Why This Book Should Win – Two Hrabals by BTBA Judges George Carroll and James Crossley
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
Harlequin’s Millions – Bohumil Hrabal, Translated by Stacey Knecht
Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab – Bohumil Hrabal, Translated by David Short
James: This year’s BTBA longlist is excellent, and there are lots of books on it to talk about, but when you and I did that, George, we both gravitated toward the new one from Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. We raved to each other for a while before we realized that we were each talking about a different new book—he has two on the list this year, which I’m going to say without doing any research (that’s why we have editors) is a BTBA first. I was gushing about Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab, translated by David Short, while you were selling me on Harlequin’s Millions, translated by Stacey Knecht. What makes you prefer that book?
George: Nothing much happens in Harlequin’s Millions. An elderly pensioner reflects on her life and her village. There’s no horrid tragedy in the past that shapes the characters or drives them forward. There’s no denouement lurking at the end to pull you through the book. You get to laze around in beautiful, page-long sentences deep with observation and memory. The rhythm and lyricism are powerful and subtle. I can’t believe I’m writing this. It sounds like a book I would detest. And yet it stays perched at the top of my longlist.
James: Good points. Hrabal flows like nobody else, except maybe a jazz soloist. Not pretentiously, though. He’s mostly very earthy and amusing while he’s meandering through the minds of his characters. I’d say the things you liked about HM are equally present in Rambling On, but the latter book has an advantage that the former doesn’t. Since Rambling is a collection of linked stories, all set in the Bohemian forest town of Kersko, that typical Hrabal style gets expressed in multiple voices. Each story features a different figure who has his or her own things to say about whatever’s on Hrabal’s mind. A lot of that has to do with what it was like to live under the repressive Communist regime of the 1960s and ’70s, but it usually involves a whole bunch of drunkenness, lust, and other kinds of good old-fashioned fun. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound appealing.
George: Rambling On has it over HM in that many of the stories take place in a pub or involve a pub. It catches a bit of an edge that you don’t get from a pensioner walking the halls of a one-time castle, now retirement home. Hrabal was apparently infamous for hanging out in the At the Golden Tiger pub in Prague listening closely to others’ stories. One of my favorite scenes in RO is when Mr. Belohlavek convinces everyone in the pub to go into the forest to pace off the size of a Boeing 727 that he’s in charge of landing in Prague. Oh, wait. I’m supposed to be talking about HM. All right, so there isn’t lot of pub time in HM but there are mentions of pubs that no longer exist in the little town where time stood still like Big Stomper, Heavenly Host, Bloody Paw, Cafe Pigskin. Think I would have liked hanging out in At the Golden Tiger with Hrabal on a Saturday watching footie, of which Bohumil was a huge fan.
James: A grand, Homeric catalog of vanished pubs is just about the highest pinnacle to which literature can aspire, so I have to credit HM there. But you played my trump card for me on behalf of Rambling On when you mentioned football (note to editor: stet, please; don’t change to “soccer”). There’s a scene in the book where an uninvited guest barges in on the narrator and persuades him to be buried in particularly sacred ground: “[T]he cemetery is the other side of the forest, so you’d have pine needles an’ the smell of pine right on top of your grave, but the main thing is there’s a football pitch in the forest, an’ knowin’ how fond you are of football … there’s no other cemetery like it, the ref’s whistle will easily carry all the way to your grave.” Reading about it is the next best thing to being there for you, isn’t it?
George: The narrator of HM takes an after-dinner walk through the village with “three witnesses to the old times.” No one else is on the street, no cars, no motorcycles. She can see people watching television through their windows, and realizes the entire town is watching an international football match (the 1962 World Cup?). I guess that’s enough about football. The three witnesses—a railroad engineer, workshop foreman, and the elegant Otokar Rykr, pomaded hair, pince-nez—are a curious trio. You get the feeling that they may or may not exist, which is a bit unsettling. I’m not real comfortable with unreliable narrators. Last year I got punked by Hofmeester in Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza. I’m much more of a ham and beans reader—fewer veils, less layers. Hmm. The characters are pretty straightforward in RO. You know, I’m thinking…
James: I on the other hand don’t mind at all when things get strange and phantasmagoric. I couldn’t get enough of Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding from BTBA 2014, for example, which is as much both of those things as it’s possible to be. I may be coming around to HM’s side for 2015. Sounds like we’ve come to an agreement.
George: Sounds like it. The winner of this year’s BTBA should definitely be…
James: Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions.
George: Bohumil Hrabal’s Rambling On.