Literature and War Readalong March 2017: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak by Bohumil Hrabal

closely-observed-trains

Bohumil Hrabal, who is said to be the most important Czech writer of the 20th century, was born in 1914 in the city of Brno, then still part of Austria Hungary. He died in 1997 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He fell from a window, feeding pigeons. Because he mentions suicide in several of his books, many believe he jumped deliberately.

Closely Observed Trains is possibly his most famous novel. It’s very short, just under 100 pages. It has been made into a movie.

Hrabal is famous for his use of very long sentences and expressive style.

Here are the first sentences:

By this year, the year “forty-five”, the Germans had already lost command of the air-space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact, and for that matter, the whole country, the dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains in the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

March, Friday 31

Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky by Bohumil Hrabal, 96 pages, Czech Republic 1965, WWII

For gauche young apprentice Milos Hrma, life at the small but strategic railway station in Bohemia in 1945 is full of complex preoccupations. There is the exacting business of dispatching German troop trains to and from the toppling Eastern front; the problem of ridding himself of his burdensome innocence; and the awesome scandal of Dispatcher Hubicka’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the telegraphist’s anatomy. Beside these, Milos’s part in the plan for the ammunition train seems a simple affair.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 31 March 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Emil Hakl: Of Kids and Parents – O rodičích a dětech (2002)

Of Kids and Parents

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.

Emil Hakl is a Czech writer who has published poetry, short stories and novels. His novel Of Kids and Parents won prizes and was even made into a movie called Of Parents and Children.

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.