Czechs pay homage to 20th century great Bohumil Hrabal

Exhibition of photographs of Bohumil Hrabal by Jan Kaplan at Lucerna Café in Prague, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Events marking the life and work of the outstanding Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal are taking place around the country on the 20th anniversary of his death. The widely-respected Czech author, whose books have been translated into 28 languages, is being recalled in exhibitions, discussions, film and TV screenings.

Bohumil Hrabal,  photo: Hana Hamplová,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Although Bohumil Hrabal only started his literary career after the age of 50 he was a hugely successful writer whose novels easily transcended borders and won him acclaim the world over. Among his most successful novels are Closely Watched Trains, the film version of which received an Oscar in 1968, and I Served the King of England which was also made into a movie in 2006. In the 1970s, when he was banned by the communist regime, his novels were copied by hand to be passed from reader to reader. He wrote in the quiet environment at his country cottage and drew inspiration from the people and stories that came his way at the Golden Tiger, his favourite pub in Prague, where he always had his own seat reserved for him and which he liked to call his second home. In a 1989 interview for Czech Radio, Hrabal said his novels were real because the language was authentic.

“I listen to the way people talk in the pub, how they break all the language conventions, say what they want and pepper their speech with slang expressions. I learn from the way that people really speak and that is what makes my books special.”

Apart from drawing inspiration from daily life, Hrabal had lengthy debates with philosophers, writers and artists. Among his close friends were philosopher Karel Kosík, writer Arnošt Lustig, artist Jiří Kolář or painter Vladimír Boudník. He told Czech Radio he was greatly inspired by artists.

Exhibition of photographs of Bohumil Hrabal by Jan Kaplan at Lucerna Café in Prague,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“The people close to me were almost always great painters. They taught me a lot and they introduced me to the world of Manet and Cézanne.”

Bohumil Hrabal died on February 3, in 1997 after falling from a hospital window. The official version given at the time was that he had fallen out of the window feeding pigeons. However many believe he committed suicide. One of his friends in later life, documentary film director and photographer Jan Kaplan told Radio Prague recently that apart from suffering from severe pains in his joints, Hrabal felt he had given all there was to give.

“Basically, he felt he had nothing else to write. He said to me - everything’s been written. There was nothing left for him to do in terms of writing, which I think may be one of the reasons why he ended the way he did.”