I have Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog to thank for bringing this little gem to my attention. Since he’s hosting an Eastern European Literature Month this March, I thought it was fitting to choose Hakl’s novel as my first contribution.
A forty-year-old son and his seventy-year-old father spend an afternoon and evening walking through Prague, stopping at different pubs and bars, drinking heavily, and talking about everything. There is nothing these two men don’t find worthy as a topic of conversation. Air plane types, nasty drinks, WWII, women, ambition, history, trees, cooking . . . They exchange stories of their lives, tell each other anecdotes, reminisce, quarrel about who knows more about something, who has the better taste. The language is hefty, the way they talk very open. After only a couple of pages two very distinct characters come alive. And we feel we are there with them, downing one juniper brandy after the other, mocking other patrons, and living an intense moment of authentic communication.
We learn a lot about these two men. The stories of their lives, how they were marked by their times, what they think about current politics. They don’t always see eye to eye with each other. The father often interrupts the son to add some piece of information. The son gets upset because the father’s too loud, too unselfconscious. Nonetheless they are always attentive and genuinely interested in each other. They know each other’s tastes and foibles and they care about each other.
While we follow them on their walk, we get introduced to a Prague that’s far from the Prague a tourist would see. They don’t walk down big streets lined by Jugendstil houses, but down alleys that reek of piss and whose recent industrial buildings are already in decay.
Both characters think of themselves as ordinary but the way they talk, the way they see things, and the intensity of their interest in everything and everyone makes these two men far from ordinary.
Here are a few samples.
“So, what’s new?” I asked
“Nothing’s been new in this world for more than two billion years, it’s all just variations on the same theme of carbon, hydrogen, helium, nitrogen,” Father said.
“I’ve been saying to myself for a long time now that one of the few dignified forms of employment in this world is to be a hired killer, too bad I didn’t take it up when I was young,” Father said, “I don’t mean in relation to this lot, a hired killer has to be free of all emotions and that’s what’s nice about it . . . You sure don’t want any chicken?”
“I remember it like it happened the day before yesterday because it was the first time I’d seen real tanks. What a rush! The motors roared, smoke hung above the woods, the tanks rumpled along one after another, and still there was no end to them! And we stood until the afternoon. Granddad shook his fist at the but I waved at them, secretly so he couldn’t see it . . . . I remember one tiny officer with a moustache and one of those broad flat caps of theirs who kept looking round at us from an armoured car and he just couldn’t get it: grandfather threatening, little boy waving . . . “
While reading this I was wondering if there are similar books out there from a mother/daughter point of view. I’d be glad for any suggestions/recommendations. It would be interesting to see how they compare in terms of topics, setting etc.
As I said, I’m really grateful Stu suggested this book. I loved every moment of it. It’s so rich, intense, and full of life. But also highly intelligent and lucid. It says a lot about being human and getting older. About history and how it repeats itself again and again. And about the humans who think they are the crown of creation while they are not. And I shouldn’t forget to mention that, at times, it’s a very funny book.