Milan Kundera called his Czech compatriot Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today." Were Hrabal still alive in 2014, he would doubtless be toasting himself with a glass or two of his beloved beer to celebrate his centenary. He died in 1997 but left behind a wealth of novels that are fueled by heady rambunctiousness and rich in comic absurdity while also punctuated with moments of dark foreboding or bittersweet reflection. "Rabelaisian" seems the most convenient description, but Hrabal's main source of inspiration was closer to home, namely Jaroslav Hašek and specifically his good soldier Švejk. Hrabal took that template of ribald misadventures and rambling anecdotes and refined it by blending in his unique voice and equally original vision.
"Harlequin's Millions," published in Czech in 1981 and now for the first time in English by Archipelago Books (translated by Stacey Knecht), is representative of Hrabal's genius. Events — such as they are — take place in a retirement home in Bohemia, formerly the castle of one Count Špork, just outside the eponymous dwelling of "The Little Town Where Time Stood Still" (1974). Hrabal's female narrator settles into her new surroundings and regales us with tales from Špork's court and reminiscences of her life in the town she has left behind.
Twined with the narrator's teeming thoughts are the garrulous co-residents' colorful histories. Hrabal's characters are renowned "palaverers" (the author described himself in one of his short stories as a "member of the Academy of Palavery"). Fellow Czech writer Josef Škvorecký called Hrabal's verbal flights of fancy "surreal raconteurism" — a fitting term here for the constant flow of quirky yarns thick with digressions, lunacy and a frivolity that alternates between picaresque and slapstick. That steady stream is reinforced by each chapter taking the form of a long, unbroken paragraph — perhaps a relief to those readers left dizzy by Hrabal's 1964 novel, "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age," which unfolded in a single sentence.
But "Harlequin's Millions" is more than just a boisterous romp. Hrabal tempers the mayhem with pathos as his nostalgic characters take trips down memory lane, remember past wars and fallen friends, share regrets ("I forgot about love, which had slipped through my fingers before I knew it") and wait anxiously for Sunday visits from relatives (after which "the smiles always fell from the pensioners' faces, they came unstuck like the sole of an old shoe"). While our narrator recounts her many tall tales, a song called "Harlequin's Millions" pours out of wall-mounted speakers. What should be insidious is instead soothing, as if "the corridors of the home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas."
The song infuses the book, a sad soundtrack to a novel that manages to be vibrant and wistful. Thanks to Stacey Knecht's expert translation, one of the 20th century's most inventive literary talents feels very much alive.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.