On Flying Objects, By Emil Hakl


Boyd Tonkin
Wednesday 11 January 2012 01:00 GMT

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".

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