“How different it had been when I set out that other time, three months ago, in search of my death…

Even though it stands at a diminutive 91 pages, Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains packs just as strong a punch as his longer works. Set in rural Bohemia against the final days of Germany’s 1945 occupation of Czechoslovakia, the book follows Milos Hrma, a naive and sensitive young railway apprentice, as he returns to work following a suicide attempt. Like all of Hrabal’s work, Closely Observed Trains trips along at a nimble pace, stepping with apparent effortlessness from the entirely absurd and the deadly serious.

“Ghastly, the whole of Dresden’s kaput…. The whole of Dresden’s one torch. This lot climbed into my vans,” he [the train chief] said… And those Germans stood… staring at the ground; maybe they were seeing those last moments when they had leaped out of their windows into gardens and streets, everything cut off from them by falling trees and walls and beams. All those Germans had long arms, hanging now almost to their knees, and all this time not one of them blinked, as though horror had cut off their eyelids. And I had no pity for them, I who had wept over every kid that ever was slaughtered, and everything that suffered distress, I could find no pity now for those Germans. (p. 82)

The war is in its last days and the Germans have lost control of all Czech airspace, but the railway line that passes through the town remains a highly strategic one. Young Milos’ experience of war is distanced, and somewhat secondary to his personal troubles, but there is no glory to what he witnesses – hospice care for fatally burned soldiers; the victim of an aerial dog-fight; German citizens displaced following the firebombing of Dresden; the life-threatening pressure on Milos and the other railway staff to keep the trains running on time; a bullet-ridden, blood-stained train standing by as augury.

There was another close-surveillance transport running through the main line. All the fellows sunning themselves there on the tanks were young boys, just like myself, some of them even younger… but when they passed by that strafed train on the fifth line they froze, struck motionless. As each wagon came into the vicinity of those shattered coaches, consigned to the workshops for repair, every person aboard it froze, even the cooks stopped peeling potatoes, though these soldiers must surely have seen worse things at home, shattered towns, houses, heaps of dead. But just here, and now, and this, they hadn’t been expecting… (p. 56)

No review of Hrabal’s books can ever do his writing justice, or ever adequately express how much I adore his work.  To so seamlessly blend antics worthy of Benny Hill with the personal trauma of a failed suicide with the tensions of the humanity/inhumanity of an invading, all in the kind of casual narrative style you’d find chatting with a chap three beers deep at your local bar, and to make it all engaging is truly a unique feat. The ending is typically Hrabal – it may not leave you feeling happy, but it will leave you feeling.

And the captain’s eyes were gazing now at my wrist, where I too, had a scar; my sleeve had slipped down, and the captain looked at that healed wound like a man reading a book. Perhaps this captain had already learned much more, perhaps he was looking at everything now from the opposite viewpoint… And now they were all staring at my wrist, and the captain stretched out his little whip, and with it drew back my other sleeve, too, and looked at the second scar.
Kamerad,” he said.
And he made a sign, and the close-surveillance military transport slowed down, and the two pistols were withdrawn from my back…
“Go”, said the captain.
“Thank you,” I whispered. (p. 35)

Advertisements

You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life. They’re plenty loud and they talk all the time. You can find them in churches and schools and newspapers and legislatures and congress. That’s their business. They sound wonderful. Death before dishonor. This ground sanctified by blood. These men who died so gloriously. They shall not have died in vain. Our noble dead. Hmmmm.

But what do the dead say?

Did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god I’m glad I’m dead because death is always better than dishonor? Did they say I’m glad I died to make the world safe for democracy? Did they say I like death better than losing liberty? Did any of them ever say it’s good to think I got my guts blown out for the honor of my country? Did any of them ever say look at me I’m dead but I died for decency and that’s better than being alive? Did any of them ever say here I am I’ve been rotting for two years in a foreign grave but it’s wonderful to die for your native land? Did any of them say hurray I died for womanhood and I’m happy see how I sing even though my mouth is choked with worms?

Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can’t talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead. If a man says death before dishonor he is either a fool or a liar because he doesn’t know what death is.”

– p. 120, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo

(I feel like I’ve missed a real opportunity to post my favourite war quotes, of which there are many, today being Anzac Day and all, but I thought I might just sneak this one in! This from one of my favourite books, which inspired a decent movie and one of my favourite Metallica songs.)

“And I talked in a jumbled way about how beauty had another side to it… all related to whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained, when it got dark early, when you sat by the stove and thought it was ten at night while it was really only half past six, when you started talking to yourself, speaking to the horse, the dog, the cat, and the goat, but best of all to yourself, silently at first – as though showing a movie, letting images from the past flicker through your memory – and then out loud, as I had done, asking yourself questions, inquiring of yourself, interrogating yourself, wanting to know the most secret things about yourself, accusing yourself as if you were a public prosecutor and then defending yourself, and so arriving, in this back-and-forth way, at the meaning of your life. Not the meaning of what used to be or what happened a long time ago, but discovering the kind of road you’d opened up and had yet to open up, and whether there was still time to attain the serenity that would secure you against the desire to escape from your own solitude, from the most important questions that you should ask yourself. And so I…sat in the pub every Saturday till evening, and the longer I sat there, the more I opened myself up to people… and I saw how the people here were eclipsing what I wanted to see and know, how they were all simply enjoying themselves they way I used to enjoy myself, putting off the questions they would have to ask themselves one day, if they were lucky enough to have the time to do that before they died. As a matter of fact whenever I was in the pub I realized that the basic thing in life is questioning death, wanting to know how we’ll act when our time comes, and that death, or rather this questioning of death, is a conversation that takes place between infinity and eternity, and how we deal with our own death is the beginning of what is beautiful, because the absurd things in our lives, which always end before we want them to anyway, fill us, when we contemplate death, with bitterness and therefore with beauty.”

p. 227-8, I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal

“So I learned that money could buy you not just a beautiful girl, money could buy you poetry too.”

Trying to decide what book to buy next fills me with all kinds of anxiety. Struggling last week, I googled “which Hrabal book should I buy?”, just to see what might come up, but it autocorrected to “which Hrabal book should I breastfeed?”

… not quite sure what Google is trying to suggest, but I have a suspicion Bohumil Hrabal would have thought it wonderful. I eventually settled, Google insinuations aside, on I Served the King of England, written in a single draft in 1971, circulated unofficially that year or soon after, and finally published semi-legally as a private edition of 5,000 copies in 1983 by the jazz section of the Czech Musicians’ Union.

I DSC08080Served the King of England follows the life of the diminutive but deeply ambitious Ditie, as he works his way from teenage busboy to millionaire hotelier, only to lose his fortune as the Czech government falls to communism. The book is Ditie’s story, but it’s also very much the story of 20th Century Czechoslovakia, with appearances by the country’s first president MasarykHaile Selassie in exile following Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, Steinbeck during his 1960s tour of the Eastern Bloc; backgrounded by the German occupation of Bohemia, the Second World War, the massacre at and destruction of Lidice, the election of a Czech Communist government followed by the Soviet Communist takeover.

I Served the King of England is absurd in the way that all Hrabal books are absurd; boldly drawn, often foolish characters in situations that span the frequently thin line between the fantastical and the familiar – which only serves to make his social commentary  all the more pointed.

I also learned that the ones who invented the notion that work is ennobling were the same ones who drank and ate all night long with beautiful women on their knees, the rich ones, who could be as happy as little children. I always used to think that the rich were damned, that country cottages and cozy little parlors and sour soup and potatoes were what gave people a feeling of happiness and well-being, and that wealth was evil. Now it seemed that all that stuff about happiness in poor country cottages was invented by these guests of ours, who didn’t care how much they spent in a night, who threw money to the four winds and felt good doing it…[they] would be watching our porter chop wood, and all these rich fellows thought the porter must be the happiest man in the world, and they would gaze wistfully at him doing work they had never done themselves, but if they’d had to chop wood, they would have been miserable. (p.68-69)

Ditie is very likeable, sensitive and astute, almost innocent in his outlook, but he’s morally a quite complex character. He abandons his disabled infant without a second thought, makes his fortune from valuable stamps stolen from murdered Jews with little compunction and only minor retrospective self-analysis, and aligns himself with the invading Germans for his own personal and social gain despite some pangs of conscience.

And I knew from reading the papers that on the very same day that I was standing here with my penis in my hand to prove myself worthy to marry a German, Germans were executing Czechs, and so I couldn’t get an erection and offer the doctor a few drops of my sperm. … I found myself looking at pornographic snapshots of naked people, and whenever I’d had this kind of picture in my hands before I’d always turn stiff right away, but now the more I looked at them the more I saw those headlines and the stories in the papers announcing that so-and-so and four others had been sentenced to death and shot, and there were more of them every day, new ones, innocent ones. And here I was standing with my penis in my hand and pornographic snapshots in the other… Finally a young nurse had to come in and after a few deft strokes of her hand, during which I didn’t have to think about anything anymore, she carried off two beads of my sperm on a piece of paper, and half an hour later they were pronounced first-class and worthy of inseminating an Aryan vagina with dignity. And so the Bureau for the Defense of German Honor and Blood could find no objection to my marrying an Aryan of German blood. With a mighty thumping of rubber stamps I was given a marriage license, while Czech patriots, with the same thumping of the same rubber stamps, were sentenced to death. (p. 140-141)

Ditie’s humanity – his desires, his ambition, his self-consciousness, his moral fallibility, his pride – make him one of the most satisfying characters I’ve read in a long time. His character development is also beautifully done – his growth is finely drawn, his moments of self-realisation neat without being improbable, his philosophising astute but without pretension.

On the way [home] I’d think things over, talk to myself, go over everything I’d said or done that day, and ask myself whether I’d said or done the right things. The only right things were the things I enjoyed – not the way children or drinkers enjoyed things, but the way the professor of French literature taught me, enjoyment that was metaphysical. When you enjoy something, then you’ve got it, you idiots, you evil, stupid, criminal sons of men, he would say, and he’d browbeat us until he got us where he wanted us, open to poetry, to objects, to wonder, and able to see that beauty always points to infinity and eternity. (p. 230)