BOOK REVIEW / A boss too decent for class struggle: 'The Little Town Where Time Stood Still' - Bohumil Hrabal; Tr. James Naughton: Abacus, 8.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE afterword to this duet of stories from a Bohemian backwater, Bohumil Hrabal tells the reader that he wrote the book in 1973 'when illness was in the offing'. Hrabal had commissioned a series of three photographs in Prague's Letna cemetery: his own portrait in front of tombstones, then one of his head and shoulders protruding from a newly dug grave, and a third of the plot filled in and deserted, as if he had slowly been subsumed by the earth. But 20 years on, Hrabal is still above ground and heading for octogenarian status, shuttling between his country cottage at Kersko, overrun by weeds and cats, and his drinking haunt in Prague's old town. Drinking and writing have always been firm friends for Hrabal; now the former has taken precedence. Hrabal is sitting back and watching as books which were published irregularly in Czechoslovakia and remained untranslated are filtering out at home and abroad.

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still could stand as a generic heading for all of Hrabal's writings. It sways close to cuteness and picture book prettiness, but it locates his interests exactly. Although he only became known in the Sixties, when his novel Closely Observed Trains was filmed, his preoccupations lie in an earlier, pre-war Czech republic, and before that in the tail-end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hrabal works in the tradition of Jaroslav Hasek and has little in common with Kundera, Vaculik, Skvorecky, modern Czech literature as seen from the West. His subject is country life, not national life; politics is treated obliquely, as strange an intruder as the wireless or a new car.

Hrabal himself seems to have avoided political tangles. Unpublished after the Soviet invasion of 1968, he issued a vaguely worded retraction in 1975, covering unspecified misdemeanours, and allowed his work to be published officially in censored versions. At the same time, unedited copies appeared in samizdat. In that particularly dark period, when Communist 'normalisation' had taken full effect and Charter 77 was still unborn, Hrabal was having his ideological cake and eating it.

He always defended himself by saying his first responsibility was towards his readers, that he had to make his work as available as possible, and later he reflected: 'I am my only bad conscience.' It was a position of resignation, making the best of a tight situation when there was no prospect of change. Now the bookshops of Prague are full of Hrabal's stories, with their distended tales, logical doubling back and slangy neologisms, packed into glorious page-long sentences that can hardly bear to put an end to the fun with a full-stop.

This book begins with a shorter novella, Cutting it Short, in which Maryska introduces her husband Francin, the brewery manager, his brother, Uncle Pepin, who only came to stay for a fortnight but never left, and her amber hair, as long as herself. 'Thousands of little tiny fireflies, the crackling of thousands of tiny amber beads', her tresses leave the subdued Francin speechless on a daily basis. They stream out behind her bicycle, summon the fire brigade from the top of the brewery chimney, and purr under the electric massaging machine her husband brings back all the way from Prague.

If Maryska gives Hrabal his colour, Uncle Pepin brings the zest. A veteran of Colonel von Wucherer's regiment in the Imperial Austrian Army (and, in an otherwise excellent translation, given an improbable and erratic Scottish accent), Pepin is the kind of uncle who simultaneously delights and appals, mastering all situations with triumphant battle cries: 'Victorious again] Your Austrian Sodger always shows his mettle]' His brother deprecates his heartiness as much as his penchant for local taverns 'with ladies' service', where the waitresses dote on Pepin, his songs and his recitations from Mr Batista's Marital Handbook.

Francin prefers to devote his time to stripping down his Orion motorbike. With the plea, 'Hold a lock-nut for me, just for an hour', he occupies most of the village men in turn for an entire Saturday night of oily agony, leading, on occasion, to divorce by disbelieving wives. Only when a newly renovated lorry stalls in front of a military gun salute, with hilariously disastrous consequences, does Francin abate his tinkering. By that time, the war has been and gone, Maryska has cut off her hair (and, without that adjunct, fallen out of the story). Francin has been dismissed from the brewery by the new forces of the proletariat, criticised by the workers' committee for being too decent a boss and so blunting the class struggle, and Uncle Pepin is dying.

Hrabal's particular wizardry is with crashing, gushing floods of description, telling a thing seven ways more than is necessary but without dulling the language to superfluity. Pepin, Maryska, Francin, Dr Gruntorad, the brewery chairman, Mr Lozja, the unscrupulous tatooist all make the most of life by talking about it as they go.

The outside world occasionally looks in - Uncle Pepin narrowly escapes arrest for dancing on the evening that the Reichsprotector Heydrich is assassinated by Czech partisans - and in the slothful Communist years, 'time stood still' takes on a different connotation. Even in a town where nothing happens, Hrabal's meticulous and exuberant fascination with the human voice insists that, as long as there's still breath in a body, life is endlessly eventful.