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Literature on Location: Part II [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Stacey Knecht and is basically a follow-up to her first post. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I translate Hrabal. We work as a team. We talk, laugh, argue, yell, sing, curse, philosophize, guzzle beer, discuss life and cats and the occasional dog. I’ve shamelessly professed my love for him, which fortunately hasn’t interfered with our working relationship. Sometimes he reminds me that he’s been dead for nearly two decades, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to plumb the depths of his writing, to figure out what it is that makes me follow him to Prague, year after year. I went back again this past August armed with his collection of short stories, Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult (1965), one of four Czech contenders for the BTBA 2016, in an astonishing, two-fisted translation by Paul Wilson.

Reading Hrabal on location is intoxicating. There is “Magic Prague,” with its Baroque angels and misty alleyways, and the raunchy, sweat-stained, beer-bellied, smoke-and-burnt-sugar Prague, where tourists rarely venture. It’s the combination of the two that give the city her poignance, and to see only her obvious beauty is to miss out on the rest. Hrabal saw it all. Wilson, in his Afterword—which I’m tempted to include here in its entirety, it’s so good—sheds light:

The stories in this collection represent the early results of Hrabal’s discovery of what he came to call “total realism,” the realization that the ordinary events of everyday life can be as magical as surrealism, and that straightforward accounts of people at work and in conversation can reveal more about who they are and the world they live in than attempts to portray their inner lives.

A number of the stories in Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult are set in the Kladno steel mills, about sixteen miles from Prague, where Hrabal himself worked as a “volunteer” laborer from 1949 to 1954, along with “judges and lawyers, poets and philosophy professors, policemen, army officers, tradesmen and small businessmen, [all] uprooted from their former lives by the Communist regime as part of a program called ‘Putting 77,000 to Work,’ during which tens of thousands were plucked from their jobs and sent to mines, factories, and collective farms to perform unfamiliar work in harsh and dangerous conditions, alongside regular workers, party hacks, criminals, and political prisoners.” (Wilson)

Much has changed in the Czech Republic since Hrabal wrote this book, yet there are still those who remember. I met an elderly woman one afternoon, sitting on a bench in Stromovka Park, fanning herself with a piece of cardboard in the 90-degree heat. She noticed what I was reading and said, “Ah, Hrabal. He was not a happy man, it was not a happy time. You cannot imagine what it was like to live back then, unless you lived it.” Hrabal lived it, and turned it to gold:

At the Poldi steelworks, hopeless people hold their muddied hopes aloft. Life, strangely enough, is constantly being reinvented and loved, even though the fruits of a tinfoil brain will be crumpled images and a trampled torso will ooze misery. And yet, it is still a beautiful thing when a man abandons dinner menus and calculating machines and his family and goes off to follow a beautiful star. Life is still magnificent as long as one maintains the illusion that a whole world can be conjured from a tiny patch of earth. With a hundred days left in my stint as a volunteer laborer, I buy a yellow folding ruler and snip off a centimeter a day. When the final piece slips from my fingers, I will pass through the neck of a bottle on my way to another adventure in another place.

But beautiful Poldi is also a volunteer worker’s scream that makes mincemeat of all signs and slogans, three and a half crowns per hundred grams, because you return to the depths of your brain where you study the bill to see what it is you’ve bought and why you’ve paid so much, since the man who turns his hand to fruitful labor is saved forever, because life is fidelity to the beauty exploding all around us, even, at times, at the cost of our own lives.



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