Monday, March 31, 2014


or Ejaculatio Praecox (Bohumil Hrabal, Part II*)

 Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Woe betide the country that needs heroes.
                                                                                            Bertolt Brecht

Reading this short, funny novel, this “optimistic tragedy,” was for me a bit like a roller-coaster ride in the dark: at the start I was thrilled, then toward the middle my interest dipped precipitously, only to soar sky-high in the magnificent final pages. Thank you, Joseph Škvorecký, for pressing me to ride it through to the end. 

Like so much modern fiction, this novel is about heroism in one of its unlikely modern forms. The hero (think—sans cynicism—of a Czech Holden Caulfield; think—sans Jim—of a Czech Huck Finn), a timid failed suicide and virgin named Miloš Hrma, discovers one day, when naked with a woman he admires, that he cannot stay erect, that when called to action his penis “wilted like a lily.” What follows is a sad and quirky tale of sex and trains and paranoia, as the hero, a young railroad traffic apprentice, grapples with his fate and masculinity against the menacing backdrop of daily life in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Like the work of William Faulkner, Hrabal’s fiction is a compelling mixture of the “high” and “low,” of the vernacular and folkloric “filtered through a sophisticated intellect.” Indeed Hrabal is deceptively complex in his vision and craft, imbuing this seemingly simple, nearly plot-less tale with great resonance and depth. Described by countrymen and fellow writer, Josef Skvorecky, as “a national hero, a revolutionary of prose, an innovator, a revitalizer of language” who extricated Czech writing “from the vicious cycle of propaganda and set in back on the path of art,” Bohumil Hrabal writes here with an irony and humor, with a nimbly eccentric realism that is as bold and tonic today as it must have been to the art-starved, sex-starved, truth-starved Czech public in 1965, by then all but vanquished, in flesh and spirit, by nearly three decades of Soviet rule.

While the fumbling heroism of this novel’s protagonist, the young railroad signalman Miloš Hrma, is not the heroism of any formal, organized Czech resistance to the Nazis, nor surely does it presume the nature of the epic in either its motives or consequence, it is nonetheless remarkable for its ringing depiction of innocence lost—of innocence lost and gained. 

BOHUMIL HRABAL TRAGICALLY DEAD,” ran the headline of the front page of the daily Mladá fronta, 4 February 1997. The 82-year-old Hrabal died instantly when, on 3 February, he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He had been at the hospital’s orthopedic clinic since December 1996 for back and joint pain and was scheduled to be released soon. According to witnesses, Hrabal was trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on tipped and fell.” (The Art Bin)
Closely Watched Trains was translated by the late, great Edith Pargeter, a lifelong Czechophile who almost singlehandedly brought Czech literature to the attention of the world.

* see George Ovitt’s post “The End of the Book” (February 25, 2013)
 Peter Adam Nash

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