Filmmaker Jan Kaplan: Hrabal was one of most modest people I ever met

Jan Kaplan, photo: archive of Radio Prague

Events around the Czech Republic are commemorating internationally renowned author Bohumil Hrabal who would have turned 100 this day. On the occasion I spoke to the Czech-born documentary filmmaker and photographer Jan Kaplan, now based in London, who was just a student when he first met the writer. He then became closer friends with Hrabal in the 1990s, giving him a tour of London. He has now opened a new exhibition of previously unpublished portraits of Hrabal at Prague’s Lucerna Palace.

Jan Kaplan,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
In our interview I asked Jan Kaplan about their first meeting.

“As a student I was very eager to publish a student magazine about arts and literature and together with Michal Ajvaz (who became a respected author himself) we decided to visit famous authors to ask them for samples of their early work, to learn about their start. So, for example, we visited Josef Škvorecký who was very generous and provided us with a love poem he had written his girlfriend and then we called on Hrabal at his home in Libeň.

“Hrabal’s wife saw us coming up the steps and must have thought ‘Oh two more coming to bother my husband’ but she was kind and let us enter and Hrabal was sitting outside, relaxing and drinking a bottle of Ballantine’s someone had sent him. The backyard was full of junk, signposts and other bric-à-brac but it all looked very romantic. He invited us to sit down and poured us some scotch and we had a very interesting conversation. Ajvaz is very literary-minded and mentioned some authors and Hrabal enjoyed that, it was something he liked talking about.”

Did the magazine come about?

“We did one issue and that was it I think. We used one or two things. It was an example of youthful enthusiasm where after a bit you think ‘let’s do something else’.”

You left Czechoslovakia in 1968, a few days before the Soviet-led invasion: did you have any contact with Hrabal over the next 23 years?

“No, I didn’t. There was no pretext. I was a young man getting a new start in England and he was, after all, a couple generations my senior.” But curiously you did meet him again: after the 1989 revolution…

“That’s right. He was invited to come to London by the P.E.N Club to give a talk about I Served the King of England. I approached him and said ‘You won’t remember me but I visited you once…’ and we got to talking and I offered him, as someone who had lived a long time in Britain, to show him around. He had this copy, in German, of T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land and he said he loved the poem and expressed the desire to see some of those places. So I agreed not realising just how many sites there were! So we drove him around and had stopovers at pubs and I showed him the embankment. In this one photograph, the first I took of him, he was reciting the poem as he looked out on the Thames.”

He didn’t mind you photographing him?

“He didn’t. I mean, if someone did without asking he could be very aggressive but I think he liked being photographed by certain people and in my case it didn’t bother him. I was discreet but I took many pictures.

Bohumil Hrabal,  photo: Czech Television
“Then I invited him to the Czech club in London, where we sat in the big garden with a bunch of Czech émigrés, and he began talking and he became animated and he was entertaining, drinking Pilsner, although suddenly he changed his expression without any warning, becoming very grumpy. He was an accomplished story-teller but his mood was changing.”

Many people used to go down to his favourite pub U tygra to try and get a glimpse…

“And to be told off! I witnessed that many times. One time this lady came in and called him maestro and what an idol he was for her, to which he responded very brutally ‘If I am your idol get under the table and lick my feet’! And she began crying, understandably. He was used to being there and being seen, and he was often pleased. Other times he would be waved at and he would turn away.”

Many Czechs and not only Czechs consider him one of the most important writers of the 20th century and…

“He wouldn’t like that! He wouldn’t like you saying that! I think he must be spinning in his grave with all the accolades this week! That was the one thing he hated. He was a very modest man. One thing I have noticed is that the more famous people are, the more modest they sometimes are. I would say he was almost afraid of people and he covered it up with a tough guy image of naff off! and so on. He was modest but very protective of his talent. I do think he was a genius but if you came up to him and heaped praise on him and asked what he was writing he would respond by saying ‘What do you care?! It’s none of your business!”

Whenever I think of Hrabal I am reminded of his main protagonist in I Served the King of England and how he ends up, in the little house with the animals. Were you able to visit and photograph at his country home in Kersko?

“I did. I was there with him and that was his island or oasis with his beloved cats. I am not a cat lover but they were everywhere and he called them ‘his children’. I don’t want to be a dollar Freud by I think he really meant it: they were his children for a while and they kept him alive. He had this ritual: he would wake up in the morning feeling suicidal, which he said he felt every day. Then, he would write a little to get out of his depression. Then he would head for the bus stop at Florence where he bought a bunch of grilled chickens. And he would sit on a bus and go all the way to Kersko. The cats would be waiting for him!

“On our visit, the cats must have been waiting at the wrong stop because my wife and I drove him by car. But suddenly they materialized everywhere to greet him. And he would produce the chickens and they were thrilled to see him!

Hrabal's country home in Kersko | Photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International
“His dacha was kind of run down but he gave us complete freedom to wander around. We could go anywhere. Meanwhile, he sat on this park bench which he had as he handed out the food along with milk (of which he had many, many cans) and he would sit there presiding over his cat kingdom. They gathered around and the cats would eat like there was no tomorrow! I would eat grilled chicken! He produced a pram with dozens of empty cans of milk, which I photographed.

“Then, he let me wander around. I took photographs of the posters from films of his books and was most proud to photograph the desk where he wrote, which he had prepared or arranged with his favourite translations and pictures, things he liked to be surrounded by. There were also a bunch of scissors laid out and I asked him if he was opening a barber shop. He told me they were for his collages but he also used them to rearrange passages of his writing with his glue stick: pre-computer cut-and-paste! So it was a real glimpse and a real privilege. I really felt, every time, that I was diving into the depths to see treasures I don’t think many were allowed to see.”