... Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) must have been, if his self-depiction in In-House Weddings is at all candid. And it surely is; it matches his reputation among Czechs of all ages. I've know some wild men -Beat poets, Irish Literature Professors, Russian acrobats, generic Germans - and I've been mistaken for a wild man at times, by anybody but myself, but the doctor, as he is introduced in this tale of love and marriage, is one hard-drinking sweet-talking bipolar son of a gun! And Eliska, who tells his story as part of hers, is utterly nuts to hook up with him, by any commonsense standards. But Eliska has the makings of a first-class wild woman herself.
From the back cover: "Inspired by the biographies Tolstoy's and Dostoyevsky's wives published about their famous husbands, Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal produced a novel, ostensibly his own biography from his wife's point of view. In-House Weddings, the first book of a trilogy, introduces Hrabal though the eyes of his wife, Eliska. Her narration guides us through the novelist's early years from his upbringing in Nymburk to their own in-house wedding." Now, ain't that the sort of sly skullduggery you'd expect from the author of "The Little Town Time Forgot", "Closely Watched Trains", and "Too Loud a Solitude", all of which are retrospectively prefigured in this narrative? Nymburk is the brewery town where Hrabal grew up and where the Doctor's bizarre family still lived in the early years of Czechoslovak communism. Apparently Hrabal really did work as a railroad staionmaster and later as a paper-recycler, so his splendidly surreal novels are all 'romans à clef'.
Eliska is an ethnic German from the Sudentenland, whose wealthy parents put all their hopes into a victory for the Third Reich. They fled west with the "last' train, but Eliska and her brother were detained because they were "Czech-educated." Now Eliska is an 'undocumented' immigrant to Prague, without papers or a legal residence and without the slightest joy in life. She's become grim, slovenly, and suicidal. But then she buys a new dress and a pair of red high heels, and the Doctor notices her. The middle of this book, the portrayal of their courtship, is a rollicking romance soaked in suds and roast pork.
An 'in-house wedding' seems to be, on the surface, a secular rather than churchly ceremony, but the Doctor is famed for the drunken shindigs he hosts, under the pretext of in-house weddings, in his half-collapsing slum cellar apartment. Nearly everyone in the cast of characters has taken a tumble in wealth or status from the tarnished-golden age of Austria-Hungary to the chaotic poverty of post-WW2. "... all of us here in this yard were somewhere other than where we were supposed to be, in a situation undreamed of, one that it never occurred to us that we'd wind up in ..."
"In-House Weddings" is published as part of Northwestern University's "Writings from an Unbound Europe" series. Obviously the "unbound" part refers to the unlamented collapse of the USSR and the re-nationalization of the smaller states that had been the satellites of Russian Communism. There's a lot of irony, however, in the inclusion of this book in such a category. The narrative is set in about 1950, shortly after the communist takeover, but most of the incidents described took place during or just after World War 2. Neither Czech nor German-Czech nationalism is precisely noble or savory. Eliska's Sudenten kinfolk are unreconstructed Hitlerites and anti-semites, and crudely outspoken about it. The Czechs, of course, are inflamed with vengeance toward the German in the midst. The descriptions of reprisals, looting and rapine, are horrific, or would be horrific if they weren't drenched in raucous beer-hall humor. The latest looters and ravagers, the Russians, are untroubled by any residual ethnic distinctions from Hapsburg years. Bloodthirsty mayhem has become an act of spiritual transcendence: "... because for a person there can be nothing more beautiful than when he becomes enraged, when he may commit evil in the name of history..." Brutality is the manure from which the roses of beauty grow in this desolately vulgar era; one of the most powerful scenes in the novel occurs in a beer hall, when the Doctor introduces his new girlfriend to his besotted buddies. One of them, a butcher, launches into an uproarious monologue about the slaughtering of pigs and calves, the callous cruelty of it being wryly laughable to him, though Eliska is nauseated. The everyday good-humored brutality of humankind, both to animals and to themselves, is a central theme of Hrabal's writings, always a gamey goulash of comedy, ugliness, and exaltation of life.