Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp
hardcover, 192 pp., 1. edition
translation: Short, David
published: january 2008
recommended price: 390 czk
The book is a novel-interview initiated by the Hungarian journalist, writer and anti-communist activist based in Slovakia László Szigeti. It retains the character of a more or less verbatim oral record - it is full of false starts and thematic and syntactic digressions, characteristic for the majority of Hrabal´s magical, bizarre and grotesque tales. It is unique for being autobiographical and for making the reader understand Hrabal´s personality, his philosophy and perception and understanding of Central Europe shortly before the fall of totalitarian regime in the late 80s.
If it is a novel at all, then Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp is one of a very strange kind, apparently made up of Hrabal's verbatim responses to a series of questions (although in fact the text was completely revised by the author between interview and publication.) In effect, Hrabal becomes one of his own characters, wryly humorous, gently subversive, skirting round a plot made up of the details of his own life. As ever, his debt to Hašek"s Schweik is immense, and freely acknowledged: "It is my not so much belief as impression that this conversation, these Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, are also borne along by the spirit of Prague irony, and that Jaroslav Hašek has so enlightened me that I have been able, by insertions and collage, to give the text a sense of playfulness . . ."
London Review of Books
Hrabal in English on himself and much else
Have you succumbed to the British national pastime of bargain hunting? Are the words "two for the price of one" music to your ears? Then you must not miss the Engiish translation of Bohumil Hrabal's Klicky na kapesniku recently published under the English title Pirouttes on a Postage Stamp. You will get two, or even three books in one. You will own the autobiography of one of the foremost Czech writers of the second half of the 20th century, the master of the grotesque, whose tales are quoted by every stratum of Czech society almost as much as their beloved Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk. In addition, you will also get a useful general reference book not only on Hrabal's entire work but also on Czech and Central European culture, complete with copious notes and a comprehensive name index and, into the bargain, so to speak, you will be given hints on how to understand Hrabal, not always an easy task.
The title gave the translator, David Short from London University, a headache. It means, word for word 'Turns (or loops) on a handkerchief." Hrabal chose it to honour the legwork of the famous Hungarian footballer Hidgekuti in the limited space of a foot-baU pitch, which, he said, reminded him of his own manoeuvres within the limited space given by language. However, the phrase also means 'aide memoire', which is appropriate for a book consisting mainly of memoirs. Short finally went for Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp which conveys the image of the skilful footballer, and apologised to the reader for failing to find an English equivalent that would also cover the secondary meaning. This exarnple illustrates how difficult it is to translate Hrabal and the care which Short has taken to convey the flavour of the very phrase. As a result, when Short's translation is compared with the original, the reader hardly notices when switching between them, as he is equally able to enjoy Hrabal's linguistic and stylistic acrobatics in both.
The book was originated by a journalist from the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, Laszlo Szigeti, who interviewed Hrabal over the phone as well as in person, after which Hrabal edited the transcripts. It is no accident that this book came into being on the initiative of a Hungarian. Translations of Hrabal are so popular in Hungary that a writer, Peter Esterhazy, published in 1990 a book entitled Hrabal Konyve, in which Hrabal - or his spirit - is part of the plot. The book also appeared in English in 1993 under the title The Book of Hrabal.
Szigeti sought Hrabal's opinion on everything and anything, and even used the psychoanalytical method of free association to probe Hrabal's psyche. The resulting text takes the form of a long interview, in line with Capek's Talks with the TGM, which indicates Hrabal's standing in Czech society. Hrabal calls it an interview-novel, as it reads like any other Hrabal texf. Hrabal used his usual collage technique for editing it.
Hrabal admits that he "manufactures legends about himself." In this book, too, he assumed his usual persona as presented in his previous semi-autobiographical works: a larger-than-life football-crazy, drunken, child-like beatnik with an inordinate love ofcats and beer. But this book reveals more of Hrabal's personality than he might have intended: it shows his arrogance. Hrabal willingly ventures his opinion on any subject, and when he is on thin ice he slips into a cliche
rather than admit ignorance. He also boasts that although he repeatedly rewrote his earlier books he was now publishing his first drafts. Then, a few pages later, the other side of the coin emerges: Hrabal calls himself a failure, an impostor despite all his fame and speaks of his shyness at meeting a pretty woman. Love for him equals pain, and he tortures himself endlessly for having to kill a cat. We get a glimpse of this man with his fluctuating moods, who is arrogant on the surface and terribly sensitive underneath. In this light it becomes hard to accept that he died at the age of 83 from "falling out of his hospital window as he fed the pigeons," as Short put it; one is tempted to speculate that, with his manic-depressive tendencies, Hrabal took his own life when he started to feel too old, frail and lonely.
The reader familiar with Hrabal's previous semi-autobiographic works won't learn much that is new about Hraba)'s )ife. He will already know that Hrabal, fittingly, grew up in a brewery, and he will have met Hrabal's Chaplin-like uncle Pepin, whose story-telling was a more formative factor in Hrabal's future as a writer than his formal education. Hrabal confesses that he was a poor student and that his worst subject was, incredibly, Czech language and literature. He did eventually manage to qualify as a Jawyer, though he never practised law. Instead, he took on crazy romantic jobs such as train attendant, metal worker, sciap papeT processor etc which l provided him with a wealth of experience for his writing, before the turned to writing full-time.
The reader will profit more from Hrabal's comments on Czech and European literature and culture. Both Szigeti and Hrabal take pride in what they recognise as a common Central European culture, and in the fact that people have a greater hunger for culture and knowledge and are better read in Mitteleuropa than anywhere else. Hrabal has his own theory to explain the phenomenon. He says that "Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Brno and Cracow - the Jewish thread runs though them all...the nations with which they were living tried to catch up with them. In the Austria of the (ast century little boys could recite the Talmud by the time they were six."
The average British reader might find it difficult to follow their discourse, as they mention names and facts which they do not know. However, translator David Short comes to his rescue with painstaking footnotes. These do not only reflect the breadth of Short's erudition - he has been a university Czech specialist for the last 35 years - and his thoroughness as a researcher. Short has, unwittingly, turned himself into another character in this 'novel' beside Hrabal and Szigeti: he is the pedantic academic who puts in footnotes which might take up as much as half a page, and who does not hesitate to point his accusing finger at Hrabal whenever he gets a reference or a date wrong. On the other hand, he is also a humorist in his own right, with a fascination for the obscure. A footnote on Nymburk, the small town where Hrabal grew up in a brewery, reads as follows: "[n more recent times, the beers produced here were given names (such as)...Postrizinske pivo (after Postriziny 'Cutting it short'), ...Pepinova desitka (after uncle Pepin), Francinuv lezak (after Hrabal's father) and Zlatovar (after the colour of his mother's hair)... regrettably, Nymburk beer marketed in the 1990s by the Sainsbury's chain of supermarkets was sold under the bland and anonymous label 'Sainsbury's Czech pilsener'."
Short also prepared the index of names and index of Hrabal's references to his own work which wili be appreciated by Hrabal or Czech literature scholars.
The book is at its most useful where Hrabal analyses his own art. It is like listening to a famous chef telling us who taught him to cook and revealing his secret recipes.
Hrabal saw himself as a Hasek's successor. He said that they were both merely recorders of what they had heard and seen in the same milieu - a Prague workmen's pub where Hrabal, like Hasek, spent an inordinate amount of time. They differed from Kafka who represented the culture of coffee-houses and dwelled on metaphysics, while they wrote about the ordinary people. Simple people, Hrabal says, live a much more intense and interesting life than intellectuals. Hrabal claims that he writes just like Hasek, only his style is more sophisticated because since Hasek's days the Czech reader has become more sophisticated.
But it is this unique style, the way in which he plays with the language, that is Hrabal 's greatest contribution to Czech literature. "My native tongue is my God" Hrabal says. He reveals that he first put his stories on paper in a way his crazy uncle Pepin would narrate them: as a stream of consciousness. Then he plays with the text, cuts it up and recomposes it into a new whole. The result is a hotchpotch of high and common Czech, a pub anecdote next to a philosophical passage, the obscene next to the lyrical. It looks random but has its rhythm and melody which here and there turns it into poetry in prose. One needs to read it twice, to get all of the symbolic meaning, although Hrabal swears that he never sets out to write anything symbolic. His style teachers were Villon, Baudelaire, the Dadaists and the Surrealists. Above all, he admired James Joyce. Hrabal must have also been influenced more by Kafka than he cares to admit, as he shares his propensity for absurd humour.
Hrabal also says that he wanted to show that ordinary, even ludicrous people can be heroes, as he did in his Ostre sledovane vlaky - Closely Observed Trains (1965) which Jiri Menzl made into an Oscar-winning film (available in Britain on DVD and shown on the BBC).
But the preaching of heroism and patriotism is not typical of Hrabal's best works. In his critically acclaimed I Served the English King (1980) he keeps more to a different maxim, also proclaimed in the Pirouttes: that, like Hasek, he wants to show things as they really are rather than as what they should have been. The book reflects the influence of another frequently mentioned literary icon of Hrabal's: Czech nihilist moral philosopher and writer Ladislav Klima (1878-1928). Dite, the hero - or antihero -of I Served the English King, reminds me of the physically and mentally deformed hero of Klima's grotesque novella The Suffering of Prince Sternenhoch: both would do anything and swallow any humiliation to satisfy their desires, without any concern for morality. The authors present the hero's actions and thoughts without passing judgement. I Served the English King has recently been made into a film by Jiri Menzl which appeared in British cinemas on May 9. Menzl took part in a discussion at the opening night at the Barbican on April 27 which was completely sold out with people queuing for returns.
Hrabal says that he always starts by describing his own experience, which he then transforms into literature by pabeni - his special word for embellishing reality with fantasy. In his Closely Observed Trains he made his clumsy main character -himself - into what he would like to be but never was: a man with the courage to die for his country. In I Served the English King, which was written during the normalisation in 1971, Hrabal created the opposite: a man who adapts to any circumstances in order to survive, a pragmatistwho eventually becomes a Nazi collaborator. Is Hrabal wrestling here with his own behaviour after 1968? His work continued to be published, as Hrabal didn't join the dissent and gave interviews supporting the normalisation regime. It was even rumoured that he agreed to collaborate with the secret police. Did Hrabal depict his own pragmatism, as well as the pragmatism of the whole nation around him which was being 'normalised' at the time?
Dr Stefan Auer from La Trobe University in Australia asked at the recent Glasgow conference on 1948 and 1968 whether Hasek' s Svejk did not belong to this category of pragmatic survivors. Did his clowning amount to passive resistance or was he only a buffoon, or even a real fool, interested only in surviving as comfortably as circumstances allowed? Is this Svejkian attitude responsible for the Czech failure to fight in 1938, 1948 and 1968 and the hedonism and consumerism in which refuge was sought during normalisation? Do the Czechs give up too easily, to the detriment of their national pride and confidence? Is this message another common point at which Hasek and Hrabal converge?
Zuzana Slobodova , British, Czech and Slovak Review, June/July 2008, str. 6-7
PIROUETTES In Bohumil Hrabal's novel Too Loud a Solitude, the hero, Hanťa, works compacting waste paper, both detritus from shops and offices, and ruined or unwanted books. He makes of his industrial routine an art: each of his bales, decorated with reproductions of great works of art, bears a canonica! text at its heart. This process - compacting high culture and scraps of ephemera - is an obvious figure for Hrabal's own compositional processes. Hrabal described himself as a "writer down" rather than a "writer", who recorded stories and phrases heard in Prague pubs for use in his fiction. His style is often described as "montage" or "collage", and incorporates elements of "found" text, literary and otherwise.
Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp consists of Hrabal's responses to questions posed by the journalist László Szigeti, with some revisions. Subtitled an "interview-novel", it both reflects on and exhibits his compositional habits. Szigeti's questions focus on Hrabal's reading, inspirations and the circumstances of his writing.
They elicit answers which rnake explicit the literary influences concealed in Hant'a's bales and most of Hrabal's fiction. Hrabal nominates a bewildering range of inspirations, including obvious forebears for his oral style and grotesque realism (Joyce, Rabelais, Hašek) as well as more surprising elective affinities in Kafka, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard. The canon of names is, however. accompanied by a paean to the anonymous genius of dialect, anecdote and folk custom.
As in the fiction, the style, even when discussing philosophy, is unsophisticated, colloquial, paratactic and elliptícal, and is well rendered by the translator David Short. Hrabal places his characters, and by implication himself, in a tradition of "docta ignorantia", which includes "blessed lunatics" like Chaplin, Švejk, Socrates and Jesus Christ. Although - and
because - the interview was conducted in the Communist 1980s, there is little that is overtly political here. Yet learned ignorance is both defence and defiance, a refusal either to conform to this world or to be hurt by it. It's style is justified by paradox: "weakness is my strength; . . . maundering is my rhetoric; the folklore of the city is my aesthetics".
Hrabal's "maundering" occasionally becomes inconsequential rambling. Quotation can be cliché, the quotidian dull, aimless ness pointless. But there are striking images, oxymorons and paradoxes which make the ordinary extraordinary, and transfigure defeat and weakness into beauty. Readers of Hrabal's other works will find much to recognize and.enjoy here. Those not yet acquainted should go to the novels first.
KATHRYN MURPHY, Times Literary Supplement, April 10 2009, str. 27