Post Road Magazine #27

The Death of Mr. Baltisberger by Bohumil Hrabal

Pete Hausler

I had originally intended to recommend Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal's strange and gloomy Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka, for Post Road. The '"Dubenka'" of the subtitle is one April Gifford (in Czech, "duben" means April, with the

'"ka'" ending acting as an affectionate diminutive), a Stanford grad-student who wrote her thesis on Hrabal, and then set off to meet him in Prague. She tracked him down at one of his favorite Prague pubs, U zlatého tigre (At the Golden Tiger), and they became friends. At the time, Hrabal was grieving for his recently-deceased wife, Pipsi, and April seems to have pulled him out of his funk, to become the Unexpected Muse of his final years. But as I re-read this epistolary memoir, I realized I could not, in good faith, recommend the volume to Hrabal novices. Partly because it is the most brutally-honest depiction of octogenarian depression that you will ever read, and partly because there are too many arcane references to obscure Czech writers and events (obscure to English-language readers, anyway). Not a good Hrabal-starter, if you will.

Instead, I turned to Hrabal's classic collection of short stories, The Death of Mr. Baltisberger. Many of the stories contained within are wild beer hall yarns, and have the feel of an oral tale told after many pints. The pub atmosphere is ever present in Hrabal's work, and in life he would absorb, and participate in, the idle chatter around him, even going so far as to compare the institution of the Pub to the holy communion: "within a half hour a warm plate of meat and a glass of cold lager can prove to me the transubstantiation of matter into good mood."

In his author's preface to The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (published in Czech in 1966), Hrabal describes his writing style as palavering, that is, "idle talk; misleading or beguiling speech." Palavering, of course, is an erstwhile term for what we, today, would call bullshitting. In a typically playful and self-deprecating moment, Hrabal elsewhere claims that he doesn't create at all, that he indulges solely in a sort of guerrilla reportage: "I'm as good as done for. Those guys heard about the money I'm supposed to be raking in by putting their stories down on paper, and so now whenever I walk into a tavern, all I hear is 'here he comes, the great writer! Wants to make another hundred thousand by just siting around listening.' And they clam up and scowl in their beer." However, his friend Josef Skvorecky is quick to call Hrabal on his bullshit: "This is just another example of his palavering. ... are collages made up of stories that, having passed through a sophisticated imagination, are glued together by a poetic text."

Hrabal is perhaps best-known in this country for his 1965 novel "Closely Watched Trains," which was made into a film by buddy, Jiri Menzel, and went on to earn the Best Foreign language Oscar for 1967. Hrabal and Menzel worked together on the adapted screenplay. A certain 1994 event also cracked the American consciousness. Then-U.S. and Czech Presidents Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel—and Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright—made a pilgrimage to Hrabal's beloved Golden Tiger in order to pay homage, a feel-good story that was gobbled up by the Western media, complete with photos showing a frothy-beer guzzling Bill Clinton and Hrabal holding court and hamming it up for the cameras.

By all accounts, translating Hrabal is a tough task. He writes in a slangy, vernacular Czech; his sentences are long and tumble into one another. His paragraphs often go on for pages. One novella, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, is a single, 120-page long sentence, that doesn't even end with a period on the last line. Paul Wilson, the premiere Czech translator who did Hrabal's comic picaresque, I Served the King of England, noted: "Czechs say his work is untranslatable. This book is my response to that challenge." Some of the other Czech-to-English translators who have taken up the Hrabal Challenge, include Michael Henry Heim, Tony Liman, and James Naughton.

A dozen or more of Hrabal's books (that I know of) are available in English, which isno't bad for a single author from writing in one of the world's "small" languages (there are an estimated 12 million native speakers of Czech). Western interest in Hrabal and things Czech wasn't merely an immediate-post-Iron Curtain phenomenon either. Hrabal's English canon now includes a recently-published trilogy of autobiographical novels from Northwestern University Press, narrated from the imagined point of view of his wife, Pipsi. This trilogy, a fictionally depictsion of Hrabal's life infrom the late 1950s into the 1970s, and includes In-House Weddings, Gaps, and Vita Nuova. Hipsters of the world take note (talking to you, Brooklyn): you are rank amateurs compared to Hrabal of this period, when he. During this time, he worked menial jobs (including stints as a stagehand, iron factory worker, and paper recycler), while rubbing elbows and clinking glasses with some of Czechoslovakia's most accomplished artists (Jiri Kolar), writers (Josef Svorecky and Vaclav Havel), and directors (Jiri Menzel).


The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (translated by Michael Henry Heim) has the feel of a novella, despite the fact that there are no recurring characters in the fourteen stories, and not all of the stories take place in the same setting. Most, but not all, are set in Prague. The tone of each tale is remarkably similar. Most of the stories consist of some event or action in the have some background event or action—a motorcycle race, a stage play, a funeral, e.g.—while chatty characters talk so much that they seem oblivious to their surroundings. The stories glide along in a gauzy, timeless bubble, until they are punctured by a surprising and/or grotesque image or occurrence, that either happens in real time, or within the storyline of one of the loquacious character's endless banter.

In one story, "A Dull Afternoon," a bartender and two patrons talk at the bar, alternately reliving the exploits of current and past Czech soccer heroes, and complaining about the younger generation,. The younger generation they speak of is represented on that dull afternoon in the bar by a handsome, young man who drinks alone, chain-smokes, and obsessively reads a book. Though he is well-behaved (if standoffish), the young man's obliviousness to everything around him so enrages the barkeeper, that he rants and raves every time he looks at him. "'Beer number six, and cigarette number twenty-one,' said the bartender in disgust. 'If he was my son I'd tear that cigarette out of his mouth,' he yelled."

When the young patron motions to pay his bill and leave, the bartender refuses the tip from the change on the tab, and slams it back onto the table in front of the guy. Hrabal describes what happens next so cinematically that is like reading a screenplay:

Then he felt around on the tablecloth for another cigarette, put it in his mouth, took out the matches, struck one, set fire to the three-crown note, and lit the cigarette with it—all without lifting his eyes from the book. As he inhaled, he waved the flaming bank note in the air, and when it finally began to burn him, he dropped it into the ashtray all twisted and black.


In the title story, the young narrator's uncle and a fellow spectator watch a grand prix motorcycle race along the route, swapping tall tales and outlandish pronouncements, until a star rider crashes nearby. Despite the fact that the very title of the story gives away the ending, the mesmerizing and ever-present banter tends to charm and lull the reader into a sense that all is right with the world, until that illusion is shattered. The death of the eponymous Mr. Baltisberger doesn't happen off-stage; rather, the narrator's father immediately runs over to the dying rider. Always with a nod toward poetic melodrama, Hrabal describes the scene like this: "Then his head fell to one side and a quiver went through his exposed nerves. When the sun came out, his blood sparkled like rippling rubies." The ostensible background event, comes shockingly to the foreground, an intermingling that Hrabal pulls off time and again.

The lyric beauty of this wonderful book is epitomized in my favorite story of the volume, "A Prague Nativity." The story unfolds as a day-in-the-life narrative of two Prague stagehands. As the story winds down, a play is performed onstage (but, again, in the background tofor our characters), while the two men banter backstage, waiting for their cues to change scenery and props. One of them briefly steps outside to check on the weather and stare out into the street. Here, he sees a stray dog that is known, loved, and cared for by various neighborhood denizens. The description of this dog and her typical day puts a full-stop on this beautiful story. It is almost as if the repetition of the stray's prototypical day mirrors anthe ordinary day of our two protagonists, and you get the sense that, with tomorrow, will come more of the same. will come:

Near the piles of Christmas trees a stray dog named Sylva … left her doorway shelter and trotted along the sidewalk to the entrance of the synagogue. The snow crunched under her paws. Someone stuck a hand through the door and patted the dog, who then trotted back to her doorway.


I should note here that Hrabal died in 1997, at age 82, while recuperating from an illness. He fell out of the open, fifth-floor window of his hospital room, while feeding a flock of pigeons that had roosted there. At the time, anyone who was familiar with Hrabal's writing, couldn't help but crack a smile—through the sadness, of course—for so fitting a death. It was as if Hrabal had scripted his own demise, spiritually in sync with his bizarre, darkly-humorous, bittersweet stories.

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