A collection of formative fiction from a writer whose work has earned comparison with Joyce and Beckett.
Beyond Central Europe, Hrabal might best be known for Closely Watched Trains (1965), his novel adapted into a movie which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1968. This collection’s “Cain,” subtitled “An Existentialist Short Story,” offers an earlier version of that tale in the first-person account of a man who says he's “leaving on a quest for simple human happiness, to harmonise [his] life to [his] thoughts”; he finds his life and identity jumbled by a train trip that presents complications he had never anticipated, with hospitalization and pregnancy among the consequences. The cornerstone of the book might well be “The Sufferings of Old Werther,” which at 84 pages is easily the longest piece, written in a first-person stream of consciousness that combines various narrative strands, jumping from one to another and then back again, in a manner reminiscent of Finnegans Wake. The translator's notes say that this is the first of Hrabal's pieces to draw inspiration from his uncle, who is credited as collaborator on the subsequent “Protocol” and to whom “A Schizophrenic Gospel” is dedicated. Many of the stories employ second-person narration, addressing the reader as “you,” instead of the more common first- or third-person perspectives, and most often the prose is dense, without conventional paragraphing or punctuation, with sentences flowing over pages. The tone throughout is dark comedy, exploring human absurdity and carnality amid a universe that is at best senseless, if not malevolent. “You insist the world can be perfect only in its totality,” says one character, “meaning that good and evil are both necessary, otherwise it would come crashing down.”
Early work from a writer who merits a larger readership.