Paul Wilson on Bohumil Hrabal

“If you knew how much I love the Poldi steel mill, you’d be jealous. It was there that I saw everything, and from the moment I saw her,
I became a seer.”

—Bohumil Hrabal, from Be Kind Enough to Pull Down the Blinds: A Selection of Love Letters

Hrabal’s fascination with an industry he describes as “the magnificent work of magnificent people” has roots in the history of a region. Originally, the Kladno steel works, about forty kilometers northeast of Prague, consisted of two separate companies. The first, the Vojtěšská Iron Works, was founded in the 1850s when Bohemia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. By the end of that century, it had become the largest of its kind in the country, smelting ore and scrap metal into tens of thousands of tons of iron and steel each year to supply the needs of the Industrial Revolution. In 1889, a second company, the Poldi Steel Works, was established nearby to produce high-quality steel. The founder, Karl Wittgenstein (who was also the father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) named it after his wife, Leopoldina, known to family and friends as Poldi. He registered a cameo profile of her, with a star poised above her head, as the company trademark that would later inspire Hrabal to personify the steelworks as a woman in “Beautiful Poldi.”

After 1948, when the Communists, with Soviet backing, usurped power in Czechoslovakia, the two companies were merged into a single nationalized enterprise. The Vojtěšská steel mill—where Hrabal worked as a “volunteer” from 1949 to 1954—was renamed “Koněv” after the Red Army field marshal who had liberated large parts of Eastern Europe from Nazi occupation. For commercial reasons, the Communists left the Poldi name and trademark intact, and the entire area eventually came to be known simply as Poldi Kladno. That company, with its logo, is still in operation today. The Koněv works were shut down and abandoned in 1975.

Today, against the backdrop of Poldi’s new glass-and-steel factory halls, smokestacks, and electrical plants, all that remains of Hrabal’s Koněv is a forlorn and ghostly tract of weeds, rubble, corroded gas pipelines, rusting rail spurs, crumbling lime kilns, blackened coke-storage facilities, and derelict buildings. The proud blast furnaces that were once the heart of the industry are gone, having been dismantled and recycled to become raw material for the new, post-communist era. Walking through the silent ruins is like visiting an ancient archaeological site that, mere decades ago, teemed with a bizarre and anomalous life in the shadow of Stalinism. It is this life that Hrabal chronicles in this book.

The “volunteer” laborers in Hrabal’s stories—judges and lawyers, poets and philosophy professors, policemen, army officers, tradesmen, and small businessmen—were all uprooted from their former lives by the Communist regime as part of a program called “Putting 77,000 to Work,” during which tens of thousands were plucked from their jobs and sent to mines, factories, and collective farms to perform unfamiliar work in harsh and dangerous conditions, alongside regular workers, party hacks, criminals, and political prisoners. This was how the former railway dispatcher, insurance agent, lawyer, traveling salesman, and aspiring writer Bohumil Hrabal found himself working in the Kladno steel mills.

Hrabal accepted his fate with an open mind, and it marked a turning point in his creative life. For well over a decade, under the influence of the Surrealists and other writers, he had been experimenting with different literary forms—poetry, brief impressionistic prose “études,” dream chronicles, automatic writing—all the time groping for a way of doing justice to the unprecedented strangeness of life in a newly “revolutionary” society. Eventually, this led to a creative crisis, of sorts:

I had begun building my house from the roof on down . . . always emphasizing the façade and the decorative touches . . . . I had borrowed a little from Rimbaud, a little from Baudelaire, a little from Éluard, and again from Céline. I used artificial clusters of words as though they were natural linguistic signs, and so I invented more and more impossible metaphors—until Kladno, in the steelworks, where my whole, pseudo-artistic, second-hand world collapsed, and for an entire year I merely looked around me and saw and heard fundamental things and fundamental words. It was some time before I realized that I had to start again from the ground up, give up trying to escape and begin to write as if I were writing for the newspapers, reporting on people and their conversations, their work, and in general, their lives.

The stories in this collection represent the early results of Hrabal’s discovery of what he came to call “total realism,” the realization that the ordinary events of everyday life can be as magical as Surrealism, and that straightforward accounts of people at work and in conversation can reveal more about who they are and the world they live in than attempts to portray their inner lives. Hrabal’s characters pass the time in conversation, with themselves and with each other, from idle banter about women, history, or the relative merits of Czech poets—like the communist icon Vitězslav Nezval or the patriotic lyricist Jaroslav Vrchlický—to current affairs and personal stories that lay bare the very essence of their lives.

Some are outliers, like the Milkman in “Strange People,” a true volunteer who discovers that his ideals clash with the demands of those in power, and that his appeals to highly placed Communist officials, like Antonín “Tonda” Zápotocký, would fall on deaf ears. Others are merely hoping to survive the huge disruption to their lives with a shred of dignity. Still others achieve a kind of inner peace, a new and deeper understanding of themselves, as they come to terms with the harsh reality they have been forced to undergo.

Like the times they chronicle, Hrabal’s stories can sometimes be disturbingly raw, and elements of his early surrealistic poetics still cling to them, in particular in the two stories that bookend the collection, “Mr. Kafka,” and “Beautiful Poldi,” both of which Hrabal originally wrote in 1950 as “epic” poems and then later reworked as prose. Chronologically, the stories straddle a period from roughly the closing years of World War II, when the narrator of “Breaking Through the Drum” was just embarking on his career as an usher, through the postwar, pre-communist period (“Mr. Kafka”), to 1962, when de-Stalinization was in full swing and the most grandiose statue to Stalin in the world—unveiled in 1955 two years after Stalin’s death, even as the Generalissimo’s cult was about to be radically dismantled in places like Poland and Hungary—was destroyed. That event serves Hrabal as a backdrop for the two parallel narratives in “A Betrayal of Mirrors”: the story of the hapless stonemason who reluctantly takes part in the restoration of cultural monuments that have been allowed to go derelict, and of the beleaguered artist Mr. Valerián, who against his better judgment takes part in a competition to revive public interest in Alois Jirásek and his retelling of old Czech legends that, under Stalinism, were condemned as expressions of “bourgeois nationalism.”

Apart from appearances in small magazines in the late 1950s, Hrabal published nothing officially until 1963, when his first book of stories, Pearls on the Bottom, appeared. The present collection, under the title that could be translated as Want-Ad for a House I No Longer Wish to Live In, came out in 1965 and was his fourth book. Like all literature at the time, it was subject to censorship, which is why I have based my translations on the restored versions of these stories that appeared in the post-1989 edition of Hrabal’s Collected Writings. This is the second book of Hrabal’s I have translated (the first was I Served the King of England), but Mr. Kafka was by far the more challenging task, and I was fortunate to find people willing to help me understand the technical and linguistic obscurities in Hrabal’s text. Still, some passages baffled even the experts, leaving me to take my best guess at Hrabal’s meaning.

Of course I accept full responsibility for any errors.

This is an abridged version of Paul Wilson’s Afterword to his translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s Mr. Kafka And Other Tales from the Times, to be published by New Directions on October 27, 2015.