Bohumil Hrabal - a few notes on the writer's style

Bohumil Hrabal, photo: Czech Television

Welcome to Czechs in History. In today's edition we look at the work of Bohumil Hrabal, the great Czech novelist whose contribution to modern European literature ranks among the very highest. Like James Joyce, who he valued greatly, Hrabal introduced a new syntax and poetics in his novels that captured many of his experiences from life. Hrabal showed a deep empathy for characters on the periphery and developed a lyrical and tragicomic sensibility to describe their lives, by extension our own. In just a moment we'll be talking with Dr Radko Pytlik, a specialist on Hrabal's work as well as his friend of more than thirty years. Dr Pytlik has published a book on Hrabal's work titled "The Sad King of Czech Literature". Together we'll be looking at some of Hrabal's influences and style, and shall briefly discuss what is perhaps Bohumil Hrabal's greatest novel "I Served the King of England".

Bohumil Hrabal,  photo: Czech Television
Bohumil Hrabal was always fascinated with individuals pushed to the periphery - something he was attracted to when he first began writing in the early Fifties, the period of Stalinist oppression which weighed heavily on so many. During that time Hrabal worked all manners of odd jobs, everything from manual labourer in factories to working on the railroad, to working as a salesman. He must have taken a dozen different professions - but all the while recorded everything he saw, anxious to open himself to what he called "The Flood of Sparkling Experience". Not sparkling in a rosy sense, but in a phenomenological one -describing and ultimately magnifying unusual experiences usually passed over by others. In his writing he was first inspired by the Surrealists and Dadaism, drawing on principles of collage and montage, which seemed well-suited to singling out specific moments or cutting snippets of conversation and accurate vernacular, including local idioms, which Hrabal memorised from life. They became characteristic of his writing. Recast for the characters of his novels, giving them unusual authenticity. At the same time the principles helped elevate the everyday, what would otherwise be considered something far too ordinary. Radko Pytlik explains:

"Hrabal took the following inspiration from the Dadaist movement, the dictate to smash reality, to smash it in such a way so that details would come to the fore that would gain their own semantic importance, which would then interact in unexpected ways with other details one normally wouldn't consider, or would normally be considered banal. His start as a writer was inspired by Celine and poets like Ungaretti. Hrabal was also a big fan of James Joyce and could recall whole passages of his work. Joyce was his poet. Later there would be others, but Joyce held a special place for Hrabal. As we know Joyce himself used a kind of collage or montage of different levels and layers of language, reflecting different historical epochs. That was certainly an influence."

Radko Pytlík,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
Hrabal however had to confront a bitter reality that was the Stalinist regime. His descent, for example, into the smelting rooms of a factory in Kladno was paradoxical - as well as previously unheard of - for a doctor of law. But, such circumstances did allow the author to experience life on different levels he otherwise would never have been able to imagine. Through what he called "artificial fates", Hrabal was able to experience the difficulty but also poetry of such a life: occasional release and catharsis. He at least, had the genius to see it.

"Compared to the French Surrealists and James Joyce - who represented the greatest intellectual point and was a bible for Hrabal - during his period of total realism when he decided not to gloss over unfavourable details, when he was forced into all manners of employment, Hrabal took inspiration from American poets. Writers like Steinbeck and others inspired him in their direct representation of the world. The Americans didn't have that intellectual buffer that is typical for European culture, first with the system of nobility, later the educated, this separation did not exist. But in America much of the writing came together in magazines, in the form of the short story and this really inspired Hrabal. In American writing there was a closer relationship to reality. One work that comes to mind is his early story 'Jarmilka', set in the industrial town of Kladno, the story of this blue-collar Madonna. In Hrabal's universe even the most common of characters has a right not only to life but poetic portrayal."

In the early 1960s Hrabal continued to write but early success was not forthcoming. Still, the author who had moved many times from his childhood town of Nymburk, east of Prague, to working class districts in Kladno and Prague's Liben, was extremely well-read and well versed in philosophy, and since the late 50s had moved in intellectual circles that included painters Kamil Lhotak, artist Jiri Kolar, and graphic designer Vladimir Boudnik. However, though he described many characters from working-class lives, Hrabal remained unacceptable for the official regime, at least until the mid 60s thaw, when his first works were published, Pearls at the Bottom and Palaverers. Almost 'overnight' he became a sensation, and for three of four years he became the most sought-after author in Czechoslovakia. Radko Pytlik says that people used to wait in two lines at a time: one line for potatoes, the other line for books. And both of those intertwined.

"It's unbelievable with regards to the ideology then - he was in fact a kind of dissident. In 1971, when there was the return of oppression under the so-called Normalisation period, the return of censorship, but even then Hrabal had the nerve to write "I Served the King of England", in which he included an episode which touched upon the times of the first Czechoslovak President T.G. Masaryk. From then on Hrabal published only periodically. The 1960s - about four years - were brilliant for him. But after that is was far more difficult. There were periods when he was banned."

"I Served the King of England", written at the beginning of the 1970s but published abroad is a wry and often ironic but also magically comic look at the life of a tiny waiter whose hunger - and weakness - for sensual experience and power versus his fall and eventual transcendence is extremely moving. Through the horrors of war and the tragedy of the post-war communist coup, to eventual self-awareness. Radko Pytlik once more:

"'I Served the King of England' is Hrabal's first attempt at a story of greater proportions, though you could argue the novel is still broken down into five specific sections. But each is joined through the character of the main protagonist, a little man, a waiter, a character reminiscent of Gunter Grass' Tin Drum. The novel combines his life with the fantastical, all the while reflects a monumental historic period - the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis, the post-war period, nationalisation, the jailing of former millionaires, and so on. It was a novel of epic proportions."

In a way, "I Served the King of England" can be seen as the Czech version of the "great American novel", a book that encompasses the most important period in Czechoslovakia's modern history through one complex and at times absurd existence. The narrator goes on to lose his riches and self-importance but ultimately saves himself. At the end of the novel he has very little other than the companionship of a few domestic animals, a dog a cat, a place to live in the country. Remembering, how as a waiter he served the Emperor of Ethiopia, and rose from the ranks of an ordinary boy selling frankfurters at the railway station to someone of importance. Only to lose all, but in the end to become something else: a true human being, with an incredible story to tell.

If you'd like information about Radko Pytlik's "The Sad King of Czech Literature" - a look at the life and work of Bohumil Hrabal - be sure to visit