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Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp

Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp

Hrabal, Bohumil

subjects: fiction, Czech studies
series: Modern Czech Classics

hardcover, 192 pp., 1. edition
translation: Short, David
published: january 2008
ISBN: 978-80-246-1447-2
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

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 make explicit the literary influences concealed in Hanťa'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 elliptical, 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".
Kathryn Murphy (Times Literary Supplement, April 10 2009, p. 27)

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. […] Short also prepared the index of names and index of Hrabal's references to his own work which will 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 Hašek'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 Hašek, 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 Hašek, only his style is more sophisticated because since Hašek'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.
Zuzana Slobodova (British, Czech and Slovak Review, June/July 2008, pp. 6–7)

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