Top positive review
One person found this helpful
A picaresque satire enjoyable on many levels
on 5 September 2015
This edition of a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, 1914-97, contains an Introduction by the writer Adam Thirlwell that should ideally be read after finishing the book, translated here by Paul Wilson [who admits that many Czechs claim the author to be ‘untranslatable’]. This illuminates the author’s life, all of which was spent in Bohemia, much under the rule of the Nazis and the Communists, and his complex ‘surrealist collage’ style and exploitation of a ‘palavering’ narrator. Bit it also includes plot references that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of the novel.
Thirlwell points out that Hrabal remained an internal opponent of successive Czech regimes but subsequently faced criticism for not taking a more public stand. Written in 1971, this book was first published as an underground typescript in 1979 and then, in book form, three years later. Hrabal with fellow-members of the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians' Union secretly distributed it before many were arrested and jailed. The political and social challenges of the book to the authorities are difficult for someone without experience of the period to fully understand today.
The narrator is Ditie, whom we first meet as a ‘tiny busboy’ at the Golden Prague Hotel, whose upward and downward career we follow though chapters describing his increasingly important positions at different hotels until, through his eventual marriage to a fervent Nazi, Lise, he becomes very rich, buys his own hotel but later comes to the attention of the post-war Communist regime. From his youth, Ditie is fixated on women with the descriptions of sex in the book being whimsically erotic and perfectly captured in Mio Matsumoto’s cover illustration. Hrabal is not overly concerned with character – even Ditie, who appears on every page, remains frustratingly opaque in terms of psychological make-up and motivation.
Written in somewhat forbidding long blocks of text with minimal punctuation, Hrabal’s story is really a collection of stories that engage through their humour and the naïvety of the central character. The descriptions of Central European hotels, from both above and below stairs, in the 1930s have some similarities to the early part of Ludwig Bemelmans’ ‘Hotel Bemelmans’ but the tone is very much darker, particularly as the reader is aware of the approaching German occupation and as Lise turns out to be such an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis.
Hrabal’s language changes as Ditie moves from initial youthful innocence to the end of the novel where, accompanied only by animals, he works mending a road in the mountains that few use and writing the story of his life that forms the book. In this was he explains, if not justifies, his actions and demonstrates why, for him, ‘serving the Emperor of Ethiopia’ as opposed to the King of England was so important.
Whilst not completely sure that I understood all of Hrabal’s literary intentions, reading this book has made me want to see the 2006 film adaptation, directed by jiří Menzel.