Kundera is out of favour in the Czech Republic now. He seems to many to have disowned his Czech birth, writing in French and travelling to his country only rarely, incognito. Many believe the ‘revelations’ of a few years back, that in his youth he betrayed a friend to the secret police and a subsequent prison sentence. Indeed, with a writer who seems to have spent so much of his life struggling towards a concept of betrayal that makes it aesthetic and even noble – a kind of decisiveness which makes the gods applaud – such things seem believable. But it’s his abandonment of the Czech language that rankles with many: he’s almost routinely referred to now, in the press and out of it, as the ‘French writer Milan Kundera’.
Such labels would just be petulant if there didn’t seem to be some truth to it. Perhaps Kundera really was a French writer, say one’s flights of fancy, who was misplaced at birth and migrated back to his country and his mother tongue. He appears at times so lofty, so in control of his material and so much like an urbane all-seeing God, that the effects – confidence, mastery – seem far from typically Czech. For a writer who seems to embody all the vulnerability and smallness of his country, we must turn instead to Bohumil Hrabal, Kundera’s contemporary, and the other great Czech writer of the late 20th century.
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. Tiny creatures litter his writings like paragons of fragility, mini-saints and martyrs: the family of mice crushed by a packing machine in Too Loud or Solitude, the Prague doves with their ‘beautiful eyes’ (who else would notice?) exterminated in a state campaign, or the kittens who shivered beside him at his country house and which he christened – with sweet delicacy – his ‘Little Jesuses’. Appropriately, his novels are miniscule too, often no more than 100 pages, as if his narrators, all of them doing their ‘pirhouette on a postage stamp’, know that you’re of a higher echelon – for who isn’t? – and that you have more pressing things to do, sir.
Yet, like Czech culture, Hrabal makes the small vast: his books and characters have boundless inner worlds, with a light but noticeable momentum to them, as one flight of fancy – a floating, featherlike flight, without engine or motive – leads to another, leading to another, leading who knows where. The narrators of his books somehow make you think of frogs pushing their way through the high reeds, occasionally jumping high but lolloping down to earth again with a plop, nearly always hidden from view. Kundera wrote of Rilke, Oedipus, Beethoven, Stalin’s son, and managed to look down on all of them as he wrote. Hrabal takes the marginal, and sanctifies it: the things that move lightly through the world and make no mark on it, an entire idiosyncratic universe burning out along with them. He writes, in other words, of the freedom of life’s spare parts, telling you, as the critic Adam Thirwell put it, that ‘This, in the end, is the real way to be a hedonist: to be content with how small the world’s pleasures are, to be happy with humiliation.’
Much of the difference between Hrabal and Kundera, one suspects, is sexuality. While Kundera describes sexual doors forever swinging wide open (he wrote, we must remember, of the delights of the ‘three-woman day’) Hrabal’s characters are rarely so lucky with women, and some of them are brought close to suicide by their frustrations, trapped in childhood forever. Hrabal could write of Kundera, with generous admiration, ‘and when he walked down Národní Třída, all the girls turned their heads’, yet he knew that few had turned their heads after him. Instead, Hrabal seems all too rejectable: lumpy-looking, raisin-eyed and battered, he was condemned to enjoy life vicariously or barely at all. His Letters to Dubenka (1990) – his late correspondence with April Gifford, a young American student in Prague (she did not return his affections, we are told) – are masterpieces of minute self-abasement, as Hrabal, 50 years older than his correspondent, sets about making himself even less of a sexual possibility: telling her graphically about the pyjamas he wears under his clothes to warm up his varicosed legs, or having shrivelled testicles from the cold, or the experience of shitting himself in a public lavatory and having to wash out his long johns there.
But it’s the tenderness with which he describes such things – even the reassuring attendant (‘Take off your dirty underpants, and look here. See? I’ve got a little tub and a basin, and I’ve even got a washboard….Even had the aristocracy here, caught short just the same as you…’) doesn’t manage more kindness than Hrabal, as he recounts the beauty of his rescuer’s eyes, and his own purgatory and purification of scrubbing and scrubbing, finding a kind of epiphany even in this. While Kundera belongs firmly to the adult world of lost illusions, Hrabal seems to remain forever a little boy, unable to control his bowels, loving his pets, sweating under authority’s interrogations, ticked off by his wife for drunkenness, staring out of the window and dreaming vividly, as all his idiot savant heroes do, of the cynical paradise of grown men and women that for Kundera is simply home. Yet if Kundera’s world is unattainable, Hrabal teaches us to celebrate our exclusion from it, making even cowardice or incontinence somehow fragrant. He himself was no hero in the communist time, refusing to sign Charter 77, being ostracised by fellow writers even as his masterpiece ‘Too Loud a Solitude’, the one justification of his life, he said, was published. Lying awake before an interrogation, sweating with fear, he muttered as little about his colleagues to the Secret Police as he could get away with, though as much as they could get out of him, scared out of his wits or bribed with a visa to Sweden.
‘What’s more important to you, your colleague or your visit to Stockholm?’
‘Why, Stockholm of course,’ Hrabal whispered, in one of those little snatches of dialogue that seem to resonate through his country’s history.
Here, again, one finds smallness – ‘I am a man of no character,’ he once wrote of himself – and one is strangely grateful for it. By embracing his worminess – the betrayals, the incessant daydreaming, the minute rating on the gene pool scale, he somehow became beautiful, perfect, an Uncle Vanya who could write like Astrov spoke. His books have the tenderness of a child blowing the stamens off a dandelion, and an ugly, unattended child at that.
‘Dr.Kundera and Mr.Hrabal Part 1’ by Robin Ashenden can also be found on this site, and may be accessed by clicking on the image below.