Speed Trials

The Gentle Barbarian By Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Paul Wilson. New York: New Directions. 128 pages. $15.
Cover of The Gentle Barbarian

Early in Werner Herzog’s 1974 documentary The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, we find its subject, a champion “ski-flier,” in the studio where he works as an amateur woodcarver. Brushing his hand over a tree stump, Walter Steiner describes the forms his chisel will release: “I saw this bowl here, the way the shape recedes, it’s as if an explosion had happened, and the force cannot escape properly and is caught up everywhere.” Trapped force is not to be the film’s subject. Rather, its subject is fear—or, as Steiner calls it, “respect for the conditions.” From the ski-jump at Planica, Slovenia, he leaps out of his own imagination and into Herzog’s. Steiner’s coyness serves his strangely sober ecstasy. His afterimage haunts another work of creative documentation, composed at roughly the same time, some five hundred kilometers to the northeast. The Gentle Barbarian, Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal’s memoir of his friendship with the painter and printmaker Vladimír Boudnik, depicts life as a more reckless leap of faith—one that lands not in the hands of God, but in a tightening rope.

Sobriety of any kind is inimical to Vladimír, who lived for a time as Hrabal’s subtenant on the outskirts of Prague in the early 1950s when both were employed in a steelworks. Like Walter Steiner, Vladimír sees images in matter. Expounding what he calls “Explosionalism,” an artistic dogma seeking a new synthesis between spirit and matter, Vladimír tells anyone who will listen that “while not everyone can be an artist, anyone can complete an image he sees in a crack in the wall.” His deepest desire, however, is to fuse with materials in mutual transfiguration, as Hrabal describes it: “Raw matter injected directly into the zone of transcendence.” The image is that of a fuel-injection engine. Transcendence, here, means speed and combustion.

In this flowing rendition by Paul Wilson, an experienced translator of Hrabal, The Gentle Barbarian plunges us into a broken postwar Prague midway through its rebirth as a city of socialist heavy industry. The narrator reverberates in sympathy with its detritus. “In writing down these memories of him,” he declares in an opening tribute to Vladimír, “I will use his methods; I too will leave the text exposed, like an excavated street, and it will be up to the readers, wherever it pleases them, to lay over the trench, full of fast-flowing, tossed-off sentences and words, a plank or makeshift gangway to carry them to the other side.” What lies on the other side isn’t the point: Hrabal summons memories in profusion, heedless of all but the general sequence that leads from the early years in the steelworks to the fatal fall of 1968, when the Prague Spring is suppressed—an event Hrabal is too discreet or too proud to treat as more than an uncouth disruption—and, a few months afterward, Vladimír takes his own life.

The memoir’s progress is in intimacy and extremity. The oneness Vladimír feels with objects, the narrator feels with the objects Vladimír has touched. The feeling is reciprocal. When, living in adjoining rooms, they fear killing each other, each hides the other’s weapon (Vladimír’s kitchen knife, Hrabal’s hatchet). That a weapon could be turned against its owner barely occurs to them. Soon enough, each is taking the other’s weapon to bed with him, on either side of the wall that joins them like a spine. A doorway bricked-up for safety’s sake does nothing to diminish the “savor” of the other’s presence. On the contrary: “I could even hear his lungs expanding and his liver working and his heart beating more resoundingly than when there’d been no wall between us.” It is the first of many descents into the viscera.

Vladimir Boudnik, The Marks of Material, 1959, active print, 16 1/2 x 11 5/8.'' Edition of 100.
Vladimir Boudnik, The Marks of Material, 1959, active print, 16 1/2 x 11 5/8.” Edition of 100. Courtesy Prague City Gallery.

Vladimír could, Hrabal relates, “be transported by the sight of a cement mixer and what was inside it, a vat of melting tar, a pneumatic drill, an acetylene torch purring quietly and glowing with a blue light, a coil of plumber’s solder, a blowtorch, the frost encrusting a refrigerated display counter, the sight of a housepainter and the spattering of white paint on newspapers, dried flecks of sperm on jockey shorts, bloodstained sheets.” The memoir abounds in such transports. Riding in a train cabin with the engineer, Vladimír is moved to tears when passing the spot where a father and son were run over. He then takes control of the throttle and confides to Hrabal (himself intensely aware of the surrounding mechanisms) his intense sexual arousal. Intimacy can be produced by whispers, but also by flagrant display, an impulse not without its dark side. Bashing his head into the wall after his wife Tekla confides in him a trauma she suffered, Vladimír usurps it. “I wanted her to see I’d do anything for her,” he explains, “and give her some joy, something to remember.” Exhibitionist and pedagogical, Vladimír finds in his devotion to materials the possibility of living “in peace at the expense of the universe and oneself.” It is a possibility heightened by the willingness to cast one’s life away, as lightly as a wedding ring hurled from the window of a train.

A suicide is an antecedent event. Done in secret, it is discovered, leaving the survivors to retrace steps, to wonder whether, as with Vladimír, “death opened a window into his life.” Hrabal portrays Vladimir’s death as an accident, a last “experiment on himself” (we have earlier been told of his asphyxophilia). But the window has been open for some time. As the memoir’s interpretations of Vladimír’s art and life grow ever more elaborate—Explosionalism as immaculate conception, self-destruction as regress to the origin of things—they start to seem superfluous, an afterthought to the exuberance we have already witnessed and grasped.

In the context of Hrabal’s writing life, the memoir’s metaphor of regress is overdetermined. Few of his works were published soon after they were composed. In fact, for much of the 1960s, Hrabal was publishing in reverse: digging backward and downward through the proverbial “bottom drawer,” excavating ever earlier writings that he reworked into both free “variations” and, as the critic Jiří Pelán calls them, more cautious “variants” aimed at placating the censors. With the publication of his first volume of surrealist poetry in 1970, however, Hrabal had gone as far back as he could; any further movement would mean a new beginning. For him, this meant devising a new method of writing. Hrabal’s earliest prose had relied on transcription and collage. In contrast, his work of the 1970s was mostly composed da capo al fine at high speed. Though Hrabal would later trim these texts, they retained an essential spontaneity that, Pelán has argued, nullified any official conformity. Sharing an interest in realia, in anecdote, in the blend of sacred and obscene with the early collage-texts, they likewise aimed at self-transcendence. As Hrabal recalled of one of his early prose experiments: “The fallen leaves of my sentimentality covered everything, so I could see nothing. And at that moment I did see that everything had its own order and beauty. You just needed to become it. To know how to bash yourself into things.”

The Gentle Barbarian is not, of course, without sentiment; rather, it means to intensify it. These memories are smeared with semen, beer, piss, and blood: everything by which a masculine exuberance makes itself substantial. It portrays such exuberance as innocent: that is, without malice, not without injury. Its world is one of extreme, lusty violence: heads cut in two by saws, babies nearly incinerated in their prams by tossed cigarettes, showers of sparks like rooster tails. Everyone is always on the verge of innocent suicide. To all Vladimír responds with the same elation: “He felt it an honor that fate had drawn him to a place of disaster.” Not for nothing did Hrabal nickname the street on which he lived, Na Hrázi, “On the Embankment,” Na Hrázi Věčnosti: “On the Embankment of Eternity.” Throughout these pages, eternity flows in spate, tempting the dam to yield.

Paul Franz’s poetry and reviews appear in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and PN Review, among others.