Obituary: Bohumil Hrabal

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The Independent Online
Bohumil Hrabal was one of that dying breed, the cafe scribbler, like Naguib Mafouz in his Cairo cafe, alert to chatter, jokes, character, the very stuff of fiction.

He was a haunter of taverns and beer parlours. He tramped the streets of Prague, from one beer to another, until he ended the day at the Golden Tiger, where a table was always reserved for him and his friends, many of whom became characters in his novels.

On a trip he made to Paris in 1995 to promote the French translation of The Millions of Arlequin (1981), he visited La Coupole in Montparnasse. Hrabal - "Bohusek" to his familiars - was sporting his tweed hunting cap, its peak to the back, a style he adopted long before hip-hop baseball caps. He looked like a train driver's mate or the local plumber come to fix the bidet. He reminded me of a teddy bear with a sore head. From the way he greeted everyone on arrival, he was clearly the most amiable and sociable of writers.

The simplest authors are often the most difficult to define. Hrabal's works are formally innovative, yet accessible to everyone. He liked to tell stories about everyday events and ordinary people. Vaclav Havel said of him: "Bohusek is an ordinary man who writes, and not a writer who lives like an ordinary man." But his is a deceptive simplicity, an art that conceals art. He makes the ordinary curiously extraordinary, seething with a hidden life that can be both comical and frightening. His scores of works all depend on the common man's experiences, and on popular art which Hrabal claimed is the lifeblood of all art.

He belongs to the great tradition of grotesquely funny fantasists writing in Czech, not in the German of the country's two literary giants, Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. The main influences on Hrabal's work were Jaroslav Hasek, creator of The Good Soldier Schweyk, a masterpiece on the folly of being a soldier; Karel Capek, inventor of the mechanical workman we now know as a robot; and a legendary contemporary of Kafka, the unpredictable, self- destructive genius Ladislav Klima, a master of baroque fantasy and gothic horror deriving from Gustav Meyrink's The Golem.

Hrabal's life was almost entirely spent in his native land, where he praised Prague as the most wondrous city in the world. He was born in the quaint Moravian city of Brno, but spent a rapturous (and occasionally tipsy) childhood at Nymburk, in a brasserie where he first developed a throat for beer. He studied law at the Charles University in Prague, but his attendance was interrupted by the Nazi invasion and he did not take his doctorate until 1946. He never practised law, but worked as a railway station master, insurance agent, travelling salesman, steel foundry worker, machine-minder at a book pulping plant, stage-hand and extra until 1962, when he decided to become a full-time writer. All those erratic occupations and wanderings provided rich material for his work. From his experiences at the vast steel foundries at Kladno, he wrote Skylarks on a Wire, made into a film by Jiri Menzel in 1969, but banned from public showing until 1989. It won the Golden Bear Award at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival.

Hrabal had encountered Menzel while doing odd jobs in the theatre, and collaborated with him several times. The writer's wry view of human follies and fixations was perfectly reflected in the films of his fellow-spirit, beginning in 1963 with episodes from early short stories like The Death of Mr Balthazar in 1965. Then came the Hrabal/Manzel first masterpiece Closely Watched Trains (1966) which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Menzel, like Hrabal always conscious of the innate absurdity of human behaviour, plays the scenario lightly with deft touches of brisk irony, cruel derision, caricature, tender humour, adolescent eroticism and charming poetic effects in always surprising glimpses of deadpan reality in a small provincial railway station. The chief characters - a demented stationmaster infatuated with the ticket collector on a passing train, a youth who is all a-bubble with anarchic adolescent sexuality and whose frustrations drive him to sabotage and death, and the older workman who rubber-stamps the naked posterior of a willing nymphet - are all anti-heroes, but possess an appealing helplessness reminiscent of Jacques Tati in Jour de Fete or the baffled males of James Thurber. It is the Czech version of French existentialist despair, here accepted with a shrug of disdain. ("Disdain", Hrabal once said, "is the purest form of cour-age".) Added to that, a slyly self-deprecating wit.

Courage he needed to survive during the communist regime. Political events had made Kafka's neurotic nightmares come all too true. Hrabal's solution to the problem was to distance himself from political commitment. Yet he lived a life of total terror. To overcome this crippling dread, he looked the enemy squarely in the face and wrote of what he saw. It is amazing that some of his books were issued with official approval. Others were in samizdat form, to be circulated secretly among friends. His novel I Who Served the King of England (1975) was banned and did not appear until 1986. At the end of the "Prague Spring", 1968, the year of Dubcek and the intelligentsia's thwarted hopes for a "socialism with a human face", Hrabal wrote in oblique defiance of rigid authority a novel with the subtly sarcastic title These Premises are in the Joint Care of the Citizens - typical propaganda blah-blah.

Further books made into films by Menzel were Snowdrop Festivities (1981), filmed in 1984. Hrabal appears in it, feeding pigeons in his garden. It was followed by My Sweet Little Village, full of childhood nostalgia, with a dear village innocent in the lines of Schweyk which had an international success. Too Loud a Solitude, perhaps Hrabal's best-known novel in Britain, and his own favourite, was filmed in France in 1994 with Philippe Noiret playing the role of Hanka in the book-pulping plant.

The appearance of Hrabal in Snowdrop Festivities now seems oddly prophetic, for he died falling from the fifth-floor window of a clinic where he was receiving treatment for chronic arthritis: he had leaned too far out while feeding the pigeons. A typical tragicomic fate of the kind sometimes found in the author's fatalistic fictional moments.

It is, however, revealing to discover that in his short story "The Enchanted Flute" Hrabal writes: "How many times I've wanted to jump from a fifth- floor window - but an angel always saved me at the last moment . . ." One of his favourite books was Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, whose protagonist also jumps from a fifth-floor window.

Bohumil Hrabal, writer: born Brno, Moravia 28 March 1914; died Prague 3 February 1997.