Home > 1980, 20th Century, Czech Literature, EU Book Tour, Hrabal Bohumil, Novella, TBR20 > The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

The Little Town Were Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal (1985) French title: La petite ville où le temps s’arrêta. Translated from the Czech by Milena Braud.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) is a Czech writer considered as one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century. The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is my first encounter with his work and it was a pleasant journey into the past.

We are in a little town on the banks of the River Elbe, in the early 1930s. Our narrator is a child whose father Franci runs a brewery. His mother is a stay-at-home mom and his uncle Pepi lives with them. We don’t know how old our narrator is but when the book opens, he’s old enough to run around, slip into a bar to get a tattoo from a sailor.

It’s hard to describe this novel. It tells the tragic fate of this family as history catches with them. It starts during the Czech Republic between 1918 and 1935. We are after fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its domination over Bohemia and before the Nazis destructions followed by the Communist catastrophe. This little town has the same fate as Wilno, now Vilnius. It’s as if the Nazis and then the Communists sucked the life out of it. The River Elbe is a waterway to Hamburg, the little town’s harbor brings the world to its inhabitants. It brings life and during the Republic, the place was lively. When the Republic ended, it’s as if this city that was joyously feasting on life was put on a diet.

The narrator relates his years in this little town, his quotidian between a capricious and loud uncle and a mousy industrious father. It’s like Franci tries to even out Pepi’s eccentricities by being the exact opposite. The salt of the book lies in observing the different scenes the narrator shows us. The little town and its inhabitants come to life with their quirks, flaws and qualities. It’s like observing details on a peasant scene painted by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Lots of details, various characters in diverse situations that show everyday life. Hrabal has a great sense of humor which lightens the tragedy of this family and their town. It borders on burlesque sometimes and there’s a definite whiff of nostalgia.

Harbal grew up in a town like this and The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is part of a trilogy that starts with Cutting It Short and ends with Harlequin’s Millions. Highly recommended.

A word about the French cover. I don’t understand it at all. It’s a detail of the painting Australian Beach Pattern by Charles Meer. Frankly, I wonder what it’s got to do with the book. I prefer the English one, with the sailor who could be Uncle Pepi or the one with the city street. The Italian cover gives an idea of the narrator’s voice.

 

  1. March 24, 2018 at 7:23 pm

    I like Hrabal’s writing very much (I’ve read two so far and have one lurking somewhere) – but not this one yet. And yes – that *is* an odd French cover image…

    Like

    • March 25, 2018 at 8:18 am

      Which ones did you read?
      re-cover: Yes. I wonder if the publisher really knew what this book was about or if they accidentally mixed the covers with an Australian book, really.

      Like

      • March 25, 2018 at 12:42 pm

        “Too Loud a Solitude” (recently) and “Closely Observed Trains” (a few years back I think). Both dark, striking and beautifully written works.

        Like

  2. Jonathan
    March 24, 2018 at 7:36 pm

    I love books like this with loads of characters and everyday details and so will look forward to reading it—it’s already on my TBR pile. I’ve only read one book by Hrabal so far but have copies of others.

    I think the NYRB cover is brilliant.

    Like

    • March 25, 2018 at 8:19 am

      Let me know when you read it, I don’t want to miss your review.

      I agree with you, the NYRB cover is fantastic, it’s a perfectly illustration of the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. March 26, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve read his Closely Observed Trains (review at mine) which was excellent, and have another of his but haven’t yet been tempted by it. This tempts more. I’ll check if the whole trilogy is available in English. Will you read the others?

    That Italian cover is rather good. So is the English one and the NYRB but my favourite would be the Italian. The French one, eh, it’s a nice image but it does seem a bit unrelated to the book.

    Like

    • March 27, 2018 at 9:39 pm

      I’m tempted to read the others, especially the first one where the mother cuts her hair to be fashionable. (we’re in the 1920s) And apparently it was a scandal. I’m curious to read what he did with that.

      The NYRB cover is my favourite : this is really Uncle Pepi, a major character of the novel.

      Like

  4. March 26, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    Looks like all three are available in English, though in different imprints so I suspect the translators vary. Penguin Modern has the first two both translated by James Naughton, so I wonder if they’ll have him do Harlequin’s Millions also but just haven’t got to it yet.

    Like

    • March 27, 2018 at 9:40 pm

      I’d checked that it was available in English. I always write it at the top of my billet if I think that it hasn’t been translated into English. (Goodreads is very helpful to spot translations as well)

      Like

  5. March 26, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    I read Too Loud a Solitude a while ago and quite enjoyed it – his world is so different, a bit crazy, a bit at the margins and a bit sad too because you realise he probably didn’t want to be at the margins but had no choice. I’m looking forward to reading another Hrabal and, who knows, might start with this one. Closely Watched Trains is also a good film.

    Like

    • March 27, 2018 at 9:43 pm

      When I read this kind of book or pre-war Hungarian lit, I’m always sad o see how much Nazism and Communism destroyed in these countries. Barbaric regimes.

      I’d like to read Too Loud a Solitude too even if La chevelure sacrifiée tempts me a lot too.

      Like

      • March 30, 2018 at 10:50 pm

        I can recommend Too Loud a Solitude! I read it and reviewed it a while ago and always meant to read more by Hrabal, but that was back in 2011 😦 This one sounds good. Too Loud a Solitude had some similar elements of nostalgia and absurdity.

        Like

        • April 1, 2018 at 8:43 pm

          Hi Andrew,
          It’s good to hear from you.

          Too Loud a Solitude seems to be a recurring recommendation. I’ve added it to my wish list. No idea of when I’ll get to it. The TBR is still out of control.

          Like

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