Why I Write: The Early Prose from 1945 to 1952

Karolinum. 2019. 300p. ISBN 9788024642680. $20. LIT
In the company of Václav Havel and Milan Kundera, Hrabal (1914–97) is often considered the third pillar in the modern pantheon of Czech satirist literature, with two acclaimed films, Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England, adapted from his similarly titled novellas. This translation of the early transcripts of his short stories (1947–52) is prefaced by the title essay “Why I Write” (1986), wherein Hrabal relates his literary influences and the significance of working-class colloquial conversation in his narratives. Tales of rural, pub life in postwar Czechoslovakia are imbued with the prototypical folktale motifs of buffoonish physical violence, the desecration of corpses, drunken revelry, and perverse behavior—episodes reminiscent of a Bruegel painting. Many selections are told in rambling, page-long sentences of folk-speak, stylistically based on the opaque surrealist technique of automatic writing—letting uninhibited thought and association flow freely from hand to page. This presents, unremarkably, a challenge to readers’ engagement and comprehension, somewhat alleviated by translator Short’s accompanying notes, which are essential to comprehending Hrabal’s visual and expressive thought.
VERDICT While the translation is intermittently turgid and labored, this nonetheless mostly fluid and serviceable volume from a writer little known to American readers is sure to enhance collections of Eastern European literature.
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