Closely Watched Trains Essay - Critical Essays

Bohumil Hrabal

Critical Context

Though Hrabal’s short-story collection, Automat svet (1966; The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, 1975), has also been translated into English, he is still little known to English readers, and Closely Watched Trains may be his best-known work. Hrabal collaborated with director Jiri Menzel in writing the screenplay for the brilliant film version of Closely Watched Trains, which won an Academy Award in 1967 as the best foreign film of the year. Hrabal’s forte is clearly the light, ironic tale, or bagatelle, in the manner of the fin de siecle Viennese authors, who wrote complex and sophisticated tales of ordinary people forced to cope with circumstances beyond their control. In their struggles, even if they fail, they reveal their human and appealing qualities. Hrabal’s works are much more impressive than the dull grist of Socialist Realism that constitutes so much of postwar Czech literature. Hrabal’s whimsical point of view in his work perhaps reflects the difficult circumstances of his own career. He studied law but was unable to practice during the Nazi occupation, during which time he worked at a variety of odd jobs. Hrabal did not begin his career as a writer until he was forty-eight, and though his output has been slight, his graceful, lyrical style and humane wisdom make him an appealing writer. Unfortunately, the Czech authorities suppressed his work after the 1968 Soviet invasion. All of his books were destroyed, and he was not rehabilitated until 1976. Along with fellow writer Milan Kundera, Hrabal stands as an important representative of postmodernist innovation in late twentieth century Czech literature.