Czech literary legend Bohumil Hrabal died 10 years ago

Bohumil Hrabal

Saturday is the tenth anniversary of the death of acclaimed Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. Although he published his first major work well into his forties, Hrabal soon achieved great fame. The film adaptation of his "Closely Observed Trains" won an Oscar only three years after the book's publication. Banned for several years by the communist authorities, for some Hrabal had the status of a cult writer. Others preferred the film adaptations of his works to his books. In any case, for decades Bohumil Hrabal was a legend in this country.

He is considered one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century and his works have been translated into more than two dozen languages.

Since his student days Hrabal lived in Prague and later also in the village of Kersko outside the capital where he kept a second home from the 1960s. Quite regularly you could see him in some of his favourite pubs in the city. Professor Michael Henry Heim from the University of California translated some of Hrabal's work into English and knew the writer personally.

Michael Henry Heim
"I had several opportunities to meet Mr Hrabal and actually spend a few days in his house outside Prague. He was a wonderful, wonderful person, full of life and not the clown that everyone seemed to think he might be in real person. He could do that but he was also a very serious thinker. When his characters talk about German philosophy and make light of it as they do, that's based on a very profound knowledge of those philosophers. That was a side of Hrabal that I think people didn't see so much when they were sitting in the pubs with him."

Although Hrabal had a degree in law, he worked all manners of odd jobs: he was a manual labourer, a salesman, a train dispatcher - experience he used profusely in his books.

Hrabal is known for his distinctive literary style. For instance, his 1964 work "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" is just one long sentence. Professor Heim agrees Hrabal's language and style pose difficulties for translators.

"Yes, it's a real challenge. That's what drew me to Hrabal in the beginning. The common received knowledge about English is that English sentences are short and straightforward and Hrabal is anything but that. He revels in complexity, so it was as I say a challenge to deal with those sentences. I felt that English could handle them and I hope that I have made my point in my translations. But what he does is to make sentences sing in a way that no other writer I know does. When I say they are complex I don't mean that they are difficult to make out. They just go on and on and carry you away with them."

Hrabal's writings are set firmly in a Czech environment, with many references to the reality of the interwar period as well as the socialist era. That may not always translate well into other cultures. Professor Heim says it's been a problem in the English speaking world.

"I have been disappointed in the reception of Hrabal here. He hasn't been as well received, he hasn't been as well appreciated as I think he deserves to be. I would say that in the English speaking world at least he is still very much a writers' writer. Writers understand what he is trying to do perhaps because they've read more works of other Czech writers and of Central European writers. I also find that he does well in the classroom. Because in the classroom you can introduce the students to the kinds of concerns that Czech writers have or Central European writers have - the kinds of things that they have in common. And once they are alerted to that then they respond more sensitively to the text."

Nymburk brewery
Although Hrabal spent most of his life in Prague and Kersko, his early years are connected to the town of Nymburk in Central Bohemia where his step father was a brewery manager. Soon after Hrabal's death, the town opened a museum dedicated to its famous son. Pavel Fojtik is a local historian.

"We display documents, including photographs of the family. Among them are his uncle Pepin and Hrabal's father Francin, who feature in some of his books. We also have Hrabal's old school reports. Visitors can see Hrabal's desk from his home in Kersko just as he left it, and a few typewriters on which he wrote his works. We devote a special room to Hrabal's love of beer and pub life - there you can also buy our Nymburk brew. A third room is devoted to Hrabal's friends from the world of arts, featuring paintings and other works of art by his famous friends."

Pavel Fojtik says the Nymburk museum is very popular with foreign visitors, namely from Italy, France and Spain, and foreign TV crews come often to Nymburk to make documentaries about Hrabal. Every year, the museum holds a themed exhibition. This year's topic is Bohumil Hrabal - the Railway Worker.

Ten years ago, on February 3rd, 1997 Bohumil Hrabal died after falling from a hospital window while he was apparently trying to feed pigeons. Whether his death was an accident or a suicide remains unclear. When Hrabal was admitted to the hospital in December 1996, he reportedly said: "That's the end. There is no leaving here. No doctors for me, get me a priest. I have tuned myself to death, I've played it to the end."

More information about the Hrabal museum in Nymburk at: