- Translated from Czech by Stacey Knecht – Archipelago Books, 2014. 316 p. ISBN 978-0-9819557-3-5
Read from March 26th to April 28th 2017
The Beautiful Absurdity of the Game
I knew nothing, shame, shame on me!, of Bohumil Hrabal when I received Harlequin’s Millions as an anniversary present from my best friend. Until then, for me Czech literature began with Karel Čapek and finished with Milan Kundera (one of my all time favorites, it’s true) with nothing in between. Not anymore. I have made a solemn promise to myself to read at least two other Hrabal’s works - Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England as soon as possible, because I already miss his voice.
For it is the voice that mesmerizes the reader from the very beginning of this amazing book, a voice streaming quietly but powerfully, uninterrupted by paragraphs (Jose Saramago does not have the monopoly of this kind of transposition of the oral style, it seems) like an “anecdote without end” to quote James Wood inspired phrase. A voice sometimes nostalgic, sometimes curious, sometimes satirical and sometimes just observant, telling the tale of the epic, endless confrontation between two sworn enemies: Man and Time. And displaying some of the weapons Man throws into the battle in order to neutralize Time’s only but very efficient one: Death.
A first weapon, the stubbornness to exist by repetition, is suggested by the title and will be heard all over the book, for the music accompanies the characters and the reader obsessively, almost ominously. I have to confess I had never heard about “Harlequin’s Millions” before reading the book (the title made me think though of a sort of modern vanity fair, and I was not proved very wrong in the end) e and I had to search information about it. According to Wikipedia, “Harlequin’s Millions” is the name of one of the three ballets that were prepared for the 1900-1901 season at Hermitage Museum, where the Imperial Russian court was expected to attend. The libretto, inspired by characters from Commedia dell’arte, was prepared by Marius Petipa, premier maître de ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, and the music was composed by Riccardo Drigo. I don’t know what part of this music was in the author’s mind for his novel, but I suspect it was the Sérénade, which became pretty famous and was often played in Edwardian salons and even (kind of foreshadowing detail for our book) on the Titanic. Anyway, the narrator identifies it with the music that “accompanied silent movies in the old days, an amorous scene, a declaration of love, kisses that made the viewers, who were moved to tears by the string players, reach for their handkerchiefs…”
And here you have, to remain faithful to my own metaphor, a first scene of the war, in which death is responded both with the power of music, repeated again and again in background until it becomes a part of the pensioners’ life, and with the power of the mask, reminding of the millions who have taken Harlequin’s role, never letting him die. No wonder that, when the music broadcasted by rediffusion boxes in the castle and its park, music that “curls around the old tree trunks” and “climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves” towards the corridors, stops sometimes suddenly because of some accident like a power failure,
… all the pensioners glance up they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like when the lights go out and everyone longs to hear it again, because without it the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable.
A second weapon is offered by the ability of man to understand, to transfigure and be transfigured by art. Architecture, music, painting, sculpture is the way even the ordinary man can attune his soul to the music of the spheres, to step for a moment beyond his limits.
The story opens with a detailed description of a retirement home in which the narrator, her husband Francin and her brother-in-law, Uncle Pepin seem to live, in fact a castle that belonged a long time ago to Count Špork, whose initials are still on the gate together with his coat of arms representing seven plumes in two rows (why? we shall see). The road to the gate is not without danger for “now and again, but always suddenly and unexpectedly, a black branch falls” and the gate itself, which opens only during visiting days, “is forged in the shape of the two black wings of a fallen angel”. The impression that this is the gate to Underworld is strengthened by the mention of a gatekeeper, whose Charon role pensioners play in turn:
We each take turns acting as gatekeeper, many of the pensioners here consider it an honor to perform this service at what was once the Count’s gate. Everyone who spends ten hours on duty here, keeping watch over that beautiful gate, feels like a changed person, it’s such a great honor to inspect each pensioner who enters the gate. There are some pensioner who live in the castle side by side, but here at the gate they act as if they don’t know each other at all, as if they’re seeing each other for the very first time.
Inside, a Sleeping Beauty atmosphere heads back the visitors, starting with the clock in the hall, whose hands “as big as a grown man” have stopped at twenty-five past seven, “like a memento mori, because everyone here and in this area knows that most old people die in the evening, at just about half past seven.” The old people populating the castle move slowly, half asleep, among statues representing gods and goddesses that at first seem to be only painful reminders of the decrepit humans’ lost youth, but at a closer sight they give the bittersweet comfort that beauty does not have to be flawless to exist:
…none of the statues looks very good from the back, they’ve been badly neglected, the sight of them from behind can even be somewhat painful for the pensioners, they have the feeling, and rightly so, that they caught someone sitting on the toilet, or deep in thought with a finger up his nose and then wiping off the snot on a tree or a wall, the unexpected sight of the back of a statue is, for every pensioner, like a glance through a keyhole, a curious glance, which catches an old person taking out or putting in his false teeth.
Apart from statues, the castle is adorned with many paintings, and in one powerful scene, the description of the ceiling fresco in the former banquet hall (showing the scene of a battle of Alexander the Great, with hundreds of soldiers fighting or dying) is followed by the description of the four hundred pensioners waiting for the soup to be served while “four hundred bowls flicker across the ceiling, with their shallow porcelain bottoms they scan the battlefield like searchlights”. When food is finally served only the tinkling of spoons, the slurping, the chomping and the belching can be heard, and the up and down nodding of the skulls can be seen. And who is to say that this war on the floor is not as glorious as the one on the ceiling, for it a survival war, with spoons, knives and forks as weapons.
And the narrator feels it is her duty not to let these warriors die, not to let their fate be a derisory one, as she immortalize them in words as skilled as the brush of the fresco artist:
…I’ve come to realize that there is a time for everything, I’ve even discovered, here in the retirement home, that this is the first time I’ve ever been able to take a good look at what is going on around me, and on the faces of all these people I could see and read their fate, I could write a book about it, I saw their fate like those old gipsy women who can read palms or see human destiny in a cup of coffee grounds, I saw in each of them that everything was written not just on their faces, but also in the way they walked, on their whole body. That’s why all I did was walk and look around, I tried to assess the relationships between people, and that wasn’t too hard, because all people, even though they may try to pretend, are easy to read, easy to assess.
Thus we arrive at the most powerful weapon of all, suggested by the motto quoting the Austrian philosopher Theodor Gomperz: “The absurdity of the game./ A child sets up his toy figures/ only to knock them down again.” It is the power of word that carries on memories, building and rebuilding the past, reinventing it, changing it, deforming it, maybe, but never let it die, moreover, winning a victory whenever it makes time stop. Indeed, another leitmotiv of the story is of the town “where time stood still”, the town the narrator usually identifies with a golden age when nothing could go wrong, when everything seemed set in stone. To revive this past, she is helped by three old-fashioned figures, three “witnesses of old times”:
….the always elegant Mr Otokar Rykr, his pince-nez in his hand one minute, on the base of his nose the next, workshop foreman Mr Karel Výborný, with the same kind of cap that drivers wore, and Mr. Václav Kořínek, railroad engineer, who was constantly raking back his graying hair with widespread fingers.
The narrative voice becomes thus a coryphaeus inserting her personal memories into the memories of the chorus who playfully or respectfully or mockingly sing about people long gone in always to-be-continued stories, Scheherazade style, dominated by the ubi sunt motive, sometimes chronicle-like memories with a pedantic care to specify the exact year of the event, like the story of the former master of the castle, Count Špork, who, the reader is informed, had married the baroness Františka Apollonia in 1686, had led a very austere life after the death of his sons, imposing a strict discipline to all his subjects and who died in his castle in the year of 1738.
In another significant scene of the novel, the narrator enters the living room on a rainy day, soaked, and the three old men, after inviting her to join them by the fire look through the window at the old cemetery “with its black marble gravestones, golden crosses” and talk about the names engraved on the stones, which would mean nothing without the story of their nicknames (Harlequin’s millions, of course!): for example the many Červinka, among whom Červinka the Parasol because he gave his fiancée a parasol, Červinka the Perch because of his fish eyes, Červinka the Gimp because of his flat feet, Červinka the Periwig, because he was so proud of his curls, Červinka the Grey hound because so lean and bony, Červinka the Cigar because – I expect you know why etc.
But Time fights back and the old cemetery is pulled down in order to be converted into a pleasure park. The pensioners who assist at its demolition are upset because for them the graveyard had already been a park where they could read poems on the old stones and remember the past. The fight between tombstones and bulldozers seems one hopeless battle, with only one victor possible:
…there, within sight of the retirement home, the three trucks disappeared with the black tombstones of citizens, people, who years ago had lived in the little town where time hasn’t stood still for anything, not even for the old graveyard.
Narrator’s desolation encompasses her own destiny which at once seems defeated, her clinging to the past a mistake, an illusory refuge, for the days of her youth, when she was the most beautiful and envied woman in the town are gone forever and all she is now is that toothless old woman who likes to think she is still envied because she stands apart from the other women in the retirement home, whereas she is only obsolete, replaceable and forgettable:
…we were still living as if nothing had happened, but something had happened, and we were the only ones who hadn’t noticed, we had actually stopped living from the moment we left the brewery, we remained exactly the same, we were behind the times, like yesterday fashions, while all the rest….(…)We had grown old, yet we were still the same as we’d been when the war ended, I had moved even further back, to the last century, which had risen for me from the dead.
The turning point of the story is the death of Uncle Pepin. For the first time, the narrator seems to notice something strange in the behavior and the appearance of the three witnesses she finds in the mortuary chamber singing the Death song in Uncle’s ear, song that actually describes their own death, happened many years ago. The reader finds also that the narrator, maybe due to the fact she had been an actress playing many lives (Harlequin’s millions, again!) has lied to him, that she never really lived in the pensioners’ house, only wanted to, because the home she had built for herself and her husband is a cold and draughty one, only a house, never a home. The final image shows the very house being swept away maybe by the same wind that swept away Dorothy from her reality to another, letting the narrator finally free to move in the coveted castle of her imagination:
…and at the sound of that crash, I knew that the lid had banged shut, once and for all, on my past, it was all behind me now, (…) there was no longer any need for me to feel oppressed, everything had been swept away, just as when a child is finished playing with his toy figures and sweeps them off the table, to heighten the absurdity of the game.
Therefore the book ends, symmetrically, with the same mention of the absurdity of the game. Game of life that art gave a sense to, or game Sisyphus has learned to play happily for there is a sense even in repetition, even in punishment? The narrator lets us wonder, even when she follows us outside the narrative, to inform us, in a succinct note put in italics, that the three witnesses were pretty real, she had found and read the books Mr Rykr wrote and published at his own expense, the memories Mr. Václav Kořínek published in a local magazine, and the manuscript written “with pen and pencil” of Mr Karel Výborný and used all these in her tale. She also wants to make it clear that only the details of the story are true, “the rest is fiction”. So, Count Spork’s coats of arms, the mysterious seven plumes make perfect sense together with the wish that closes (this time definitely) the book:
May Count Spork’s fictitious estate, the present-day retirement home, live on in the hearts of the readers!
By assuring us that the story is fictitious and only the details true, she opens the door towards our reality, making the readers who knew about the autobiographical details (for example that Hrabal’s stepfather was the manager of the brewery in Nymburk, the town in which he grew up) wonder whether the narrative voice is not a tribute of the author to his mother.
Maybe, the book challenges us, the most effective way to fight Death is not to fight but to embrace it, dismissing physical death as not important as long as memory (fictitious or not) lives. And maybe this message anticipates the one the author left with us when he went, feeding the pigeons, to his intentional fall, mocking Time again and again.