In 1949, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia decided to honor Stalin by building a monument to him in Prague. It was going to be the largest statue of its kind in the world. A contest was held to decide who would have the honor of designing it. Every sculptor in Czechoslovakia was required to participate. Most sabotaged their chances on purpose by portraying the great leader in unsuitable poses, smiling or spreading his arms like Jesus. Otakar Švec who learned the art of sculpture as a child from his pastry-chef father, took the extra precaution of getting blind drunk. Unfortunately for him, he won anyway.
For the next four years, party dignitaries visited Švec every week in his studio to offer their advice on his vision. In Švec’s design, Stalin stood at the head of a line of people, who symbolized the People. Behind him followed a worker, an agronomist, a female partisan and a Russian soldier. Every time they came, they tried to make Stalin taller, and the followers lower. Construction began, granite blocks were carved, and still the critiques kept coming. Švec’s wife couldn’t stand the pressure, and committed suicide.
At long last, the monument was done. The night before the unveiling, Švec took a ride to inspect his sculpture. The cab driver told him he wants to show him something. The lady partisan is holding onto the Russian soldiers’ fly. “Whoever designed that is going to be shot for sure,” he told Švec. He killed himself that same night. For fifty days, no one found his body.
Stalin dies. Khrushchev gives his secret speech. Seven more years pass. Finally, Stalin has to be destroyed. The best explosive expert in the country is brought in to do the job. The party leaders warned him that in blowing up the statue, the honor of the Soviet Union must not be harmed. No explosives in Stalin’s head. No shots fired at his body. The job turned into a disaster anyway.
“Seven people all told were killed in the building of it,” says a character in Bohumil Hrabal’s story ‘A Betrayal of Mirrors,’ newly translated by Paul Wilson and included in the collection Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult. “The first to die was the sculptor who designed it, and the last was a worker’s mate who came to work one Monday morning three sheets to the breeze and he put his foot through a board six levels up and fell head first off the scaffolding and smashed his skull on the Generalissimo’s little finger.”
In the same story, a stonemason, a self-described “good communist,” watches the demolition from atop a church scaffold with a heavy heart. To prepare a space for the explosives, he had had to drill holes into Stalin’s eyes and heart. When he did so, “It felt as if he were drilling a hole into his own heart because he, the stonemason, loved the Generalissimo, had invested his hopes in him, had lived his life through him, and now he’d not only had to participate in the destruction of his enormous monument, but he’d also had to listen to exhortations to wipe the Generalissimo’s picture from his heart, a picture so dear to him he felt he couldn’t go on living without it.”
Hrabal is one of my favorite writers. For years I’ve been handing out copies of his superb novels I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude to anyone who would take them. Reading this passage, though, I worried that the subtitle of this new collection would prove to be all too true, that these stories would be nothing more than juvenilia from the time of the cult. But then I read on and realized I needn’t have feared. Hrabal is the freest of writers, the one least constrained by anything. Even though the stories in it were written in the early Sixties, well before Czechoslovakia’s belated thaw, Mr. Kafka abounds in Hrabal’s trademark eccentricity and exuberant love of language spring from every page like weeds growing through cement pavement.
That’s not to say there isn’t a hint of Stalinism in these tales. Certainly, Mr. Kafka will make a fine gift for those who think that the literature of our time is tragically lacking in technical expertise regarding metallurgy. The stories in Mr. Kafka belong to a lost genre, the production novel, the signature literary form of the Stalinist era. In the typical production novel, an outsider arrives at a factory or construction site and has to figure out how to solve a morale problem or increase productivity: Ivan Alexandrovich has to supervise the building of a hydroelectric plant or Sofia Alexandrovna has to increase production at the textile mill. They are, along with Elizabethan masques and vice-presidential autobiographies, one of the most arid literary genres ever devised.
The stories in Mr. Kafka comply outwardly with this form. Most take place at the Poldi steelworks, an immense factory complex (founded, in an odd twist of fate, by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father) outside Prague where Hrabal worked for several years in the Fifties. They feature strikes, quotas and a constant interest in the mores of factory life. Yet they seethe with the unexpected, and they’re also frequently very funny. No other writer is better at finding the comic in the tragic, or the strange in the mundane, than Bohumil Hrabal. Despite the strictures of the early Sixties, all the features of the Hrabalesque cosmos are already here—the trash heap that represents the sum of Western Civilization, the crowd of eccentrics, erotomaniacs and naifs, the quasi-philosophical conversation held by urinals or above slag heaps.
Eccentricity is the governing principle of Hrabal’s fiction. It’s as if in Prague, the city where Kepler discovered the secret of elliptical orbits, nothing could ever more be allowed to follow a straight line. His novels teem with strange, blissful monomaniacs, isolated simpletons, tavern philosophers and characters that seem to have arrived as shipwrecks from some prior, surreal adventures. Among others, there’s a factory foreman who is obsessed with the political valence of poetry written in free verse, a man who powers Prague’s first automated cafeteria by crouching inside a lazy Susan, and an exiled Frenchman, a communist agitator, whose real passion is for exotic nude revues.
These outright eccentrics are joined by figures whose out-of-jointness is an accident of their times. It was hard to stay in one place through Czechoslovakia’s mid-century cycle of annexations and revolutions. Many of Hrabal’s characters have been spun like ping pong balls in the bingo drum of history. In “Strange People,” there’s a jurist (known only as the Judge) who’s been reduced to working in a steel mill. He lives in a tiny apartment he calls his submarine. Every day he brings home bits of wood from the factory, “leftovers from broken crates, small pieces of Russian birch they packed the Russian chrome in, Norwegian oak veneer from the ferrosilicon crates, sometimes pieces of German fir from the nickel crates” and stares in rapture while the names written on them catch fire and dissolve in his little hearth. Far from despairing at his loss of status, the Judge rejoices at his newfound opportunities to engage with an unknown world. “And I think how wonderful it is to have been forced into this situation,” he says. Even the dangers of the factory are an opportunity for wonder: the Judge can’t help himself from plunging his arm into clouds of greenish vapor and watching with innocent surprise as his shoes split and the clothes fall off his back.
The ghost of Jaroslav Hašek’s Švejk, the Czech Sancho Panza, stands behind many of these oddballs. But Švejk’s dumbness is a mode of resistance, his obdurate stupidity a weapon of the weak. By contrast, Hrabal’s characters don’t need weapons. Instead, they lose themselves in wonder at their own selves. Through monomania, errant philosophical speculation and a kind of narrow self-preoccupation with the quirks of their own identity, Hrabal’s characters achieve a sort of bliss, satori in the midst of Stalinism.
The Polish journalist Mariusz Szczygieł writes that Hrabal’s greatest gift to humanity is a lie, “the lie that everything can be beautiful”—even the ugly, the stupid, the misshapen, the base. Hrabal’s characters are forever searching for this kind of illumination amid the mire. They find beauty in the most unlikely sources: in bales of pulped novels, at the mouth of blast furnaces, in the ecstasy of philosophic speculation, in the back rooms of bordellos, and in the act of pissing on one’s own shoes.
Perhaps fittingly for such a connoisseur of joy, Hrabal has written what I think is the greatest dinner scene in all of literature (though not the greatest dish—that belongs to Lampedusa’s The Leopard). It comes halfway through I Served the King of England. At a dinner in honor of Haile Selassie, his hotel serves a camel stuffed with antelope stuffed with turkey stuffed with fish stuffed with stuffing and hardboiled eggs. “Then something happened that neither I nor anyone else, perhaps not even Mr. Skřivánek, had ever seen before. First, a government counselor, a well-known epicure, was so enraptured with the barbecued camel that he stood up and yelled with an expression of bliss on his face. But it tasted so delicious that not even that yell was enough, so he did what looked like a gymnastics routine, then started pounding his chest, then ate another piece of meat dipped in the sauce.”
How far this is from the gloom expected of writing from what was once called the “other Europe.” For over half a century, English language literature has been fascinated with imagined dictatorships, despite having very little firsthand knowledge of them. These depictions seem to be everywhere, in Tolkien and The Hunger Games, in Animal Farm and Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son. All of them share an air of unreality. Perhaps that’s natural. After all, the Anglophone world has never faced barnyard revolts, or (Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding) been ruled by orcs. But as a consequence, most of these descriptions of life in totalitarian regimes in English literature remained generally at the level of xenophobic fantasy and milquetoast allegory (I mean, farm animals, my word).
Allegories flatten. They also flatter, which, I think, is the key to their appeal. In showing worlds peopled by monsters, caricatures or literal animals, these works let us peer over the fence at an inverted version of our world even as they urge us to pat ourselves on the back for the manifold pleasures of living in the liberated West. Hrabal does something else, and it’s no accident that his books are almost never allegories. Or rather: the scenes and situations in his novels which feel like metaphors come from things he lived through. Hrabal finds his allegories in the world. The factory in “Strange People” is real. So is the paper mill in Too Loud a Solitude, a story rooted in his own experience working in a waste collection point and taking part in the pulping of eight million books after the establishment of Communist rule.
If Mr. Kafka is indeed a postcard from the “time of the cult,” it reveals a world in which ideology may have squeezed but in no way extinguished creative life. That doesn’t mean that everything in Hrabal’s books happened just as he wrote it. The destruction of the Stalin monument, for example, didn’t happen quite as he described. As Szczygieł points out, no one could have been killed by falling on Stalin’s finger. In the Prague Monument, the dictator’s fingers were fused together. At most, the seventh victim was killed by a falling hand. The sculptor really did kill himself, though, and after the explosion, the demolition expert had to be taken to a psychiatric hospital. He had a heart attack after he was released and still refuses to discuss the events of that time. Even in death, it seems, Stalin has a way of driving people crazy.