He writes extensively about the concept of killing yourself by jumping out of a fifth floor window. He writes to a young American who seems to have opened a window for him, a new way of looking at himself and his work. He writes about the American book tour she set up for him, a Spinal Tap-esque trip through a strange land filled with strange people (being cluelessly if benignly racist in the process), speaking at colleges where they only want to ask him about politics, trying to get photo ops with people he admires who may or may not have ever heard of a drunken, aging Czech genius. Bohumil Hrabal's books is one of the most fascinating ones, and his autobiography (if you can call this spontaneous, funny, matter-of-factly sad, self-righteous, self-deprecating collection of letters that) is no exception.
Hrabal seems so cold and yet so emotional, so bitter and yet so funny, and the way he moves from serious matters into banal issues, into pure nonsense and comes back, the way he takes you along with him...
For most of the great literature that has been written about the wars that tore Europe apart and the regimes that subjugated all those proud European peoples to all of those well-documented horrors, the main goal has been to somehow be able to convey the unspeakable tragedies that transpired, to spell it all out and relate it life-size, so as we never forget. In the oeuvre of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal on the other hand, I get almost the opposite sense. I think Hrabal shows very well here the machinations of the Western press, for whom every Czech writer around this time had to be seen in the terms of the great Václav Havel, and the other Charter 77 artists. It's also hardly an accident that both in America and Britain Hrabal obsesses over precisely those writers who were, amongst many other things, great drunks: T.S. Eliot and, of course, Dylan Thomas. Early on in Total Fears, not without a hint of pathos, Hrabal proclaims:So I sat in the Golden Tiger and I thought, as I'm always doing, about how, if the gods really loved me, I would just drop dead over a glass of beer.And somehow this pathos fits our author and therefore becomes very affecting; it is part of Hrabal's (surely deliberate) attempt at passing himself off as some simpleton who happened to stumble and fall face first upon the key to great literature. Hanta is a common man who just so happens to start reading Plato, and Hrabal is echoing that, toying with that, he is playing the senile old writer whom life has bludgeoned into docility. You forget, until he hits you out of the blue with some great line, like when he passes a bunch of girls in their best make-up... But, as I began this piece, I think there is a sense in which Hrabal has always been driving at the void, is always trying to reduce life to something that he can somehow manage.
So, I showed up to work after my weekend, and one of my wonderful co-workers had found my copy of this book for me.
Hrabal received a Law degree from Prague's Charles University, and lived in the city from the late 1940s on. Several of his works were not published in Czechoslovakia due to the objections of the authorities, including The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (Msteko, kde se zastavil as) and I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále). It was noted that Hrabal lived on the fifth floor of his apartment building and that suicides by leaping from a fifth-floor window were mentioned in several of his books.