Thursday, April 7, 2016

Closely Observed Trains [1965]

Bohumil Hrabal, despite being regarded as one of the greatest Czech writers, is largely known outside his homeland (and that too among only ardent cinephiles with simultaneous passion for world literature) through Jiri Menzel’s adaptation to screen – a cornerstone in the short-lived Czech New Wave movement and a masterpiece in world cinema – of one of his most famous books Closely Observed Trains; Hrabal, who loved infusing his works with bleak irony and dark humour, might have possibly winked at this paradoxical incongruity. The novella’s narrator Miloš Hrma, like Ditie in I Served the King of England, is a quintessential Hrabal protagonist – a geeky, maladroit, diminutive and a largely apolitical young man (albeit minus the latter’s amoral streak) whose life, however, is defined and destined by the dark political developments around him. An apprentice at a small train station in Bohemia in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, he’s struggling to come to terms with his manhood – a rather embarrassing situation with the girl he loves led him towards attempted suicide, and is in awe of gleefully anti-authoritarian train dispatcher Hubička, who’s become an anathema for his bosses for having left imprints of German rubber stamps on a young telegraphist’s posterior. Through a host of funny developments, idiosyncratic characters and ludicrous lineage – his great grandfather was killed trying to stop through hypnotism German tanks entering Prague, his grandfather received pension from the age of 18 on account of a war-time injury and mocked people who had to work for a living, his father built handy stuff through scavenging items from garbage dumps – the naïve, bumbling Miloš is led towards committing an act of incredible political sabotage, but only after doubts about his manhood are quashed. The whimsical humour, absurdism and riotous storytelling, combined with trenchant political jabs and understated pathos, made this amusing coming-of-age story, which seamlessly traversed from low comedy to high tragedy, a bristling assault and a subversive parable on the dehumanizing effects of war and the dangers of blind obedience.

Author: Bohumil Hrabal
Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/Coming-of-Age/War Novel
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)

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