the great Bohumil Hrabal

PortraitZuzana Slobodová at The Times Literary Supplement:

Both books reflect Hrabal’s fascination with language, and it is here that his main achievement lies. Hrabal started out as a surrealist poet, and his stories and novels are written in the form of prose poetry, which borders on surrealism while remaining highly readable. Like his literary idol, Jaroslav Hašek, the author of The Good Soldier Švejk, Hrabal recorded and made use of aimless, often coarse conversations overheard in Czech pubs. But unlike his cynical “older brother”, Hrabal juxtaposed this with lyricism and sentiment, dabbled in automatic writing, made verbal collages, switched from comedy to tragedy, and hopped between styles without warning. His vocabulary is as rich as that of James Joyce. The effect is magical and impossible to translate in its full beauty, though the translators of both these volumes deserve high praise.

David Short, who has also successfully rendered Hrabal’s Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp (reviewed in the TLS, April 10, 2009), seeks above all to capture the exact meaning and linguistic register of Hrabal’s language – his metaphors, cultural references and even the names of his characters. When a word is so obscure that few Czechs would understand it (eg pankejt, translated as “the verge of the road”), he resorts to etymological research. The result is a painstakingly accurate translation, which still preserves Hrabal’s flow. Short also moves away from the traditional rendering of Hrabal’s term pábení as “palavering”. His “rambling on” better encapsulates the essence of a book in which, for example, an uninvited guest barges into Hrabal’s house, gets drunk on his beer, predicts the writer’s death, and advises him in exhaustive detail to be buried near a football pitch (Hrabal was a passionate football fan).

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