Bohumil Hrabal’s “Harlequin’s Millions” and Jáchym Topol’s “Nightwork”

Reviewed by Mike Baugh

Image of Bohumil Hrabal’s “Harlequin’s Millions” and Jáchym Topol’s “Nightwork”
Image of Bohumil Hrabal’s “Harlequin’s Millions” and Jáchym Topol’s “Nightwork”

With the English publication this month of Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions and Jáchym Topol’s Nightwork, it’s Vánoce (“Christmas”) for fans of Czech literature. During the Communist regime, Hrabal, arguably the best prose stylist of the twentieth century, wrote lyrical masterpieces about characters grasping for beauty as they suffocate under the oppression of the Communists, the Nazis, or both. Topol, who cut his teeth in Prague’s underground with Revolver Revue, the samizdat magazine he cofounded in the eighties, has emerged as the strongest voice in post-Communist Czech literature and thus as Hrabal’s successor. Topol has openly acknowledged his debt to Hrabal (one of the characters in Nightwork is even given a name from Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude), yet even when the two authors share similar themes—both Harlequin’s Millions and Nightwork deal with Communism, history, and the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans—they write drastically different works.

Little happens in Harlequin’s Millions, Hrabal’s heart-shattering ode to dwelling in the past as a response to Communism—a movement “of huge posters and huge meetings and huge parades that raise their fist at everything old.” The book essentially follows Mařenka, a character that appears in Hrabal’s earlier novels Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, who pads through the grounds of a retirement home as the song “Harlequin’s Millions,” playing on repeat, “curls gently around the old tree trunks and climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves.”

Mařenka reminisces upon the time directly before and after the arrival of Communism, which ended her life of privilege as the wife of the local brewery manager, the days when she would leave behind “a trail of women’s eyes” envying her. In her new life she is often accompanied by three “witnesses to old times” who regale her with chronicles of the town and those who lived there in the previous century, characters with colorful names like Červinka the Greyhound, Dlabač the Rib Roast, Dlabač the Rogue, Miss Taubicová-Holdmytail, and One-Leg Theer the Razor. The novel draws its energy not from any specific events but from the gorgeous page-long sentences that flow lager-like throughout, intoxicating and sweeping readers along until neither they nor the narrator can distinguish between the storylines.

If Harelquin’s Millions occasionally suffers from a lack of action, Nightwork benefits from an unrelenting pace. With a style that resembles the jagged cubism of Otto Guttfreund more than the structure of As I Lay Dying, Topol uses multiple narrators to tell the story of Ondra Lipka who attempts to escape Czechoslovakia with his family during the first four days of the 1968 Soviet invasion. For events that Hrabal might require chapters, if not different books, to describe, Topol needs six pages: Before we hit page seven, Ondra witnesses his father snatch a folder from the Patent Office, watches a Russian tank machine gun the building, helps wheel his little brother, Squirt, out of the hospital, and then boards a bus so the two boys can travel alone to the border town their father grew up in, a town of legends, mysteries, and secrets—a specifically Central European hell rooted in the folk tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and the atrocities of the twentieth century.

Gone are the loose lines of Hrabal; Topol’s thin and sharp staccato punctures the reader, leaving you as jittery as Ondra’s pill-popping uncle: “His eyes were sources of light. They were hollowing out luminous tunnels in the darkness. He liked it.” (It’s worth remembering that Jachym Topol was the lyricist for Psí vojáci, the Prague underground’s answer to the New York Dolls.) Topol’s sentences almost seem to reflect his characters’ quick bursts of brutality. In Nightwork violence and terror permeate human behavior. “The people will gobble you up like a worm and shit you out, remember that, man,” a secret policeman shouts. “And it doesn’t matter how big a man you are. This and nothing else is written in blood in the red heart of the communist manifesto.” While Hrabal’s characters often achieve a level of sanctity through the injustice they have suffered—Marenka is “glad to have seen and experienced” Communism and her own downfall—the closest characters in Nightwork come to attaining grace is when they get beaten to death.

Yet Topol doesn’t place all the blame at the stomping feet of the Communists. For him the entire countryside is stricken with original sin. Here invading Russians are just the newest addition to a rats’ nest of competing forces—Germans, Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Ukrainians, Poles, police, poachers, men, women, adults, children, and family members—intent on fucking and killing each other.

These two powerful novels only exist in English because of Stacey Knecht and Marek Tomin, the respective translators of Harlequin’s Millions and Nightwork; they deserve respect for tackling such difficult authors and applause for their successes.

Knecht’s translation is remarkable for its fidelity. Not only does she retain the one-paragraph-per-chapter format of the original, wherever possible she sticks with Czech word order (an impressive feat when translating from such a highly inflected language). For example, the first sentence of Harlequin’s Millions, “Just outside the little town where my time stood still is a small castle, and in that castle is now a retirement home,” retains the precise order of the Czech, even though the placement of “now” sacrifices some of the original’s grace. Occasionally, Knecht’s faithfulness to the Czech breaks up Hrabal’s swift tempo—the aspect of language Nietzsche identified as the most difficult to translate. At times, I wished Knecht would stray from her fidelity, since her potential is clearest in the moments when, out of necessity she departs from the Czech, such as when she creates an English nursery rhyme for the names of people long dead (“Sláva Vlasta Řina, I know a ballerina, Rudolf Otík Nina, she comes from Argentina”).

In comparison to Knecht, Marek Tomin allows himself considerably more freedom in his transmogrification of Jachym Topol’s Nightwork. He sticks hyper-colloquial English into the mouths of the Czech characters, so that children call each other “mate,” shout “blimey,” and say “bob’s your uncle”; at times the dialogue sounds as if it takes place in Bournemouth instead of Bohemia. Elsewhere, he renders straightforward Czech into Pynchonesque prose (perhaps not a bad model when translating Topol), like when he translates “I wish” as “chance would be a fine thing.” But there is much to admire in Tomin’s translation. Not only does he expertly keep up with Topol’s tempo, Tomin brilliantly employs alliteration to echo Czech phonology. Gregory Rabassa, the acclaimed translator of Gabriel García Márquez, has emphasized the importance of having a good ear as a translator, noting that “writing is not truly a substitute for thought, it is a substitute for sound.” Tomin has a terrific ear, and his description of ice floes “breaking up, bristling with branches and tree trunks” actually sounds Czech.

The publication of Harlequin’s Millions by Archipelago Books and Nightwork by Portobello Press is a gift within a gift: it offers Anglophone readers the chance to read books that represent the stars of Czech literature and it showcases two emerging talents in Czech translation (Harlequin’s Millions is Knecht’s first translation from Czech and Nightwork is only Tomin’s third). I hope that the two translators read each other’s work, because both Hrabal and Topol have substantial works that remain unavailable in English, and an English translation of Hrabal or Topol that (with a few discrete slips) stays faithful like Knecht’s, yet has the sound and tempo of Tomin’s would be thrilling indeed.