The World Is Beautiful Enough to Drive You to Distraction

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Illustration by Emma Roulette

The success of Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep) transformed Hrabal’s life. He spent his first royalty payment on a ten-day trip to England, and over the next few years took every opportunity to travel abroad—and opportunities there were aplenty. These were not just holidays, such as in Yugoslavia, “oh what a tempest there raged on the seaside, a genuine pandemonium of nature, the kind that, once it has made its way into a man’s flies, turns him into a writer.” There were also organised trips with the Writers’ Union, study trips and readings. He made frequent visits to Germany, where the parents of his wife Pipsi lived; the first time his mother-in-law saw him, in a photograph of their wedding, she allegedly said: “Where did you pick up this Russkie?” She was convinced that a man with such high cheekbones was bound to have come from the far side of the Urals. 

Hrabal kept churning out one book after another. 1964 saw the publication of the second, expanded edition of Pearls of the Deep, followed shortly by another collection of short stories, Pábitelé (The Palaverers), which includes the stories “Romance” (The Romance); “Jarmilka” (The Proprietress of the Foundry; the version that also appears in Larks on a String), “Bambini di Praga,” 1947; “Automat Svět” (The World Cafeteria) as well as “Chcete vidět zlatou Prahu?” (Would You Like to See Golden Prague?). By the end of the year, The Palaverers was reissued in an expanded edition, as was Kopretina (Ox-Eye Daisy), his somewhat less successful attempt at a children’s book, and Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age), the epic monologue of Uncle Pepin, musing on the heyday of the Austrian Empire, which revealed Hrabal’s real potential as a prose writer.

Dancing Lessons, like most of Hrabal’s writing, is not a particularly lengthy work. Even then, publishers were not too keen on this kind of text—too short for a novel but too long for a short story. Publishing works like these in collections involved a number of problems, not least because the authorities’ unpredictable attitude made it impossible to guess whether a text the censors approved today might end up being banned six months later. Publishers had to strike while the iron was hot. The writer Ivan Klíma, who was at the time working as an editor for the publishers Československý spisovatel, came up with a brilliant idea: he proposed a special series featuring medium-length works of fiction. In 1963 the first volume of Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves, consisting of just three short stories, appeared (followed later by two further volumes). In 1964 it was the turn of Dancing Lessons.

Before writing Dancing Lessons, the most distinctive feature of Hrabal’s style had been his unusual way of depicting the everyday circumstances of his characters, who lived on the peripheries of Prague. It is these people, stuck as they were on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, with nothing to lose except their dreams, who have the capacity to imbue their lives with imagination, and who discover the “pearls of the deep.” Of course, not all of them—just a few privileged ones, the kind Hrabal called pábitelé or “palaverers”—those capable of seeing the lighter, more joyful side of life, even if they happen to live in the grimmest of times and under the worst possible circumstances. And they are capable of infecting others with this joy. “This world is beautiful enough to drive you to distraction. Not that it really is like that, it’s just that I see it that way.” This creed of Uncle Pepin’s becomes the writer’s philosophy. However, following Dancing Lessons, it became clear that “palavering” was more than just a way of life. Rather, it represented a new quality in world literature, an original narrative device, as uniquely Czech as Švejk’s stories, Pilsner beer, and Semtex. I have already mentioned the affinity between Hrabal’s “palavering” and local Czech traditions: the pub anecdote, which The Good Soldier Švejk brought out of the ghetto of trash literature. But if that had been all there was to it, Hrabal would have remained just another Hašek. In fact, Uncle Pepin’s monologue also closely links up with the narrative techniques of the avant-garde, as the book’s very title indicates: the advanced in age are those who are familiar not just with Hašek’s stories but also with Molly Bloom’s monologue and the automatic writing of the surrealists. After the war (certainly by the time he wrote Utrpení starého Werthera [The Sufferings of Old Werther]), Hrabal must have discovered with astonishment how close these avant-garde innovations were to his uncle’s spontaneous narration. Perhaps it was then that he first began to wonder how to connect these two extremes.

Before long Dancing Lessons was translated into Polish and German (or, to be more precise, into old Viennese slang), launching Hrabal’s career abroad. First he travelled to Germany. In Munich he met Miloš Havel, Václav’s uncle, a once famous cinema mogul who, after fleeing Czechoslovakia, won legal compensation for his shares in the film studios expropriated by the Nazis. He used the money to buy a restaurant, and gradually more and more visitors from the old country plucked up the courage to drop in.

Havel ran the Golden Prague restaurant, Hrabal recalled. “A few of us, poets and writers, had been invited [to visit Munich]; we forged contacts with the West German public, gave some talks at the Leopoldstheater, and one of us, Franta Hrubín I think it was, ran into Mr Miloš Havel, you know, the former owner of the Barrandov studios, who invited us for some roast pork and Pilsner beer. So we went over and after lunch we sat there chatting and ended up talking about President Masaryk. Mr Havel told me that Masaryk really was the last of the true gentlemen who, even at an advanced age, well into his seventies, had this incredibly courteous way with beautiful ladies and whenever one of these lovelies, let’s say courtesans, flew over from Paris, it fell to him, Mr Havel, to book an apartment and dinner, always for three, although it was just the two of them; he also said he’d always admired this gentleman’s grace and charm.”

A few years later Hrabal worked this anecdote into his novel Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England).

It was also in 1964 that Hrabal travelled to New York. He always stressed that his writing was inspired by his love of the visible world; this was also why he was interested in painting and whenever he was abroad he always tried to visit museums and art galleries. In America he finally saw his beloved surrealists with his own eyes (championed across the Atlantic by Peggy Guggenheim, the wife of Max Ernst). He was no less impressed with the work of two American-born artists, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.

Already in the late 1950s, Hrabal acknowledged his affinity with the beatniks. He felt close to their anarchic lifestyle, their voracious quest for beauty, rejection of material values, and the equation of art with life. “At a distance I felt I was one of them,” he said. He read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as early as 1959 (the poem appeared in the monthly Světová literatura in a translation by Jan Zábrana and Josef Škvorecký). Soon afterwards, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published.

Hrabal loved the novel and its main character, “forever crossing the entire country, from San Francisco to New York and back, in a permanent state of ecstasy, in permanent euphoria.” Hrabal, who tended to laboriously edit his stories, constantly rewriting and often splicing them together from previously written texts, discovered the secret of writing alla prima, in one go; he realised that it requires “an enormous accumulation of images, enormous concentration, in other words, you have to wait for the moment to arrive when certain issues and the sentences are inside you, and then everything starts spurting out and it works like a blacksmith’s bellows.”

“To avoid having to keep putting paper in his typewriter [Kerouac] would get hold of paper in rolls [ . . . ] and typed a hundred metres at a time.” Hrabal, too, suddenly felt an urge to write in this way, without pausing or revising. Admittedly, a few more years had to pass before he actually tried his hand at it, and not just because a hundred-metre roll of paper was impossible to obtain. However, before this happened, he met Allen Ginsberg.


The American poet arrived in Prague on a flight from Havana on 18 February 1965. He had been expelled from Cuba the previous day for daring to mention Che Guevara’s sex appeal. After landing he phoned Josef Škvorecký who picked him up from the airport and took him next morning to the offices of the Writers’ Union. Ginsberg was immediately granted a two-week bursary and, at the same time, paid his outstanding royalties for Howl. That was enough to book a room in Prague’s best hotel, the Ambassador, in Wenceslas Square. “Over the next few weeks he became the most celebrated figure in the Prague underground, the idol of halls of residence,” Škvorecký recalled.

Ginsberg’s visit was a huge event, covered enthusiastically by the press, including the weekly Literární noviny. The poet also visited Bratislava but preferred to spend most of his time in Prague pubs. While still in Cuba he had started a diary, in which he recorded the names of his new acquaintances and lovers. The list became considerably longer in Prague, as night after night, at the Café Viola on Narodní Street, a throng of admirers of both sexes mobbed Ginsberg. Soon, agents of the secret police joined these admirers.

From Prague, Ginsberg flew to Moscow where he met Anna Akhmatova and the two most famous poets of the “Twentieth Party Congress generation,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. “I admire the beatniks—they are the poets of the nuclear age,” Voznesensky said. Ginsberg didn’t stay long in Russia and moved on to Poland, spending over a month in Warsaw and Kraków. Eventually, apparently fed up with travelling around Eastern Europe, he decided to return to the US. On the eve of 1 May he arrived in Prague, intending to catch a flight to New York.

That spring, for the first time in many years, the authorities allowed the students to hold the May carnival. Originally Josef Škvorecký was meant to be “King of May,” but when he learned that his American friend was back in town, he convinced the students to “award that honour to him.” Following the official ceremony, during which “Ginsberg, in his tennis shoes, was driven around town in a vintage car,” the poet attended a student meeting at a hall of residence. Asked if he thought Czechoslovakia was a free country, he replied: “In the West I can say what I think. When I’m in Prague I have to think about what I want to say, and when I was in Moscow, I didn’t speak at all.”

A little later, when asked about the cult of personality, he must have forgotten his own principle, responding: “The twenty million dead in the Soviet Union spoke for the cult of personality.”

The next day Ginsberg was invited to Hanzlberk, “a kind of abandoned house in Prague taken over by a group of young people,” Hrabal recalled. The house stood at the foot of Vyšehrad, a picturesque hill on the right bank of the river Vltava. Contrary to Hrabal’s recollection, the building wasn’t completely abandoned; it even had a caretaker, a woman who collected a symbolic rent from the motley crew of lodgers: painters, poets, and dancers, turning a blind eye to their night-long revelries and peculiar habits.

Guests had to sign a special “guest book” kept by the Hanzlberk lodgers. All visitors to the “house of horrors” (as Hanzlberk was dubbed by its neighbours) “had a bit of their pubic hair cut off by young women who would place it in the book, tying it in with thin, bright thread, so now it contains not just the hairs of Mr Ginsberg but also mine,” Hrabal recalled, as he too had to submit to this procedure. “The beatniks regard sex life and Eros in general as one of the most powerful driving forces, including for the loftiest thoughts, because thoughts of sex and sex fantasies help to make your mind work better,” he explained some years later. “The ancient Gnostics who thought about religious questions already knew this. They were as randy as goats but it was precisely their randiness that gave their brains a workout, helping to sharpen their thinking, and the beatniks did it for the same reason and that’s why Ginsberg’s pubes have stayed here. I have no idea what’s happened to them but I, too, was amazed by this generation; you could say that they set all of young Prague alight.”

Hrabal spent the whole night drinking to the poet without exchanging a single word with him. “I didn’t know any English,” he recalled. “I vaguely recollect that he didn’t say much to anybody. He just kept bowing and he didn’t have an interpreter. We didn’t need to communicate. Dogs don’t either. He bowed to me, I bowed to him, he bowed to everybody, there was music, somebody playing the guitar. So it was rather like a rowdy pub where you can’t talk, where you can’t make yourself heard above the hubbub.”

Meanwhile the noose was tightening around the poet and his Prague friends. The next day the secret police stole Ginsberg’s intimate diary and soon afterwards provoked a street fight in which he was involved. The police drove him straight from the hotel to the airport and put him on a plane, claiming, in Škvorecký’s words, that “he had been corrupting the socialist youth.” The poet’s compromising notes were used in a slanderous article that appeared in the press later that month.


The Communists used the “Ginsberg affair” as an excuse for a fresh tightening of the screws. The first victim of the new restrictive policy was the monthly Tvář. This journal, founded less than a year earlier by the Writers' Union, was intended as a platform for young writers. However, its editors were also greatly interested in the writing of the not-quite-so-young Bohumil Hrabal, who was fifty at the time.

“We wanted to put out a real journal, a cultural and political magazine, not some kind of ‘young literature’ periodical for the self-promotion of fledgling poets,” recalled Bohumil Doležal, the editor in charge of the poetry section. The fiction editor was Jan Lopatka.

The two young editors, both in their early twenties, took an unusually critical view of contemporary Czech literature, which had not yet freed itself of the socialist-realist corset. It was in this context that Lopatka declared that Czech literature did not deserve Hrabal. This did not, however, mean that they gave the author of Pearls of the Deep preferential treatment. When the writer showed them his works in manuscript, they were the first to notice that his recently published short stories were weaker, censored versions of texts written years earlier. They concluded that the writer—as Doležal put it years later—“was prostituting his own texts.” Interestingly enough, Hrabal didn’t take offence but rather, when asked by journalists what he thought of literary critics, cited Jan Lopatka as a model critic.

The pedestrian communist scribblers, whose output was regularly mocked by the critics of Tvář, didn’t have the same class. They went on denouncing the paper to the Communist Party until the authorities finally decided to close the journal down. However, the decision first had to be formally approved by the Writers’ Union.

While this wouldn’t have posed a problem in the past, by the middle of the sixties, times had changed. An increasing number of writers and journalists, mostly party members, believed that communist dictatorship did not have to be synonymous with a dictatorship of dimwits. Or maybe it didn’t even have to be a dictatorship? That is why the editors of Tvář could count on the support of some union members. But there was a minor problem—none of the editors themselves actually belonged to the Writers’ Union, and thus could not attend the meetings that were to decide their journal’s fate.

However, they found a way around this problem. They approached a young playwright who shared their views, was more or less the same age as they were, and did belong to the Writers’ Union—though without being a party member—and invited him to join their editorial board.

Václav Havel, for it was he, was happy to lend the journal his support. He organised petitions to the authorities and collected signatures from writers across the country, even travelling to Slovakia to do so. In the early spring of 1965, three further Writers’ Union members, who were also his friends or acquaintances, joined the editorial board. One of them was Bohumil Hrabal.

“I can’t remember who suggested his candidature, but it was undisputed. He was an obvious choice,” Bohumil Doležal told me. “Hrabal rarely attended our meetings, he obviously wasn’t made for fiddly editorial work, but nor were we expecting that. We really liked his texts from the fifties. He later revised them so that they would pass the censors, something Jan Lopatka rightly criticised. But Hrabal had no objections to us printing them in their original form.”

The publication of extracts from the poem “Bambino di Praga” caused a veritable scandal.

To get to the public toilet you go down the stairs,
a Roman arch lies in front of the grille,
the city’s level has risen quite a bit,
it used to be located several metres lower.
As I pee I focus on a match,
it shrinks back, twisting on the spot,
but willy-nilly, it is swept along by the stream of urine,
and off it goes down the bowels of the sewer.
Every time I take a pee I think of humanity.
Sometimes the gods pee our eyes full and off we go.
To be dead is to be nothing but a dead corpse.

The famous opening lines of the poem were followed by the author’s declaration of his faith in art, in an unconfined imagination, and the genius loci of Prague. And also his faith in love, which he described as follows:

 . . .  and the other thing I’m thinking of
is that the last time I was here I was with you,
when in the dark stairwell I touched
your private parts, you warned me: Naughty boy!
But it was just the day fading away,
more a promise of things to come,
as with your legs raised and your back against a step
you banged your head on the wall.

The poem concludes with the famous Dadaist line: “Screw your friendship, your society, your family, your love!”

It was not long before the journal started to receive letters from indignant readers.

“You nasty pig, everyone is now singing your praises. When will you stop poisoning human souls with your revolting perversions?” read one. Another: “How much money have you blown on booze in brothels with your ‘critics’ and reviewers to make them shower you with all this praise?”

“You disgusting, senile old man with adolescent tastes, you filthy pig, you should be in prison, the morality police should have a word with you, you should be behind bars or in a nuthouse.”

“You’re to blame for 13 to 15-year-olds screwing around in the flats of their hard-working parents. When will you be called to account for this?”

“Enough of Hrabal already!!—This is the motto of all decent people. Don’t think that your fame will reach heaven. You son of a bitch, you curly-tailed swine! To hell with you!”

“I’m just sorry that I’m too busy to seek you out in the evening and have the pleasure of spitting into your nasty mug, you perverter of the youth.”

“What should we make of all this, we educators and fathers of adolescent children who are at their most vulnerable age? How, for example, am I supposed to explain to my sixteen-year-old son what ‘little cunt’ means?”

“You look like a dirty old man picking his nose out of boredom, and it makes me mad to think you’re the one representing the people of Brno. That’s why I’m telling you to your face: you should be ashamed, you boozy old drunk.”

“Someone has created this halo around him and now everyone keeps going on about what a great writer he is, etc. But he’s nothing more than a rascal, a scoundrel, maybe impotent or a faggot.”

Three years later, Hrabal assembled anonymous quotations of this nature into a text entitled “A Bloody Ballad Written by Readers” (1968). He interweaved them with comments from admirers of his work, creating a peculiar “confrontage” (a term coined by the poet Jiří Kolář). One of the positive comments seems particularly apposite: “If we, the Czechs, possess a single particularly likeable quality that makes us uniquely and basically 100 per cent inimitably Czech, Mr Hrabal, it is precisely our propensity for “palavering” and our ‘palaverability,’ in the sense of a capacity to be garrulous in a very human way, to weave ourselves and others into a web of bizarre and beautiful words and actions.”

Tvář ceased publication at the end of 1965. Members of its editorial board kept meeting, though without Bohumil Hrabal. For by then the writer had received a highly prestigious offer he found much more interesting—from the editorial board of the weekly Literární noviny. He joined it in early 1966.


In the editorial offices of “Literárky,” as Literární noviny was affectionately known, located in a building on the bank of the river Vltava with a view of the Little Quarter and the Castle, Hrabal met the most distinguished intellectuals and writers of the day: Karel Kosík, Milan Kundera, Antonín Liehm, Ivan Klíma and Ludvík Vaculík. These were, to use expressions from another cultural sphere, the Czech “Westernizers” or “Occidentalists,” people who—as opposed to the Stalinist “Slavophiles”—advocated the return of Czech culture to its European roots. They began by calling for a rehabilitation of the avant-garde left, of surrealism, expressionism, the writing of Franz Kafka, existentialist philosophy and phenomenology, and the theatre of the absurd. They went on to articulate political demands from a position close to Central European revisionism in the spirit of György Lukács or Leszek Kołakowski, as well as from the position of the Western new left. Needless to say, they were all [communist] party members.

This is how Antonín J. Liehm, who worked on the paper from 1961, described the Literární noviny phenomenon:

“A Hungarian poet once said that whenever politics got pushed out of public life in Hungary, its place was taken by culture. And this is exactly what happened in Czechoslovakia after 1956. When Literární noviny gained a certain amount of freedom, the 140,000 copies would disappear from the newsstands within an hour, and several people would read each copy. This meant that the paper had a million readers, and that it came to mediate between the intellectuals and society.”

Its leading figures were the two deputy chairmen of the editorial board, Karel Kosík and Milan Kundera. This is how the latter recalled the Literární noviny of the 1960s: “I hope nobody will suspect me of exaggeration if I say that no other weekly of this kind (produced not by journalists but rather by writers, critics, and philosophers, a weekly meddling in politics from a cultural perspective and exerting enormous influence on the unfolding of events) existed at the time (or later, for that matter, as I came to realize in France) anywhere else in the world.”

Of course, the paper’s unique nature resulted from the undemocratic character of the Czechoslovak regime. In a 1968 interview with Liehm, Kosík recalled a statement by Jürgen Habermas. A few years earlier, the West German philosopher had responded to the complaints of his Czech colleagues about being criticized and persecuted by the authorities: “Your situation is much better than ours in the Federal Republic where we philosophers and sociologists are ignored by the authorities and society as a whole, which means that we have no public social role.”

Czech intellectuals, philosophers, and writers, by contrast, were virtually condemned to being politically engaged. This also applied to Hrabal, who participated in the editorial meetings of Literární noviny right up to 1969, when the regime under the new Communist party Secretary General Husák destroyed this “nest of troublemakers” for good.

The author’s new, committed stance was epitomised by his fifth book, the short story collection Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet (Mr Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult), which came out in December 1965. Most of the stories (which had previously appeared in journals) are no longer set in the outer suburbs of Prague but in the Poldi steelworks in Kladno. Hrabal’s prose develops a new, savage register; the writer wants to shock his readers and succeeds in this endeavour. Instead of “palaverers,” the stories “Anděl” (Angel), “Divní lidé” (Strange People), “Ingot a ingoti” (Ingots) are populated by ordinary Czechs, thrown during Stalinism onto the scrapheap of history, yet trying, not always successfully, to preserve their human dignity under these conditions. The only thing offering a glimmer of hope for the future is the sight of the Stalin monument in Prague being blown up, bit by bit, over several days (“Zrada zrcadel” [A Betrayal of Mirrors]). 

Hrabal referred to Mr Kafka as his favourite book (“because it scares me”). He said: “Although it may not be obvious, I re-wrote and re-edited these stories over and over again, endlessly. Basically, I was trying to reach that final phase when all the parts would fit together, so that it would look like a kind of organum, a single piece that follows its own logic, its own order [ . . . ] I start by constructing events and stories without a specific goal. Only later does the leitmotif emerge.”

However, some critics felt that the book was too elaborately structured, as well as being derivative of his earlier works. “Even without the author’s testimony we would notice that this ‘leitmotif’ is the greatest stumbling block,” noted Jiří Brabec. “If one particular level of the text starts to dominate all the other levels, the entire construction comes tumbling down and all that’s left is an enormous amount of detail, even if it is very distinctive detail. This goes hand in hand with a somewhat mechanical use of technical devices (such as the mixing of narrative layers) to organize the literary material in a preordained manner.”

Mr Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult uses the same technique as Pearls of the Deep. However, the ultimate effect is quite different,” added Milan Suchomel. “The artificial nature of these constructions, their logic and rhythmic pattern are quite striking. What was once extravagant has become ordinary, what was noteworthy in Mr Kafka turns into just a hackneyed tune. Yes, it bears all Hrabal’s hallmarks but it’s not the Hrabal who used to palaver and tell stories.”

Only those who attended the gatherings at Jiří Kolář’s house and readers of the original version of the story “The Proprietress of the Foundry” were aware that, in fact, in “An Advertisement” Hrabal was revisiting his poetics and literary characters from the early 1950s. It wasn’t until the middle of the following decade that, thanks to a belated, and all the more frenzied for its belatedness, thaw in the Czech social life and culture, a book such as Mr Kafka could be published at all (and acclaimed by official critics who only a few years earlier would, of course, have been obliged to condemn it as “reactionary”). From this point on literary scholars had to struggle to try to identify the de facto chronology of Hrabal’s works (for example, the opening story “Kafkárna” [Mr Kafka] is an assemblage of Hrabal’s poems from 1947 to 1951: “Bambino di Praga,” “Kolekce není Matthias” [There is No Assortment, Matthias] and “Půlnoční král” [The Midnight King]). This often led them to misleading interpretations. Only the publication of the author’s Collected Works issued in the 1990s made it possible to determine the actual timeline of his writings.

The volume Mr Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult occupies a special place in Hrabal’s writing. On the one hand, it has deservedly propelled him to the heights of success: the combined print runs of his books three years after his debut topped a quarter of a million (in a country with a population of fifteen million!). On the other hand, it set a bar that he wasn’t able to surpass for several more years. His next books were either collections of previously published stories (The World Cafeteria, 1966) or texts by other authors (Bohumil Hrabal uvádí [Bohumil Hrabal Presents, 1967]; Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatel [This Town is Jointly Administered by its Inhabitants, 1967], or new variations on his works from the 1950s, such as Morytáty a legendy [Murder Ballads and Other Legends]). Hrabal sought a way out of his creative impasse, but the poetics of “palavering” had turned against him, limiting him, locking him inside a small, safe world of prattlers and storytellers. The writer resorted to scraping the bottom of his barrel for old manuscripts and reworking them into “new” works but such half measures were no substitute for fresh narrative techniques. And without these Hrabal was unable to think in terms of larger fictional forms.

Not that he spent too much time brooding over this, being otherwise engaged. In January 1966 he travelled to Switzerland in search of Cabaret Voltaire. This is not a joke: February 1966 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first appearance of the Dadaists. Literární noviny decided to take this opportunity to rehabilitate the precursors of the avant-garde who were still banned in Czechoslovakia—as Kafka had been until only three years earlier.

Eventually, after a number of adventures, the writer managed to find the house in Spiegelgasse that in 1916 had become the headquarters of the Dada revolution, “while across the road, number six, if I’m not mistaken, was where Mr Ulyanov-Lenin used to live.” A few months later the Dadaists opened their first gallery near Zurich railway station and Lenin boarded a sealed train for St Petersburg, to bring about real revolution.

Hrabal was aware that this event had a certain impact on the future history of the art avant-garde. After 1945 “over the course of these three years, I realised what Mayakovsky, and especially Seryozha Yesenin and Isaac Babel, meant and why they wrote the way they did. I also realised why Yesenin and Mayakovsky had committed suicide; realised why André Breton went to visit Trotsky in Mexico, why Isaac Babel ended up being eliminated somewhere, who knows where, in 1940. My life, too, was ruled by the law of reflection indirectly influenced by Soviet politics and thus also its literature. [ . . . ] I think that these first years after 1945 were, for me, also marked by the reflection of my country’s politics and its gravitation to the East.”

This is, obviously, not how he put it in his piece for Literární noviny. His report on his Swiss trip, published under the heading 50 Years of Dada, was above all great fun, although he left out the most interesting episode: “hanging around on the lake shore in Zurich, where Lenin used to play chess with Tristan Tzara, near this charming little café. [ . . . ] And as I’m walking past a department store by the lake, I see it’s got a whole shop window filled with descriptions of various feasts, in German. And one of these told of how somewhere in Abyssinia they prepared a camel, how they stuffed it like one of those Russian dolls, with one inside another . . .  And one day when I needed it, it all came back to me . . . ”

This was the genesis of the truly surrealist description of a camel being stuffed in I Served the King of England.

translated from the Polish by Julia and Peter Sherwood