapes into the forest. The local law enforcement officer (our narrator in this tale) decides to hunt the now feral cow:
I’ll call the hunters together, because I’m one too, a fully paid-up member of the hunt, and we’ll shoot the cow, having tracked it down first, because a feral cow might start attacking people and man is the measure of all things, not only notionally, but also for real, and doubly so in our own time, when all other comrades and I, we guard the substance of socialism against the foe, even if that foe turns out to be a feral cow.
A collection which is a scathing attack on communism, the struggle of the locals, all told though through simple tales, with only a smattering of the daily problems, written in a serious tone but dripping with sarcasm.
We have recurring characters, we have the recurring theme of meeting at the local inn or pub for a drink (or twenty) and the comraderie of the region, the care called Kersko:
Kersko Forest is so deep that, as legendary Czech wrestler Gustav Frištenský tells us, a black member of his professional Graeco-Roman group got lost in it and Frištenský never saw him again, as he says in his Memoirs.
Our characters are all full of life, including wheelchair bound friends who celebrate the mundane but don’t take offense when refused entry into the pub, we have Hungarian salamis that can’t be left long enough to fine as they are consumed too quickly, wild boar hunting, goulash, innumerable pork slaughters and dishes:
From six o’clock onwards the sole pre-occupation of any true man of Kersko and its forests is to spend a pleasant evening over a pint in the pub, and all the banter and chit-chat, the arguments and imbecilities are a brilliant way to unwind from our daily tribulations, so our serenity is fully restored and as we cycle home at night we’re on a par with a newborn child, though that only on the assumption that mine host has been good to us.
Generally the stories are a single paragraph, although twenty odd pages in length, and the traditional long winding sentences remain. At times I did find the translation a little clunky (“I was sitting by an open window, deeply engrossed and without not a single reason to be doing anything..”), however the notes at the end of the book did assist explaining Hrabal’s regular use of invented words, love of alliteration, and other idiosyncrasies which could explain the ‘stop/check/re-read/check/give up’ reading I had at times.
It is also a patchy collection with the later works being very experimental in style and having a preoccupation with the writer’s own death. I much preferred the earlier stories of simple characters and interactions in the inns, rather than the mythical chasing of women on bicycles with fake diamond pedals, muses with white felt hats and no teeth leaving a doorstep as a gift.
Our book is also beautifully bound, includes a vast collection of colour illustrations by Jiri Grus. Enjoyable, a tad patchy, a large number of gems but a few unpolished rocks, all in all a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, but not as strong as Hrabal’s other book on the list, nor am I outraged that it didn’t make the shortlist.