To Save You From a Life of Need
It takes a lot of nerve for anyone, let alone a Czech, to title a story “Mr. Kafka”. Finicky Franz casts such a huge shadow on the literature of Prague that it’s audacious to the point of foolhardiness to invite the comparison. But if anyone earned the right to do it in life, it was Bohumil Hrabal. The Brno-born eccentric who, when he died in 1997 in a tragicomic fall from a window while feeding pigeons (a demise both referred to in and perfectly in keeping with his work) was widely considered one of the greatest Czech writers of all time, certainly didn’t mind suggesting a kinship between himself and that other fellow; living, as he did, under an oppressive Communist regime, he likely considered overzealous literary comparisons to be the least of his troubles.
Hrabal, probably best known in America as the author of I Served the King of England and the novel that would become Jirí Menzel’s classic film Closely Watched Trains, was often on the receiving end of censure from the state. But a new collection of some of his short fiction, titled Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, shows that he never quite had an entirely oppositional relationship with the government that constantly threatened him with censorship or worse. ‘The cult’, as he termed the postwar period of extreme repression and the personality worship of Stalin and Novotny, was no better or worse than other times of capricious fate and wanton cruelty: humans treated one another badly in the abstract and lovingly in the concrete. Despite the lunacy of the era, he wrote that his stories not “mere condemnation”, but an affirmation that his Prague was filled with “people who had not forgotten the fundamental house rules of human coexistence”.
The seven brief stories in Mr. Kafka are light on plot; they tend to be build around what we might call notions rather than storylines. Hrabal’s greatness did not lay in his ability to craft tightly knotted frameworks of events and conclusions, but in his ability to exquisitely describe the romantic and bewildering interactions of vividly living human beings in intolerable circumstances. His stories are marked by wandering narratives, by people reacting instead of acting, by impossible coping mechanisms instilled by even more impossible demands. Like his sentences, lovely loping things of an almost Faulknerian beauty if Faulkner’s metier was industrial Europe after the war instead of the post-agricultural American south and possessed a Slavic fatalism instead of a Mississippi melancholy, his stories meander through beautifully delineated places and times, stopping to observe the behavior of the odd characters who find themselves there rather than rush to discover what becomes of them.
The title story is the collection’s most romantic and inspiring, a virtual love letter to Prague by a man who never fell out of love with it even when it turned its back on him, but most of its most successful tales are set in the Poldi Steelworks of Kladno. Hrabal himself was a worker there, and most of these stories involve freewheeling encounters with the bizarre assortment of odd characters he ran into as the Communist regime literally liquidated its past in the huge smelters to build a totalitarian future. But despite the consequences of disobedience, the constant treat of surveillance and snitching, and the bureaucratic impossibility of true liberation, most of the workers manage to scrape out some degree of happiness and independence: “Tell me about some of the other times when you were happy,” one worker tells his comrade, a hapless ex-judge who can’t seem to get anything right when he’s working on the factory floor.
The stories are full of these characters, obsessed with what they used to be and identified with nicknames that suggest both their personalities and the hidden lives they carry around with them: the Frenchman, the Dairyman, the Cop, and the Priest; the shadowy female convicts, who are sentenced to doing some of the most backbreaking manual labor; the rabble-rousing crane operator, and the sincere foreman who can’t understand why he won’t cooperate and stop taking the worker’s-rights rhetoric of communism seriously. These descriptions suggest mere archetypes, but Hrabal manages to make them achingly real, infusing them with desires and histories that flesh them out and bring them depth. No matter how the state tries to subsume them into its machinery, he implies, they can never leave behind who they were — a fact that is both a lifesaver and a hindrance.
Into this all comes a documentary film crew, assigned to tell the ‘real’ story of the steelworkers; but, of course, their stories are all too real, and the crew breezily constructs an absurd backdrop of propaganda. The workers are forced to coo over a hastily constructed aquarium; they are quickly taught recently penned ‘traditional’ work songs, and they stumble over anticapitalist slogans. For their part, they bribe the director for extra sandwiches, ad lib their own lines, and fall victim to their own incompetence. This all plays out in a way that seems almost like Soviet magical realism, but bears inescapable marks of not only the satirical humanist poet Hrabal became, but the wickedly absurd surrealist he started out as.
Much of what is portrayed in Mr. Kafka is the foolish reality of imposing a culture on an existing people from above: no matter how restrictive their roles, the people of Hrabal’s Prague carry around the comedy and the tragedy of their lives before the cult, and no degree of external tampering can force them into either repressing or correcting their own passions. They find ways of expressing themselves even through the maddening fog of industrial efficiencies and state planning, and even their incompetence stands as a sort of beacon of their humanity. Like Hrabal’s stories, they are shambolic and disorganized and wrapped up in the shortness of their own perspectives; but they are human, all too human, and like the poor humans who faced the state in another great Czech writer’s work, this is both their triumph and their failure.