Reading Hrabal

An Essay

by Anthony Marra

Before Closely Watched Trains, the first feature film of then-twenty-eight-year-old Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel, won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, few people outside Czechoslovak underground literary circles had heard of Bohumil Hrabal. The film was based on Hrabal’s novel of the same title, which relays the tribulations of a young, sexually frustrated signalman during World War II.

Closely Watched Trains is probably Hrabal’s most accessible novel and is a good entry point for readers unfamiliar with his work. Miloš Hrma, like many of Hrabal’s narrators, is voluble and digressive, an anecdotalist and a raconteur who vacillates between crassness and ethereal heights. He is an apprentice railroad signalman in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, where the Gestapo, wartime privations, and the approaching Red Army are no more than trivialities when compared with the most monumental crisis of his young life: premature ejaculation. Hrma idolizes Dispatcher Hubička—who gets in hot water after he uses official Third Reich ink stamps to imprint swastikas on the secretary’s backside—and asks the dispatcher to help him lose his virginity. Hrma’s search for sexual satisfaction eventually dovetails with the Czech underground resistance, complicating his ideas of manhood and independence to grand effect.

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