BOOK REVIEW / Dotty scenes from a Bohemian rhapsody: 'The Little Town where Time Stood Still' - Bohumil Hrabal; trs James Naughton: Abacus, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT FEELS a lot like cinema, in its succession of highly visual tableaux. Mother out cycling, her six foot of hair flying behind her to the wonder of the neighbourhood. The great sausage-making scene which ends in blood-slinging hysteria. Father taking apart his motorbike and laying out all the bits. You get the genre. It's the European art-film called something like 'My Wonderful Childhood', not too much story, a time-portrait rather, revealed in glowing, self-contained set-pieces. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still is begging for such a treatment.

Now almost 80, Bohumil Hrabal enjoys a kind of 'grand old bloke' standing in Czech writing, selectively suppressed under Communism, and now, with its fall, very prodigally published. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still is the latest volume to arrive here, and consists of two separate but continuous stories, in effect fictionalised family memoirs. They were written for preservation's sake in the mid-1970s, when the author thought he was going to die.

The title piece, told in Hrabal's own voice, is preceded by Cutting it Short, which is his mother's story, told in hers (and refers to the fate of her tresses). Both play by the rules of memory rather than narrative, vivid incident overriding chronology and connection, to recapture a world we have lost, small-town life, and at its heart a family.

As with many families memorialised in semi-fiction, Hrabal's is highly characterful and a bit dotty - Mum with her wild free-spirits; Dad with his various obsessions, like an electric massage gadget, applying its 'fulgurational currents' to any willing body; and Grandpa who, at the smallest frustration, works himself into uncontrollable fury. But the family know how to assuage it: 'By this time Gran and Annie had hauled the old closet out of the shed and handed Grandpa an axe, and in a couple of minutes Grandpa had smashed the whole cupboard to smithereens, at which point he sank into an armchair . . .' And they gather up the pieces for firewood.

Funny, sure, and there are plenty of such great stories. But this dottiness has to be kept sturdy and reasonably genial (a suspicion that it might signify inner wretchedness would bring the whole show down). Therefore psychology is purged. People behave 'just so'. It lends a quasi-heroic air, which is nice, up to the point where you realise that that's the deal: a surfeit of character-exploit.

And what's on offer most of all is Uncle Pepin. Ah, Uncle Pepin - unruly, disgraceful, randy, poetical Uncle Pepin, who came for a week and stayed for ever, the very embodiment of earthy, anarchic hilarity, the book's star-turn and a figure whose appearances one begins to dread. For we know that, yet again, Uncle will be on a spree, in a scrape, or at the centre of some scene in which the whole company is set to laughing till the tears run down their cheeks - though not, I suspect, down the reader's. The author's garrulous raconteurship usually succeeds in neutralising his wealth of comic material.

Uncle Pepin eventually goes into a decline, which one is heartily glad of. Something at any rate has happened. (The arrival of Communism is even more welcome.) Of course, it is in the nature of the idyll that nothing substantial can occur: events are typical, not developmental. But one would need to be very susceptible to other people's family feelings not to wish time was moving on. Wait for the movie, anyway.

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