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On Flying Objects, By Emil Hakl


The past few weeks have seen the deaths of two leading Czech writers whose work steered offbeat and ironic paths through the monstrous follies of Stalinist dictatorship: Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president, and Josef Skvorecky, the dissident novelist and publisher. Of their post-revolution heirs, we hear too little in this country. Born in 1958, a cult figure in Prague, Emil Hakl deserves a wider readership abroad – although these bleakly comic, achingly melancholic short stories might do little for the Czech tourist trade.

Czech writers routinely object to being labelled "post-Communist", even though in one story here the narrator refers to the shabby afterlife of those "tin ideals, painted in screaming colours" that always end with someone "standing on a chair with a noose around his neck". They often trace their mordant humour and metaphysical absurdity back to a great forerunner, Bohumil Hrabal: the beloved pub philosopher of Prague. In Of Kids and Parents, Hakl took readers on a Hrabal-esque bar crawl as tipsily confused blokes sought to wring sense from personal and political setbacks.

These stories are also told, often through an alcohol-fuelled haze, by the sort of bohemian Bohemian who staggers from job to job, affair to affair, pub to pub, as youth fades and a grey future beckons. They wend unsteadily through a bashed-about Prague that has more in common with Irvine Welsh's Edinburgh than the stage-set visited by tourists.

Lonely men and women meet, drink, screw, often faintly nostalgic for the old days of good beer and terrible bureaucracy. A tangled connection between violence and masculinity lurks in the background, made explicit in the only story with a female narrator, "Two Days in the Life of Eva F", with its sinister Deliverance-style atmosphere of hillbilly menaces and supernatural chills during a hiking trip to Croatia.

Yet Hakl's downbeat humour never flags, often tied to flashes of lyricism. Co-translators Petr Kopet and Karen Reppin capture the tarnished tenderness of these superfluous men as, inevitable as winter twilights or morning hangovers, "Sadness arrived, the king of all emotions".