czech republic

100 Years of Bohumil Hrabal

hrabal duo

Okay, maybe I am a few days late, but let’s blame my oversight of celebrating Bohumil Hrabal’s 100th Birthday on some recent jet lag that I’ve been experiencing. March 28 marked the 100th birthday of great 20th Century Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. He is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, Closely Watched Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky). He has numerous books and short stories, but for some reason, this one has always stuck with me. I’ve read it several times, penned a grad school paper on it, and have enjoyed the 1966 film adaptation that went on to win an Academy Award.

There is something that draws me to Czech writers. I was lovingly teased for it in my student days, but their affinity for portraying the absurd and humor in even detrimental circumstances is what attracts me. For example, in Closely Watched Trains, the main character is a young train station guard in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. As Nazis come through by way of the station and resistance fighters target the trains, young Milos is completely preoccupied with getting laid and when he can’t perform, he attempts suicide. I know, a little dark, but funny. The reader sees the threats that surround Milos and his country, but he’s too busy flirting with the ladies and worrying about his sexual dysfunction.You must read this book and when you’re done, watch the movie which is available in the Criterion Collection, for Hulu+ subscribers, and in two-parts on Dailymotion: 1 | 2.

Hrabal is so cool that a bust of him resides on the wall of U Zlatého Tygra (At the Golden Tiger), his favorite bar in Prague, where he even took President Clinton and Madeleine Albright to for some pilsnerplease pardon my crummy photo; it was dark that day

U Zlatého Tygra

He’s considered by many to be one of the greatest Czech writers of all time. Even with my limited reading selection of that country, I shall be so bold as to agree. I am terribly delighted to have recently received a galley of a new English translation of one of his books to review (unfortunately for this blog, I will be writing for another publication, but maybe I’ll put a quick write-up here next month).

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you a wee bit. Although, Hrabal needs no convincing from me. I mean, when the man had his 80th birthday, the whole city came out. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put up a handful of photos from over the years. Take a look here, which includes the photo below from the film set of Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovak Press Agency).

closely watched trains

 


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Cities That Inspire Us For All Sorts of Reasons

This weekend marks the second year that I’ve been writing Acid Free Pulp. My first post was titled Prague and it was conceived after I returned back from a trip, which included a visit to the Czech Republic. Prague is one of my favorite cities for various reasons including its ability to inspire me. The hometown of one of my all time favorite writers, Franz Kafka, my mind constantly whirls with ideas when I’m in Prague. Even on a follow-up trip, as I sat on a wall overlooking the Vltava River, the skeleton of an idea came to me, which I was able to flesh out later in our apartment and on my flight back to the US. What came of this visit was a novella concerning a mysterious event in Prague (when I am done with my current project, I hope to return to it and expand on the characters and plot).

As I was contemplating the blog’s 2 year anniversary, I read a profile in New York magazine for their Winter Travel edition, which focused on “lesser-known cities for equally fine wine, just-as-ancient architecture, and even-more-secret warehouse parties.” They profiled Leipzig, a city about an hour away by train from Berlin. While Berlin is also a favorite destination and I’ve spent a good deal of time there, there is Leipzig, a former East German city that had once been grand before the World Wars.

Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig is a city I have mixed feelings about, but it has inspired me exponentially. I have written some of my best stories while living there or now, thinking back to it. It is a strange place where beauty and destruction have been forced together. There are elegant villas lining some streets, with a row of odd Soviet bloc apartments (plattenbauten) still standing and sticking out like sore thumbs. I’ve twice stayed in one of these apartment buildings where all personality is stripped and the shower can only be used when the sink is turned on. A third time in Leipzig, I stayed much longer and lived on a different side of the city with abandoned warehouses that had been turned into businesses or which were normally abandoned save for the midnight parties they hosted. Leipzig is a former city of greatness that is striving to retain that glory. I took the above photo in the neighborhood where I lived the third time. The buildings crumble on one street and empty spaces are being used by students for art and literary readings.

It is a city that inspires me in a different way than Prague. Where Prague is a city filled with rich colors and beautiful buildings, Leipzig crumbles around its own beauty. Part of it is full of life, where a large portion is still a ghost town since the dissolution of the USSR.

Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig, Germany.

There are many cities that inspire me–Prague, New York, Bratislava, Edinburgh, to name a few–but something still holds me to Leipzig. I do not know if I will ever return; I feel as if my time there is done with. I have soaked up as much as I can and the friends I have there are starting to float away to other places, too. As I walked the streets, the thoughts of its great past always came over me.

Leipzig has been home to many great writers and musicians. Also, the second largest book fair in Germany takes place there–Leipziger Buchmesse. Many of the photos I have of the city are of crumbling buildings and graffiti but the city is quite beautiful in many places. Here are a few.

Václav Havel

vaclavhavel.cz

The writer of one of my favorite plays has died: Václav Havel. Unfortunately, it has been a week of several writerly deaths (Christopher Hitchens, Gilbert Adair). Havel was a prominent leader who helped bring down communism in Czechoslovakia. He was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic and a playwright. I’ve only read one of his plays, The Garden Party, but it’s truly a favorite. The play is a critique of conformity during communist rule and an enjoyable Kafkaesque work.

The protagonist is Hugo Pludek, who is an average person from a middle-class Czech family. His parents are worried about his future so they arrange an appointment for him with the influential Mr. Kalabis at the garden party of the Liquidation Office. Hugo does not find Kalabis but instead a sequence of absurd encounters starts. All of the functionaries of the Liquidation Office speak in a degenerated, ideological, content-free language, as is expected from their role in the bureaucratic system.Hugo is intelligent and adaptive, therefore is able to adjust his behaviour. He learns to speak platitudinally, using clichés that do not mean anything real and finally becomes the head of the newly created Central Inauguration and Liquidation Committee. As the result, he completely loses his identity.

I tried searching for a copy of the play on Project Gutenberg but no results were found. The play is from the 1960s and probably still retains its copyright. Because of his death, I have pulled Havel’s collection of plays that I own off the shelf and have added it to my winter break reading list. I’m very much looking forward to re-reading The Garden Party and becoming acquainted with his other plays.

The Garden Party also reminds me of a Czech film from around the same time period called A Report on the Party and the Guests. I’ve been searching for this film for almost two years on Netflix and Amazon. I don’t think it’s available in the US but it might be available in the UK. It is fantastic and also offers 71 minutes of the bizarre and absurd. If you’re like me and can’t get your hands on the film, in the very least, pick up or borrow a copy of Havel’s plays.

“If there are any theatres left that base work entirely on the writer’s text, theatres that value the development of poetry in drama, then Havel’s plays will never be out of the repertoire.”  –Milan Kundera

A photo I took in Prague of a haunting memorial dedicated to all of the victims of Communism.

Prague

On a recent trip to the Czech Republic, like all good book lovers and especially Czech literature enthusiasts, I had a Kafka nerd-out. Besides scooping up a copy of The Trial translated into English with illustrations by Karel Hruška, I also weighed myself down with a beautiful poster of Gregor Samsa looking into a mirror with the image of a giant vermin staring back at him, Das Schloss in the original German (yes, that’s the title for The Castle), and other little nick-nacks that I couldn’t resist despite my tourist meter reaching its max. Prague was beautiful and I couldn’t help but feel motivated and inspired in my own writing (perhaps cheesy, but I got a kick out of all of the restaurant signs featuring Švejk). Also, a personal favorite, was the bust of Bohumil Hrabal that reigns over one of the walls of At the Golden Tiger. Once I returned to the States, I felt a renewed sense in my ability as a writer and once again excited about the line of work I have chosen.

On a day trip out of the city, I visited the castle in the small town of Karlštejn. It was built by Charles IV to keep his royal jewels and whatnot, but some scholars believe it to be the model for Kafka’s castle that so torments K.