Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech novelist, is a tenderly shared secret among those who read him. He is not nearly as well known as Kundera, his contemporary, but created a world just as intoxicating: one of marginal, at times humiliated people whose constricted outer lives – as waiters, railway men, paper-pulpers – masks the boundlessness of a dreamworld within, as full of drama and magic as anything Kundera’s shadowy antiheroes live. Few people restrict themselves to reading just one of his slim little novels: the flavour of them – mysterious, mischievous, surreal – leads one to sample the next, and the one after that. Many will never have read him, yet will know Closely Observed Trains, the 1966 Jiří Menzel adaptation of his work, or I Served the King of England, filmed by the same director in 2006. His readership is small but diehard: and it’s telling that a writer relatively so unsung has at least a dozen titles translated into English, remaining in print year after year.
Now we have Cabaret Hrabal, an evening dedicated to his work, which had a one-night only showing at the Hrabal-ishly named ‘Horse Hospital’, a pleasingly quirky venue in Bloomsbury. Thus it was I settled down on a balmy London evening, wine in hand and the reassuringly peculiar cluck of softly-spoken Czech all around me, to see what this group of artists had made of his work.
The soiree began with a staged reading of They’ve All Got Angel Eyes adapted and directed by Eva Daničková, a relatively faithful interpretation of one of Hrabal’s works, telling the story of a baker duped into taking out a crippling insurance policy by a suitably angelic salesman, and his doomed attempts to cancel it. Immaculately executed and enjoyable to watch, it was a good way to begin, giving people like myself an accessible gateway into Hrabal’s world, and providing a reference point for some of the more experimental pieces which were to follow.
Certain of these worked wonderfully, perfectly capturing the light, almost airborne feeling of Hrabal’s writing. There was a flowing and compelling poem written and performed by Marcus Slease which meandered like a river as he drifted from sentence to sentence in his attempt to convey via the medium of verse, the impact that Hrabal has had on him as a man and a poet. The next performance, titled ‘Bohumil Hrabal: Literary Experiments’ was exactly that, an experiment, which involved the reading of sentences addressing the topic of ‘A Dull Afternoon’ harvested from social media, over a backing track. It certainly felt like a work in progress, but it rested upon the foundation of an interesting idea: could dullness be made interesting, as Hrabal had managed in his work?
Having next been treated to sculptures made from the pulp of Hrabal’s books – a clear reference to Too Loud a Solitude, Hrabal’s 1976 masterpiece, whose hero works in a pulping factory – we launched straight into Zoë Skoulding’s ‘Diamond Eye’, a haunting piece of sonic art in which a hypnotic audio track was overlaid with different layers of ethereal and, at times, menacing speech, reflecting the darker side of Hrabal’s writing and indeed his life, riven as it was by alcoholism and, in the communism-time, by run-ins with the secret police. The pièce de résistance was Lucinka Eisler’s ‘Extra Time’, a piece of visual art in which Eisler interacted with a video projected behind her, focussing on themes of ageing, loss and mortality: “It’s a shame Hrabal can’t be here with us tonight, but he is here” she said, “one day we won’t be here, but we will be here”. Her performance was particularly resonant because it reminded us that art, in all its various forms, is essentially a conversation which echoes down the ages.
It was an effective end to a thought-provoking evening, and I would have liked nothing better than to linger there. However, although the timetables of British trains are generally ‘closely observed’, I could not avoid missing the last from nearby King’s Cross. I journeyed back home inspired, confused, enlightened, amused and strangely liberated: all at the same time – perhaps exactly what Pan Hrabal, if his books are anything to go by, would have wanted me to feel.
Cabaret Hrabal at the Horse Hospital July 3rd was a production organised by the Czech Centre (www.czechcentre.org.uk)