Column |  Life as an entertaining chaos

Column | Life as an entertaining chaos

The fans of Bohumil Hrabal are gathered in the packed auditorium of the Amsterdam Public Library. They are not only celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Czech writer’s birth, but also the fact that two new books by him have been published in Dutch twenty-seven years after his death. Reason to praise translator Kees Mercks and the Hrabal documentary Life is everywhere by John Albert Jansen and Chris Kijne to be shown again.

Most attention is paid to the collection of stories A three-legged horsebut we also talked about the two stories from the bibliophile edition House for sale. They date from the 1960s, when Czechoslovakia experienced a short-lived cultural thaw and you could suddenly write about anything.

The first story, ‘Castings and castings’, takes place at the Poldi iron foundry, where the graduated lawyer Hrabal becomes an assistant worker in 1949. He enjoyed the hard physical work and the roaring fire of the smelting furnaces, until in 1952 he was hit in the head by a loose cast iron wheel and became incapacitated. From that moment on he became a full-time writer, as if that blow had unleashed his literary talent. His contemporaries quickly find him better than Milan Kundera.

In ‘Poldi’ Hrabal gets to know the most diverse people. Not only workers, but also criminals, dispossessed middle classes and disgraced professors.

In ‘Castings and Castings’ this produces hilarious scenes that make earthly existence even more absurd than it already is. Hrabal shows that you can only survive in such chaos with a large dose of humor and irony. For example, you will be doubled over with laughter when four factory workers – a wagon unloader, a free ranger, a fireman and a philosopher – discuss the changed qualities of prostitutes after the war (‘Such a woman was, to quote Hegel: absolute Weltgeist. …’, says the philosopher) or about the four ‘genius Jews’ Jesus, Marx, Einstein and Freud (‘The rest is reheated soup or diluted vodka’) to whom the world ‘owes everything’. Hrabal alternates these conversations with the story about a drunk girl who is thrown out of the pub by an innkeeper, after which she is taken in by another drunk who kneels ‘above the beautiful fan of her hair’. It’s talk about nothing and everything at the same time.

The other story, ‘Deceptive mirrors’, takes place during the de-Stalinization after 1953. You immediately notice this when a truck dumps hundreds of nameplates of squares, streets and parks named after Stalin into a bin for scrap metal. Also, a mason and Stalin adept, who against his will has to restore a statue of saints in a church now that religion is allowed again, says: ‘A party man through and through is not having an easy time in the world these days.’ And then in twenty pages a deformed statue of Stalin is blown up, a sexton wants to put an end to the personality cult of Jesus, an elderly woman tries to sell her love letters to a waste paper dealer and an artist destroys his own work as soon as he notices that it is not original. In short, it is life in a nutshell, allowing you to understand the current confusion. According to translator Kees Mercks, Hrabal could only cope with that life by being in a permanent alcoholic stupor. His fans therefore raise a glass to their hero after the meeting.