World Literature: Bohumil Hrabal

The Best Translated Book Awards recently finalized its jury for 2015, which includes booksellers Jeremy Garber of Powell's Books, Portland, Ore., and James Crossley of Island Books, Mercer Island, Wash.

Harlequin's Millions Notable contenders for the award will likely be two posthumously released titles by Bohumil Hrabal, considered by many Czechs to be the country's greatest writer of the 20th century. Harlequin's Millions, one of the author's last completed novels, is a fine book for Archipelago Books to release during its 10th anniversary, in the year of its 100th book and on the 100th anniversary of Hrabal's birth.

The narrator of the book is an elderly woman who lives in a medieval castle that is now a retirement home. Through her meditative reflections and the anecdotes of three ghostlike pensioners, she comes to terms with the passage of time. As the book progresses and the narrator ages, her memories and observations lose their reliability.

Bohumil HrabalHrabal is revisiting characters from his early works, including the unnamed narrator, based on his mother. The famous citizens of the "little town that time forgot" are referred to by nicknames like Cervinka the Parasol, Lousehead, Dlabac the Rib Roast, Sweatbuckets and Votava the Useless.

Early English translations of Hrabal chopped his long, loping sentences into abrupt ugly fragments. Translator Stacey Knecht's first foray into Czech (she's an accomplished translator from Dutch) preserves those paragraph-length sentences and streams of consciousness. Knecht has guided this quiet book into an engaging, heartfelt experience without letting it drop into mawkish emofiction. (That's a word, right?)

Karolinum Press, Charles University, Prague, has published a collection of Hrabal's short works that the Times Literary Supplement calls "a painstakingly accurate translation" by David Short. For a while under Communist rule, Hrabal was not allowed to publish any new works. An illustrated, ribboned, unjacketed cloth edition, Ramblin' On, collects many of the censored stories with other offerings.

Hrabal was a serious football fan. In Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, he calls Real Madrid "Pussies." I couldn't agree more, but I'm thinking his reference was in a different context. --George Carroll

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