Closely Observed Trains
The Unknown Realm of the Comic
Bohumil Hrabal's work is much loved, and no book more so than Closely Observed Trains, but we might want to pause for a moment to understand what this idea of much loved might mean. Donald Clark uses the phrase in a piece in the Irish Times on the Prague spring filmmakers, one of whom, Jiri Menzel, adapted the book in 1966, a year after its publication. We would be unlikely to regard other Czech writers in quite the same way: not Kafka nor Kundera, nor even Skvorecky or Klima. Vital to a book's capacity to be loved is its tone, the book's ability to create a narrative perspective that is gentle and wise, vulnerable and assured. In Kafka's work the vulnerable is so pronounced that no comforting wisdom can be found; in Kundera's the assuredness is so evident that the gentle has little place. Critic James Wood sees in Hrabal a writer in the tradition of the Good Soldier Schweik, "a little man who wanders cheerfully into large historical events" and this is where Hrabal's comic capacity meets with his consequential heft. Closely Observed Trains is a light comedy backed up by weight events as the central character is a railway employee off work for three months after a suicide attempt, that we find out was due to erectile dysfunction, but who finds himself also taking issue with the Nazis. In I Served the King of England, central character Dite works his way up in the hotel industry but it is a slippery ideological slope, serving the emperor of Ethiopia, marrying a Nazi sympathiser and having his hotel taken from him when the Communists nationalise it. Too Loud a Solitude shows Hanta devoting his life to the compacting of books during the Communist era, while also recounting various episodes in his life, including one where he grew very fond of a gypsy girl who goes missing. He looks everywhere for her: "later I learned that she had been picked up by the Gestapo and sent with a group of gypsies to a concentration camp, and whether she was burned to death at Majdanek or asphyxiated in an Auschwitz gas chamber, she never returned." In Closely Observed Trains, Milos wishes to mind his own business and focus on his amorous hopes, but this is where light comedy meets dark history, where the pertinence of historical event has the impertinence to intrude on the smallest of lives.
In this Hrabal can seem like a combination of Kafka and Kundera, Kafka so often indicates that agency is always going to be curtailed by forces outside of one's control, while Kundera's is often fascinated with Czechoslovakia (a word he usually replaces with Bohemia) as a country overrun by historical events that indicate the country itself has little agency. As Kundera notes at the beginning of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Klement Gotwald was photographed in 1948 as he became president of the now Communist republic, with foreign minister Vladimir Clementis next to him. Hundreds of thousands of copies were circulated but four years later Clementis was no longer a hero. He "was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on the balcony alone." In the Art of the Novel Kundera says of the comic, "the real geniuses of the comic are not those who make us laugh hardest but those who reveal some unknown realm of the comic. History has always been considered an exclusively serious territory. But there is the undiscovered comic side to history..." Kafka could see this very mordantly: "in peacetime you don't get anywhere; in wartime you bleed to death." (The Diaries) Hrabal's distinctiveness lies partly in allowing the political to become part of the comedic world in which his characters are engaged. We say engaged rather than trapped, because Hrabals's figures are absurd not inevitably but contingently. Kafka and Beckett are writers of the absurd where characters seem locked into constrained fates; Hrabal is someone who frees the absurd from its inevitability without suggesting that the character posses much agency. It is as though the person is free but history is deterministic. The problem arises when the individual meets the historical, and the contingent can feel like the inevitable. When in Too Loud a Solitude Hrabal announces the gypsy girl was taken away by the Nazis, it reads like both a stroke of bad luck for Hanta who was getting to like her, and the inevitable fate of the girl whose gypsy status made her an inexorable target for the Nazis.
History is there to teach us a lesson quite distinct from the famous Santayana idea that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it; Hrabal is more inclined to indicate that we are not in a position to forget it or remember it. It remembers us, and it can intrude at the most inopportune of moments. But it would be a mistake to see Hrabal chiefly fascinated by history; it is more that the historical/political gives the writer the opportunity to call into question the notion that we are creatures deserving of the pride and the prejudice, the certainty and the privilege, we often credit to ourselves with. In a horribly funny passage in Too Loud a Solitude, the narrator recalls a moment with the lovely Manca, on a skiing trip. While she was "tan and beautiful flying down golden peak. I was sitting there clinking glasses with Mr Jina... Mr Jina was right, she was as pretty as picture that day", but after she disappears behind some pine trees as nature calls, she returns to where Jina, the narrator and others are tanning themselves and Hanta notices "the women turning after and snickering into their hands, and the closer she came to me the more women I saw stifling their laughter..." Hanta then notices as "she glided up to me, what did I see on one of her skis, just behind the boot, but an enormous turd, a turd the size of a paperweight the poet Vrechlicky celebrated in sublime verse, and then and there I knew we had come to the second chapter in the life of Manca, who, never having known glory, would never relinquish shame."
It is not only history that intrudes, we see, but life in its various manifestations. Hrabal understands that history is often life in hyperbolic form, the exaggerated features of existence that will become historical as Manca's moment of misfortune will not. We can thus see two modes of the behavioural at work in Harbal's fiction: the personal and the historical, and how much of the tone evident in books like Closely Observed Trains, Too Loud a Solitude and I Served The King of England comes from the two coming up against each other and creating the Hrabalian combination of vulnerability and wisdom. While Manca suffers the humiliation of the contingent moment as a bowel movement finds itself not quietly tucked away in the bush but on her ski, so the gypsy girl will less accidentally be taken away by the Nazis to a death camp. In Closely Observed Trains, Milos will find himself impotent in the face of a woman he is attracted to, but potently able, in the wake of his sexual success, to die facing the Nazis. He can find himself in the arms of Viktoria and then lose his life at the hands of the Germans. One is a personal stroke of good luck; the other a historical misfortune.
Luck is a word commonly used in Hrabal's books, evident when Ditie says in I Served The King of England, "I was always lucky in my bad luck."This question of luck is addressed by philosopher Thomas Nagel in what he calls moral luck. Nagel gives as an example the idea that many are not faced with a situation where they must act in a cowardly or a heroic fashion, and talks, almost inevitably, and usefully for us, about Nazi Germany. "Ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany had an opportunity to behave heroically by opposing the regime. They also had an opportunity to behave badly, and most of them are culpable for having failed this test. But it is a test to which citizens of other countries were not subjected, with the result that even if they, or some of them, would have behaved as badly as the Germans in like circumstances, they simply did not and therefore are not similarly culpable." (Mortal Questions) The most common approach to this question of moral luck indicates one of two approaches: heroism or cowardice, but Hrabal instead attends to the tragicomic potential of the accidental. When Nagel discusses moral luck he is not concerned, understandably, with the horrible sense of perspective (often humorous) that can come of out of that moral luck or ill-luck, but this is precisely the arena Hrabal explores with a tone that indicates life happens to us haphazardly even in the most wretched of circumstances, evident in a passage from Closely Observed Trains, where the narrator says that you never know what the Germans will do. He mentions Mrs Karaskova who lived next door and was imprisoned by the Germans in 1940 and for four years had been at the Gestapo headquarters, cleaning "up blood after executions, all those four years she spent mopping up blood, and the chief executioner was kind to her; he used to give her ham and ask her to sing for him." Eventually she made it home: and he wrote her a letter of apology into the bargain, but Mrs Karaskova had gone out of her wits with all this." This is moral ill-luck indeed, but also some might say she was lucky in her bad luck: that it would have seemed the executioner took a shine to her even if being a cleaner for the Nazis obviously took the shine out of her life. If Mrs Karaskova was lucky in her bad luck, Manca proves unlucky in her good luck as her attractiveness dissolves in a moment of ridicule as she slops along on her skis with a turd settled on one of them. The first is historical good and bad luck; the latter personal good and bad luck. While what happened to Manca can seem negligible, it was the worst luck she could have expected within her good fortune; Mrs Karaskova has the best luck she could have hoped for within her misfortune.
By looking at Hrabal's work from the perspective of good and bad luck, through the question of moral luck, and the personal and political, we can comprehend an aspect of Hrabal's singularity. In his essay on Hrabal in the LRB James Wood discusses what he calls hysterical realism, a more or less pejorative term for what he sometimes sees in Grass, Rushdie, Wallace, Pynchon and Smith, as opposed to the subtler comic realism he sees in Hrabal that has echoes of the magic realist to it. This is because Wood sees in these other writers that they too frequently borrow from the real while evading it. These novels are profligate with what might be called inhuman stories: 'inhuman' not because they could never happen, but because they are not really about human beings. " There are a few begged terms here but reading Hrabal's work gives us a sense of what Wood means. Reviewing The Irresponsible Self, where Wood runs with the term hysterical realism, Guardian reviewer Philip Horne notes the interest in serious comedy that Wood defends, one that recognizes the human and the absurd. "Its great exemplars here, allies of Kafka, Joyce and Woolf, are a highly international, mostly rather neglected, bunch of moderns - including the Italian Italo Svevo, the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, the Sicilian Giovanni Verga, the Austrian Joseph Roth and the Czech Bohumil Hrabal." We would not see too many similarities between for example Svevo and Hamsun, but there is a sense that life happens to people, as opposed to a novelist puppeteering narrative event. Wood appears to see in the writers he has reservations about as too enamoured by pyrotechnical storytelling devices while what he notices in Hrabal and others is 'desire embodied': this isn't a post-modern reflexive need to keep the story off the ground, but a desire to show characters who can't quite keep their feet on it. Hrabal's characters are frequently dreamers who come up against nightmares, exemplified in the story Milos tells of his own past relatives in Closely Observed Trains. His great grandfather was eighteen when he was a drummer boy in the army during the revolution of 1848 and the students who were trying to stone the soldiers, hit his grandfather on the knee and crippled him for life. This takes place on Charles Bridge in Prague as Bohemians sought greater rights within the Austrian empire. In 1847, laboring elements would protest against unemployment, food shortages, as well as the high price of food; there were further protests 1848. The civil and military authorities evoked popular anger for enforcing the customs duties on food introduced in 1829 and for repressing the worker protests. In face of the laborers' misery, some of Prague's most radical students and intellectuals developed an interest in utopian socialism, but the middle-class liberals as well as the aristocratic opposition generally rejected any infringement of property rights." Gary B. Cohen also says "Czech nationalists inserted the demand for a united annual Diet for Bohemia, Moravia, and Austrian Silesia, but radicals found little support for any organization of labor along utopian socialist lines. Indeed, Prague's liberal constitutional reformers, both Czech and German, took a conservative stand on social questions throughout the spring." (Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions) Great-granddad would seem to have been on the oppressive side of history as he receives a gold coin every day for the rest of his life, spending it on a bottle of rum and two packets of tobacco. But instead of minding his own business and drinking quietly at home, Great-grandfather Luke would insist on parading his worklessness in front of others: "never a year passed without Great-grandfather Luke getting beaten up by someone." Eventually, he gets killed when some quarrymen whose quarry had been closed down beat him up so badly that he dies. Grandfather was a bit of an idler too who gets caught in history. A hypnotist who would try and get by doing as little as possible, granddad nevertheless believed he had the powers of hypnotic persuasion: when the German tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia he believed he could hold back the advancing forces. "Turn round and go back", he demands, and "really that first tank halted. The whole army stood still but then the lieutenant gave a signal and the tank moved forward "but grandfather never budged, and the tank ran over him and crushed his head, and after that there was nothing standing in the way of the German army."
This is history at work but also at play. Hrabal attends to the magnitude of history within the context of the absurd. If Great-grandfather Luke had been on the side of the revolutionaries, if the grandad had successfully defied the Nazi tanks, we would have had the history without the absurdity; had great-grandad sided with the revolutionaries we would have had heroism without the shame. In Milos, however, we do have a hero who succeeds, but in a manner that lends the book a constantly comedic tone met with a mournful conclusion. It is the impotence he resolves that gives Milos the impression that he has the powers his grandfather reckoned he possessed. He can prove he is a man because he knows he is no longer a boy, and the book shows that Milos isn't concerned especially with the greater good, but in extending his self-esteem. Taking out Germans is part of the new manliness: like making out with Victoria. This doesn't make Milos any less of a hero, but it does make Hrabal's novel bitterly sweet and very tender. Even the moment when Milos is shot contains the absurd. "And I felt a pain in my shoulder, and the revolver dropped from my hand, and I fell head-first, but my coat caught on a hook, and the signal rattled and the green changed to red, and the arm fell into the horizontal position, and I hung head down and heard my coat gradually tearing. My keys and small change fell out of my pockets..."
This moment isn't only comic, it is also 'novelistic' - it is the sort of detail an historian would have little interest in acknowledging but a novelist will delightfully seize upon, seeing that the world shouldn't be viewed from the perspective of the abstract but the concrete. If history insists on monuments, micro-history demands fiction, as though the statue cannot acknowledge the detail but must shape it into the solidity of marble. Imagine a statue of the heroic Milos with his coat tearing apart and change falling from his pockets? This is the undiscovered side of history that Kundera discusses, and Hrabal a master of its discovery. Adam Thirlwell puts it nicely in the Guardian, discussing I Served the King of England: "Hrabal's novel offers an occluded history of Bohemia in the middle of the 20th century, where foreground and background are reversed." Thirwell adds, "What is the meaning of history? That is the central question of this novel. What is a civilisation? Everyone, in the end, is a waiter: a minor character. So how is the history of a minor character related to the more abstract history of a nation?" The historical novelist is perhaps a contradiction in terms unless this means that they find in their work the reversal Thirlwell notes, or the undiscovered Kundera insists upon. This isn't a case of making historical figures vivid, but in ignoring the historical figures altogether or finding in them the most specific of characteristics that rescues them from history and puts them back into life. History becomes an unfortunate backdrop to a personal existence. If Milos in Closely Observed Trains hadn't been caught in WWII, the need to expand upon his prowess could have taken a minor form but instead is given major significance. In I Served the King of England, Ditie falls in love with a woman of German extraction, a goddess, an Aryan beauty whose Aryan status interests him less than just being happy to share a bed with a lovely woman who will have him. The German invasion of Czechoslovakia is an inconvenience: "according to the laws of the Reich, I also had to request a physical examination by an SS doctor to determine whether I, being of a different nationality, was eligible under the Nuremberg Laws not merely to have sex with someone of Aryan Teutonic blood but actually to impregnate her." In another novel, Ditie's desire to be with his beloved Lise would be either cynicism or denial. In Hrabal's hands, so to speak, it isn't quite either, evident when he goes to have his sperm tested. "And I knew from reading the papers that as I was standing here with my penis in my hand to prove myself worthy to marry a German, Germans were executing Czechs, and so I couldn't get an erection and offer the doctor a few drops of my sperm." Ditie probably shouldn't be marrying an ethnic German woman at the time the Nazis are executing Czechs, but that isn't the same as saying he is taking advantage of the situation. He loves Lise and wants to be with her; he isn't opportunistically hoping to marry into power. Hrabal suggests naivety over sophistication, an interest in the affectionate over the ideological. Ditie cares for Lise but can't see the broader crisis. "The officers drank toasts with Lise and even with me, and she told everyone how courageously I'd behaved in defending her German honor against the Czech jingoes, and they acknowledged me with raised glasses, and I bowed and thanked them." But what he didn't realize "was that they were ignoring me, barely tolerating me as someone who went along with Lise."
We might assume here that I Served the King of England is a close cousin to Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, but this is more a distant relation. Ishiguro wanted to show the dutifulness of butler Stevens to his Fascist sympathising employer as he illustrates the degree to which a job well done incorporates subservience and denial. Hrabal is more interested in the comedic and the accidental, the sense in which Ditie moves from one position to another, while Ishiguro points up the stillness and lack of event. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens thinks that Britain's "greatness comes from the lack of drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our landscape apart." The opposite would seem to be true of Czechoslovakia in Hrabal's novels: it is a country constantly in turmoil from invaders as it sits precariously in the middle of Europe. The moral luck is quite different in Ishiguro's novel from that in I Served the King of England: Stevens obediently attends to his lord's needs and denies himself emotional experiences; Ditie cannot avoid getting caught up in history but also enjoys numerous sexual encounters as he lets life happen to him, determined as he is in pursuing passionate adventure, however haphazardly Ditie's moral misfortune rests on a misplaced sense of priority, evident when he says of Lise: "I knew then that I had to defend her against any Czechs who tried to harm a hair on this sweet little Egerlander's head, this daughter of the owner of the city of Amsterdam hotel and restaurant in Cheb, which the Germans had annexed as imperial territory last fall, along with the rest of the Sudetenland, taking it back to be part f the Reich as it had once been many years before." That is a lot of historical unpacking within the context of looking after a lover's best interests.
When Nagel addresses the issue of moral luck he notes, "a person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but it is a paradox.)" (Mortal Thoughts) Someone cannot be found guilty for not keeping Jewish people in their basement during the war, after the war is over, but they nevertheless might feel guilty over their inaction. This is moral ill-luck in the sense that they hadn't done anything wrong, but the force of circumstances meant that they in their inaction could feel partly culpable. Hrabal presents a world where characters tend to act with a mixture of pragmatic self-interest and an ad hoc need to act well. They might misdiagnose the moral climate, but that doesn't mean they aren't acting morally. When Ditie determines to protect Lise's honour, this is not too far removed from the pride that Milos offers when he takes on the Nazis. Ditie gets caught out by history and arrives at moral ill-luck; Milos coincides with the moral necessity of history and arrives at good luck. Ditie survives to tell the tale a little sheepishly; Milos dies, a first-person narrator taking his story to the grave as the book ends with the irony of being narrated by a man who will not survive yet nevertheless tells the tale.
What Hrabal does so well is incorporate the notion of moral luck within a comic sensibility, as though aware that history and morality are often contingent elements that lend themselves better to the comedic than the tragic. When Wood insists that Harbal is a writer who borrows from the real and does not evade it, we can see this rests on Hrabal's interest in finding a perspective on history and morality. The comic isn't a mechanical attempt to create laughs, but a wry need to comprehend events. In I Served the King of England, Ditie survives the war and thanks to a suitcase full of stamps found or taken by his wife, Hrabal notes that Ditie brought "those stamps from Lemberg, from Lvov, when the ghetto was burned to the ground and the Jews were murdered" and became rich. It is another of Hrabal's sentences compacting a lot of horrible history in one brief phrase. With the money, he buys a hotel and is regarded in the post-war Communist Czechoslovakia a wealthy man who must be punished for his riches: he ends up in a millionaire's prison. It turns out to be a fun place with plenty food, drink and entertainment. "...The millionaires started taking holidays, which showed how much the militiamen trusted us, because they knew we wouldn't run away. Even when we did, and this happened twice, we brought another millionaire back with us, a good friend who wanted a vacation from his family." If history can play tricks with people, people can play tricks with history, as though no matter how serious events happen to be, no matter how much history would seem unavoidably to impact on one's life, there are opportunities to defy it, counter it, above all make fun of it. Both Adam Thirlwell in the Guardian, and Parul Sehgal in the New York Times, quote Hrabal's phrase: "my credo was always delight, bliss, longing" and both also appear pertinent to the nature of Hrabal's end. He died falling to his death at the age of 83 feeding pigeons while hospitalized with arthritis. Was it an absurd accident or a deliberate demise? Sehgal thought the ambiguity was consistent with his work, that one could always see another side to a situation. In Closely Observed Trains there is the moment when Milos muses over a couple of Nazi soldiers. "...It seemed strange to me that both these S.S men were beautiful; to look at them you'd have thought they ought to be writing poetry, or going to play tennis, but there they stood on either side of me on the locomotive..." We can think as well of Milos's suicide attempt: "And I plunged both hands into the hot water, and watched the blood flow slowly out of me, and the water grow rosy, and yet all the time the pattern of the red blood flowing remained so clearly perceptible, as though someone was drawing out from my wrists a long, feathery red bandage..." Was Hrabal's own demise a death that contained within it the oxymoronic possibility of contraries: was it to the despair that he would hint at when talking of rooms that would hurt (Total Fears), or the many times I've wanted to jump from a fifth-floor window? (Independent). Or was it consistent with a writer of accidental ecstasy, of chance always playing a hand? Robin Ashenden writing on Hrabal in the context of Kundera sees in Hrabal a properly Czech writer, while Kundera was more of a French one, and that it made sense that Kundera would wind up living in France and writing in French. "Hrabal couldn't be more different from Kundera - born a bastard, a dud at school, no lady's man and never a hero. Not only his central characters have this tiny, marginal quality - an underwaiter, a junior railway worker at a class C rural station, a packer at a paper-pulping plant - but also the animals he writes about." (CEEL) In Immortality, Kundera writes of his fear over a ridiculous death, and discusses various figures he believes suffered exactly that fate. "Tycho Brahe was a great astronomer, but all we remember of him today is that in the course of a festive dinner at the emperor's court he was ashamed to go to the lavatory, so his bladder burst and he departed among the ridiculous immortals as a martyr to shame and urine." It is the sort of anecdote not too dissimilar to the one of shame and defecation Hrabal tells in Too Loud a Solitude, but Hrabal would be more inclined to think of it less as a cautionary tale than a ridiculousness that befalls us all. We might not know exactly the motive for Hrabal's demise, but his death seems nevertheless consistent in both its potential absurdity and its undeniable ambiguity with work that manages to suggest life is an oxymoronic experience indeed.
© Tony McKibbin