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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Harlequin's Millions - Bohumil Hrabal (translated by Stacey Knecht) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

Before we start this review let’s go straight to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia. “Bohumil Hrabal (28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) was a Czech writer, regarded by many Czechs as one of the best writers of the 20th century.” There is then a reference to James Wood’s article in the “London Review of Books, Vol 23 No.1, 2001). I think that article contains a little more depth to the greatness of Hrabal’s work. You can read it here if you’re interested

“Harlequin’s Millions” is the latest release from USA not-for-profit publisher Archipelago Books and as one of his last novels, it is Hrabal’s tribute to Nymburk, the town where he grew up. We are in the former castle of Count Spork, a magnificent chalet that is adorned with frescoes, statues on the lawns, rusting guttering, a sound system that plays Harlequin’s Millions constantly (a serenade) and a clock that has permanently stopped at 7:25 (apparently the most popular time for people to die). This is no grand castle any longer, it is now a nursing home…

because an old person really has no place to go, and when they do go anywhere, it’s back to the memories, to the heart of the life that was once as much of a reality as…as what?

This novel follows an unnamed female protagonist as she becomes a resident of the retirement home, makes friends with the “three witnesses to old times”, walks the gardens and reflects on her own times in the town, of course always accompanied by the serenade “Harlequin’s Millions”;

And there was music coming from the speakers, a string orchestra played “Harlequin’s Millions,” the melody swirled around the pensioners and everyone who heard it was entranced, but the music didn’t sound like a reproach, it was more like a melancholy memory of old times.

Our story takes place in the “town where time stands still”, however we have the dichotomy of the ageing pensioners, our unnamed protagonist slowly decaying, her husband’s brother passing away, a multitude of reflections of people who no longer exist, a town where time is not standing still at all.

The pensioners living in the old castle are actually in a permanent state of half-sleep, the doctor sees to it that they get enough sleep and anything even resembling consciousness is nipped in the bud. The nurses generously replenish this half-sleep with pills and injections, they’re constantly on the alert to make sure that no one is ever entirely awake. Everyone wears diapers in bed, like babies, and the nurses who have to change those diapers are like young mothers, every time you turn around they’re hurrying off to throw the stinking diapers into plastic pails, there’s always the sound of running water somewhere as the nurses wash their hands, and every morning the sheets are changed, whole piles of wrinkled sheets with yellow stains, stinking piles, which are thrown out the open window into the truck in the courtyard and then brought to the laundry room in the former library of the monastery, where the Augustinians once studied everything that had ever been written, separating the books that were of use to them from the dangerous ones, the library, which is now a laundry and boiler room.

Our novel is made up of sixteen paragraphs, sixteen chapters to be exact, as each chapter is wall to wall text, a single paragraph. However unlike Krasznahorkai, we do have full stops, yes these aren’t single sentences. And amazingly the words do flow quite easily. We learn the story of our protagonist and her husband Francin, during the communist uprising, where Francin loses his job as brewery manager, to somebody from the Worker’s Collective. We learn of the shame in such a downfall, we understand the villager’s joy at seeing such a fall…and now they’re sharing the same retirement home!

This is a wonderful example of language usage, a juxtaposition of history with the banality of everyday existence. Our characters are real people (some may be imagined), for example Czech poet Otakar Theer appears, these are real places (have a look at these stunning photos to give you a feel of the village and the castle )

Our protagonist treads “deeper and deeper, nearer and nearer to the dead people who had once lived here in the little town where time really had stood still.” Her husband listens to the news each day, travelling in his mind, whilst she becomes more entrenched in “her” town.

Here in this castle I lived every day in the mystery, in the strata of human destinies of people who had long since been buried, but I brought them back to life, thanks to the memories of the old witnesses, Vaclav and Karel and Otokar, my three dear friends, who each day pointed their fingers to show me things in the little town, where what could no longer be seen was still very much alive to us.

Early on in our story we have our protagonist and the three old witnesses travelling into the town centre, where the place is deserted, the town square empty to only them, they wander and notice the blue haze of television screens in all the houses and bars, Czechoslovakia is playing football. We revisit the same scene later in the novel where it becomes increasingly obvious, the elderly are from the past, and they reminisce whilst everybody else is interested in the present activities.

In our London Review of Book reference (above) there are six works reviewed (not this one) and a large number of references to Hrabal’s “humour”, and I must admit, “Harlequin’s Millions” did bring many a smile to my face. However this novel does not come across as a “stand alone” work, it’s an homage to Nymburk, a notebook of memories, a melancholy for former residents and a reflection on ageing. Beautiful in language and style, but to me it lacked a spine, do reflections have spines? Aficionados of Hrabal will possibly not be pleased with my personal feelings towards this work, and it could be that this is not the novel to introduce you to his oeuvre. One I’m glad I read, one I’ll remember? Probably not.

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MG said...

A very helpful review, it helped me decide to keep at this one.

I have read two chapters and I must admit that the lack of paragraph breaks is difficult. I will stay with it, but I can't do more than a chapter at a sitting.

Thank you for the link to the pictures. I think it might go easier if I can take a break and look at something that is "on topic." Maybe I'll get in another chapter tonight.

Tony Messenger said...

Thanks for stopping by MG, it does meander along, don't expect a huge change of pace.