A Celebrated Czech Writer Turns 100

Bohumil Hrabal would have been 100 years old on March 28 – here, stories from those who knew him

Ryan Scott

Written by Ryan Scott Published on 25.03.2014 09:21:49 (updated on 25.03.2014) Reading time: 5 minutes

A Celebrated Czech Writer Turns 100

March 28, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Czech author Bohumil Hrabal’s birth. His style, discursive and full of the neologisms he had coined, came close to capturing the beer hall speech of the pub life that he loved and drew inspiration from.

“Mr. Hrabal was a great lover and ambassador for natural beer. It shows not only in his stories but his whole life, the fragments of which live on in the people who knew him,” says Lukáš Novotný, brand manager for Pilsner Urquell.

Several events will commemorate the centennial of Hrabal’s birth including a Prague 8 concert, an evening at the city library, a celebration at the Divadlo Husa in the author’s birthplace, Brno, as well as the release of a new book, Via Hrabal, a compilation of photos and quotes from a number of international writers.

The people who encountered Hrabal are many, from key figures in the underground to heads of state and regulars from his beloved pub, U Zlatého Tygra. Below are a few anecdotes from his life and work from those whose lives intersected with Hrabal’s in different ways.

The author in his element
The author in his element

Karel Hulata
U Zlatého Tygra

Hrabal frequented this pub in the Old Town, so Hulata saw the writer regularly. “He sat here or a little over there at the back of the pub. He had a beer and no one was allowed to talk to him until he had finished it. Once he had finished it, loads of people came,” he said.

Hulata recalled that some Hungarians had come to ask Hrabal to go to Hungary for an interview. He told them to wait until Hrabal had finished his first beer but they insisted.

“I said, ‘So try it but I warned you.’ They took him a beer and then came away. They were standing, crying. He had told them to go to hell. I spoke to them for a while. In the meantime he’d finished his beer and he said, like Captain Nemo, ‘Send them here. Send them here.’ ”

Mr. Hulata was also there when former President Clinton paid a visit.

“About 22 or 25 people were sitting around a table (in the main hall). The secret service gave the journalists a minute only to take photos and then they had to leave. It was only us and three people from the secret service. It felt like a regular day. People were talking among themselves. If somebody wanted to ask a question they did.”

Karel Hulata, owner, U Zlatého Tygra
Karel Hulata, owner, U Zlatého Tygra

Karel Srp
Non-profit cultural organization Jazz Section (Jazzová sekce)

One of Hrabal’s most famous works, I Served the King of England(Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále) came out in a special edition only for members of the Jazz Section, but its fame quickly spread. Karel Srp, the chairperson of the Jazz Section, had a part in its release.

“At the same time he didn’t have to [publish the book]. The film Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) was shot. Books were published. He was tolerated by the authorities. Simply, he could live in peace. And yet, he said, ‘Guys, one masterpiece and I can die.’ It was the release of the English King.”

Srp conjured a time of severe repression and surveillance. In his view I Served the King of England became the most persecuted book under the post-68 ear known as normalization.

“‘Master, come to us’, they called from the editorial boards and even from the Central Committee of the Communist Party. ‘We will do it over a little and the book will come out.’ Who would dare say ‘Enough!’ when at the time communism was in perpetuity,” Srp said.

However, Hrabal decided to release it in the prohibited and persecuted Jazz Section.

“The book was printed in a run of nearly 6,000. Not one printer or bindery betrayed the truth to the authorities,” Srp said.

A Celebrated Czech Writer Turns 100

Paul Wilson 
Author, translator and former The Plastic People of the Universe singer

Many English speakers probably first came in contact with I Served the King of England courtesy of Wilson’s translation. Wilson and Hrabal only met the once when Hrabal was in the USA to launch this book. The meeting revealed a different reaction to the writer.

“There’s not much to say, except at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, I was with him on stage for a reading. What I remember of that event was that he was attacked by Czech exiles in the audience for having caved in to the ‘normalization’ regime in the 1970s so he could continue getting published.”

Wilson goes on to say:

“I wish I could remember how he dealt with that. I think he was taken aback at the vehemence of the audience reaction, since by that time, the bitterness at his endorsement of the post-68 regime had pretty well faded in Prague,” he said.

Literary critic Dr. Martin Machovec
Literary critic Dr. Martin Machovec

Dr. Martin Machovec 
Editor, literary critic, and translator

Dr. Machovec, an expert on the Czech underground, has studied extensively the life and work of Egon Bondy, whose relationship with Hrabal is chronicled in Hrabal’s memoir The Tender Barbarian (Něžný barbar).

“My first encounter with Hrabal was soon after death of [the Czech poet] Jana Černá (born Jana Krejcarová), the daughter of [Czech writer] Milena Jesenská in a car accident. I consulted with Egon Bondy, who had been Černá’s lover, that I would like to see Hrabal to tell him about it.”

Machovec knew Hrabal would likely be at U Zlatého Tygra, though he was not sure he found the right man.

“At first I imagined a face which would project his great knowledge. In fact he looked like any other habitué of a beer cellar. I thought to myself it must be that old guy, so I asked him if he was Mr. Hrabal. ‘That’s me,’ he said, ‘What do you want?’ I told him I had a message from his old friend Egon Bondy but I would like to deliver it in private,” Machovec said.

Hrabal found a quiet place in the otherwise noisy pub.

“He said he needed to pee anyway. So while he peed, I told him about Jana Černá’s fatal accident. He said, ‘A free spirit in life, a free spirit in death.’”

Please share your thoughts on Hrabal’s work and life.

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