Filmmaker Jan Kaplan shares his memories and photographs of the famous author Bohumil Hrabal

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

An exhibition of photographs of the internationally renowned author Bohumil Hrabal is currently on show at Lucerna Café in Prague. The collection of photos was taken by the Czech-born documentary filmmaker and photographer Jan Kaplan, based in London, who became friends with Hrabal in the 1990s, after giving him a tour of London. I spoke to him on the phone to London to find out more about how had come to befriend and photograph a man who valued his privacy and who rarely allowed strangers into his chosen circle of friends.

Exhibition in Lucerna Café in Prague, photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“Well, basically, it came about by Mr. Hrabal visiting London back in 1990 as part of the Pen Writers Conference. He gave a talk in one of the cultural institutions here about I Served the King of England and after he delivered the talk we talked a little bit, and I asked if he would like me to show him around London. He said “yes, of course”, so I took him on a guided tour and throughout it he was reading T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. He wanted to see all the places that are mentioned in the poem, which is quite a lot of sites. So I took him around, me and my wife, and in the course of the guided tour I took lots of photographs, which he didn’t object to. So that is how my collection of Hrabal’s photographs came about.”

I wouldn’t have thought he would take kindly to being photographed…

“On the contrary. I was surprised as well, because I expected a grumpy response, but he must have been in a very good mood because he said “by all means”.

What places did you visit, then?

“Well, if you read Wasteland you’ll see it is a sort of guided tour of London, various churches and places, a very, very detailed tour, and I didn’t know myself, after all these years, where some of them are, so I had to look it up on the map.”

“He felt he had nothing else to write. I think this was one of the reasons why he ended the way he did.”

Did he say why he wanted to see these places?

“He was in love with T.S. Eliot. He was reading him to us in German which was a bit wasted because I don’t speak German. He was sitting in the back of our car with the German translation of Wasteland and reading it aloud as we were passing those various monuments.”

And you stopped for a beer, I understand?

“Not just once! Mr. Hrabal was always very appreciative of those little refreshment stops, as I would call them…”

You stopped for a beer at the pub that Eliot himself used to visit, right?

“Yes, I took him to a pub on a street corner close to the place where T.S. Eliot lived. It’s called The Builder’s Arms and that was something very special for Mr. Hrabal as you can imagine, because this place was something like Eliot’s Golden Tiger (Mr. Harabal’s favourite pub in Prague). So he was very appreciative of those stops and then I took him to the so-called Czech club, which is in West Hampstead in London and he sat there in the garden – it was a very nice warm day – and I took lots of pictures of him there, talking to various Czech emigres. He was talking, talking, and being very, very friendly and then suddenly his facial expression changed and he looked like a completely different person and he didn’t want to talk to anyone at all.”

What happened?

Bohumil Hrabal, photo: Jan Kaplan
“He had these changes of mood. I noticed them later, but the first time it happened it was a bit of a shock. I thought initially that I had said something – or someone had said something – that he didn’t like, but in fact he had these sudden changes of mood that –if you didn’t know about them – would leave you taken aback, puzzled. So he wouldn’t reply, he didn’t talk to me for the rest of the afternoon. And so eventually we said would you like us to take you back to your hotel and he said yes, please and we did and then just as he was leaving he said –by the way, when you are in Prague come to my favourite pub, which as we all know was the Golden Tiger.”

And did you take him up on the invitation?

“Absolutely. The first time I was in Prague I thought I must go and find out …how things stand …and he was back to normal, he had forgotten all about it.”

Do you think he ever let anyone see the real Hrabal or was he too much of an introvert – did he prefer to speak to people through his books?

“Frankly, I don’t think he cared what people thought about him. Years ago, he may have tried to behave in a certain way, but by the time I came to know him better he simply was who he was. I think that he felt that at his age, with the health problems that he had – he had terrible pain in his joints and was very, very ill, basically – he felt entitled to behave the way he did.”

There was no pretense…

"My favourite picture of all is one of Hrabal in the pub, lighting his last cigarette with a full pint of beer in front of him.”

“Yes, exactly. I think that was why he was sometimes plain grumpy. And also, he felt he had nothing else to write. He said to me that everything had been written, there was nothing left for him to do in terms of writing. I think this was one of the reasons why he ended the way he did. He once told me – at a moment when it was just him and me sitting in a pub on our own – you have no idea how lonely I am. And he produced his wallet and there was a picture of his wife, his brother and one of my photographs –which I was quite chuffed about - and he said – this is all I have, I am totally alone and there was something very sad about him, you felt the loneliness, knowing that he would get into a cab, at the end of the day and disappear somewhere in the suburbs. He was a lonely man and very sad. I suppose that comes with age, he was 83 when he died. He enjoyed a few moments at the pub where he was surrounded by people who seemed to like him and whom he tolerated, but he did not like strangers approaching him in a pub and saying can I join you or would you be kind enough to sign a beer mat. He hated it when people did that –he would throw it back at them and say Go to Hell! So in some ways he needed people around him, but he was totally unpredictable.”

You said he was holding one of your photographs –which one was it?

“It was a photograph of the Infant Jesus of Prague that I took when I was making a documentary in Prague. We were lucky enough that they took us to the back of the church and brought the figure of the Infant Jesus into the room and I was able to take many interesting photographs of that figure. And it was one of those photos that he carried on him.”

Did he say why he had that particular photo?

Jan Kaplan, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I didn’t ask him. I presume because he has written a story called Bambino di Praga. So he wrote about the Jesus figure.”

These photographs that are currently on show at Lucerna Palace, that you took of him in the course of 6 years – what do they say about him? What qualities do they capture?

“I was fortunate to capture many of his moods. He was a person with an inner life that was sometimes very sad, but there were times when he was in a company of people, when he was with friends, when he could be very funny, and gregarious. However that was becoming rarer and rarer, I think he became more and more miserable as he grew older.”

But you managed to capture the whole scale of his moods …

”Well, I was very lucky, because he did not object at all to any of my photograph sessions as it were…I saw him telling people with cameras to go away but for some reason he liked the pictures that I took of him. I brought an album of his photographs from London and he really liked it. He said – Oh, this is great, I like this picture -so I framed one of the pictures and got them to hang it on the wall in the Golden Tiger and he would always point at me and say “this is the author of that picture”.”

And which is your own favourite picture of him?

“There is one where he is smiling – in the Czech Club, the first day that I met him and then there is another picture –which is slightly scary – of him looking very lonely outside the pub, standing waiting for a taxi and looking kind of abandoned, and it kind of expresses that loneliness that was in him…”

What is your last memory of him?

Bohumil Hrabal, photo: Jan Kaplan
“Last memory….that’s before he went to the hospital where he fell out of the window – let us say – feeding birds….I couldn’t believe that someone could come up with such a story, when it was clearly suicide…well, so on that day I arrived at the pub very late, he was normally gone by 7 o’clock in the evening, but he was still there and the waiter came in and said “Bohoušku, the taxi just rang to say they will be late” and Hrabal said “Ok, I’ll have another beer, in that case” and I thought that’s good, at least I can talk to him. So he had a beer and he asked for a cigarette, which was a very rare occasion, he didn’t smoke much, or at all really. So I gave him a cigarette and I had a camera on me and I said, listen do you mind if I take a photograph, and again, I didn’t even have to ask, I knew he didn’t…so I took out the camera and I lit his cigarette and he kind of raised it up towards him and there was this full pint of beer in front of him and I took this photograph. As far as I know it is the last picture of Hrabal there is in the Golden Tiger, because soon after he went to the hospital. So that I suppose would be my favourite picture of all – Hrabal in the pub, lighting his last cigarette with a full pint of beer in front of him. It is like …forever…you know, Hrabal about to have a beer.”