Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains

Blood on the Tracks:

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The literary output of the former Czechoslovakia (which in 1993 was split into the Czech and Slovak Republics) is as tumultuous and as politically colored as was the ever-metamorphosing and almost constantly occupied state itself. Its capital, Prague, is most known in the literary world for being Franz Kafka’s birthplace, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia declared independence, but in 1939 it was divided when Germany annexed the Sudetenland and then attacked eastward. Kafka, along with most of the Prague intelligentsia of the time, was a German-speaking Jew, and he would have been murdered in Auschwitz along with his sisters and the rest of the city’s educated class had he not died young, in 1924. After World War II, Czechoslovakia then came under the rule of communism and was dominated by Soviet influence until 1989. As a result of all this subjugation, the country’s literature suffered greatly, especially under communism, which favored Social Realism and devalued autonomous artistic and personal expression. Worldwide, the most famous Czech-language writer is Milan Kundera, who’s known for fusing the political with the personal and the sexual in his works, but the writer who first started to break away from dogma and into the realm of true art was Bohumil Hrabal, and his breakthrough novel was 1965’s Closely Watched Trains.

While Hrabal’s and Kundera’s work is still very much tethered to their country’s shifting political environments—in Hrabal’s case because he had to work under communism and in Kundera’s case because he often wrote in opposition to it from exile in France—they both focused more on the art of their novels than on their politics. Hrabal wrote The Legend of Cain, the original version of Closely Watched Trains, in 1949, but because of the political climate of the time, it remained shelved until he revised it for publication a decade and a half later. In the opinion of some of Hrabal’s avant-garde contemporaries, the published version is somewhat less shocking (but better written) than the original, and his revision may have helped it pass the censors, who were easing their restrictions at the time, but its anti-Nazi politics probably helped as well, the novel’s subject matter illustrating that politics were unavoidable as part of twentieth-century Czech life, whether you were specifically writing for the current regime or not.

A scene from the 1966 film version of Closely Watched Trains 
The novel’s young protagonist, Miloš, has just gotten out of an asylum after slashing his wrists and returns to work at the local train station, where that night he ends up taking part in the sabotage of a trainload of Nazi munitions. Through a dazzling array of flashbacks and varying narrative techniques, the reader learns that Miloš tried to kill himself after a sexual tryst that failed because of premature ejaculation, and as Miloš’ first-person thoughts meander through the current day and through his and his family’s and his town’s past, the novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that’s at turns—and often at once—disgustingly ugly and almost unbearably beautiful. The isolated point of view that Hrabal creates through Miloš’ reflections allows for a deeply personal vision of a world whose natural and human elements can combine in his head into the most lovely and terrible combinations. Hrabal is fascinated with human cruelty toward animals—and toward fellow humans, the distinction between the two often breaking down as Miloš watches and contemplates the suffering of all sentient existence—and some of this novel’s scenes are horrifically painful. Miloš’ connection to the pain in every living eye allows him to look at the retreating Nazis with the same sympathy that he views the slaughtered animals, but while his final actions distinguish him as a kind of hero, they also show him to be as capable of steely inhumanity as everyone else, illustrating that among the vast array of humanity’s possibilities for action in the world, “inhumanity” is in fact a misnomer, because only human beings can act with inhumanity.

One of the great achievements of this novel is that its pathos is balanced with wonderful humor and vitality, its cast of characters revolving around each other with romance, longing, absurdity, vanity, hilarious deviance, and a healthy (and/or perhaps unhealthy) dose of sexuality. Perhaps meant to be comic, the novel’s correlation between virility and political action can be somewhat troubling, though, both to male and female readers—to the former because the idea that men must rise to action is confining, and to the latter because serving as ciphers for male ability is insulting. Hrabal was an enormous literary influence on the younger Kundera, and in Kundera’s works—which often revel in the humiliation of women while the male characters partake in masculine philosophizing and political action—this tendency is sometimes taken to extremes. But in Closely Watched Trains, both men and women take active militant roles, making this novel much more intertwined and ambiguous in its gender assignments than any of the works of the somewhat wayward disciple. Perhaps further tempering Miloš’ “heroic” sexual/political salvation, the ironic relativities of his tragic ups and downs serve as reminders of the absurd—but often absurdly necessary—follies that both men and women partake in during war.

A young Bohumil Hrabal
Although the world of politics—including sexual politics—is inextricable from any kind of reality that Hrabal could have experienced or written about, this novel was embraced by the public and the literati alike as an emancipation from mere message and as a triumph for artistry. Torrents of blood course through every arterial passage of Closely Watched Trains—political blood, sexual blood, animal and human blood—but mostly its blood is the blood of art taking on a sanguine life of its own.

—David Wiley

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