In the acknowledgments to her translation of this small masterpiece, Stacey Knecht writes, “Apparently, it is possible to fall in love with a writer you’ve never met.” Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) may not be a name familiar to many Americans, but that’s our loss. Milan Kundera — author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and much else — considered Hrabal his country’s greatest writer. Years ago, when a group of European literary folk visited The Washington Post, I had coffee with Ivan Klima and asked that distinguished author what Czech novel he would recommend I read. The answer was instantaneous: Bohumil Hrabal’s “I Served the King of England,” which chronicles the fortunes of a young waiter before, during and after World War II. Cinema buffs may recall that it was filmed in 2006 by Jiri Menzel, who also directed several other movies derived from Hrabal’s fiction, including “Closely Watched Trains,” which won the 1968 Oscar for best foreign film.
One of its author’s last completed novels, “Harlequin’s Millions” may look initially off-putting because Hrabal — like the Austrian Thomas Bernhard and the Portuguese José Saramago — doesn’t break up his chapters into paragraphs. He also likes run-on sentences, the better to reflect a narrator’s stream of consciousness. But plunge right in and you will quickly pick up the rhythm of the book and be simultaneously enchanted and greatly moved by what you read. “Harlequin’s Millions” is set in a crumbling castle, where swallows nest in the chapel and a huge clock has stopped permanently at 7:25, which, we are told, is the time “that most old people die in the evening.” Such a lugubrious observation is hardly inappropriate, given that the former castle of Count Spork is now a 400-patient nursing home.
Hmmm. So here we have a book with seemingly endless blocks of text and characters who are all, more or less, at death’s door. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like quite what you want to read in the merry month of May. But it is, it is. Hrabal’s images and language, his anecdotes and precise observations create an exceptionally sensuous reverie about the passage of time. As the narrator and three ghostly old men recall their “golden days” in a town where time once seemed to stand still, Hrabal elicits from his adult reader not just sweet Proustian melancholy but also a better, deeper appreciation of the bright but evanescent sunshine outside.
Certainly Hrabal knows what we in the United States call “extended care.” He describes, for instance, the principal activities of the elderly residents: getting ready for meals at least a hour before they are actually served, knitting and crocheting baby clothes, primping for the young doctor who occasionally looks in, waiting eagerly and, usually in vain, for visitors on Sunday.
That’s not all. As Hrabal’s unnamed female narrator observes, the home’s pensioners “are actually in a permanent state of half-sleep,” and “anything even resembling consciousness is nipped in the bud. The nurses generously replenish this half-sleep with pills and injections. . . . Everyone wears diapers in bed, like babies.” At Castle Spork, she stresses, “Anyone who can walk and get to the bathroom on his own is considered healthy.”
We never learn the speaker’s name, but we do know that she is married to the former owner of a brewery (who now spends every waking moment listening to the world news), was once beautiful, liked pretty clothes and acted regularly in local theater. As she tells us, with all-too-human bewilderment, “I never, ever expected that life would go by so quickly. Before I’d even taken a good look around me, I’d plucked out my first gray hair.”
Now toothless after destroying her repulsive dentures, this sensitive woman closely observes the life at Castle Spork. She meanders among the marble statues in the garden, and compares their eternal youth to what she has become. The painted ceiling in the ward for bedridden old women cruelly shows naked goddesses and drunken fauns madly dancing. In the dining room, as the pathetic residents hobble in to slurp their soup and munch their gristle, the overhead fresco depicts an indomitable Alexander the Great inflicting bloody carnage on his enemies. During the day many of the men just wander aimlessly:
“It wasn’t really walking, but a kind of shuffling, as if they were cross-country skiing, they’d stop and stand in groups, the smoke from a cigar or cigarette trickled through their fingers, their faces were as brown as tobacco and full of wrinkles, then all at once they’d set out again energetically, as if they had suddenly remembered they had someplace to go where someone was waiting for them with an important message, but after a while they slowed down again and plodded along as if their legs were shackled, as if they were searching the floor for wild mushrooms or a missing set of car keys.”
Meanwhile, day in, day out, the castle’s sound system plays over and over again Riccardo Drigo’s lush serenade “Harlequin’s Millions,” an aching Pucciniesque love song.
Yet music, like memories, can be upsetting: In one astonishing chapter, arthritic old ladies are momentarily transformed into maenads when a recording of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” leads to an orgiastic rout. In yet another section, our narrator blissfully recalls the cosmetics and creams she stocked when, for two fairy-tale months, she owned a small perfumery in Prague:
“In the shopwindow on a clockwork turntable with mirrors was the triumph of French cosmetics, Elixir Lavalier, pills for a perfect bosom, jars and flasks and powder boxes shone in the permanently lit perfume case behind the counter, cut-glass bottles with roses, water lilies, sprigs of lilac and jasmine unfurling in aromatic oils, perennially fragrant fantasies, the gentlest hair lotions with a scent of violet that bore the secret of how to stay young and eternally beautiful.”
“What is life?” asks Hrabal’s narrator and answers, “Everything that once was, everything an old person thinks back on and tells you stories about, everything that no longer matters and is gone for good.” She herself reminisces about her husband’s fondness for tinkering with motors, their afternoons of mushrooming, even the day the workers collectivized the brewery and threw them out. Three courtly old-timers also regularly chime in with anecdotes, remembering ancient nicknames, the man “who lost his mind as a result of too much education” and all the myriad smells — from bakeries, tanneries and fishmongers — that once pervaded the town and are now gone forever. Gone, too, are the farmer’s markets, the festivals and parades, the little orchestra and the amateur theatricals and the days “of singing while doing the carpentry work and the malting” and that time when men “knew how to carry an umbrella.”
I fear that, despite my intentions, I’ve made “Harlequin’s Millions” sound rather depressing. Yet like that celebrated downer, “King Lear,” the novel leaves one not just shaken but exalted. Youth and age, health and sickness, past and present — these are life’s great polarities, and Bohumil Hrabal honors them all.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Bohumil Hrabal
Translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht
Archipelago. 312 pp. Paperback, $18