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Bohumil Hrabal: Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (The Little Town Where Time Stood Still)

This book is a follow-up to Postřižiny (Cutting it Short), with the same cast of characters in the same town where time stood still. The main differences are that it is no longer narrated by Maryška but by her son and that it is set at a later date, starting eight years from the end of Postřižiny (Cutting it Short) and going on much longer. While it is this novel, rather than its predecessor, that has had the greatest reputation, it is the former that appealed to me most, primarily because of the character of Maryška. In the first book, she was the free spirit that carried the book. In this one, she is just the narrator’s mother, with all that that implies and he, like, probably, most sons, does not necessarily see his mother as a free spirit but just as a mother.

Once again, Uncle Pepin features strongly and Hrabal has said that the relationship between the two brothers was key to this work. He chases the women, even though he is well into his eighties, has his moods (he goes on a virtual hunger strike), does the dirty jobs at the brewery and is a source of fun for everyone, including the narrator, who admits that he prefers his uncle to his father. Once again, Hrabal’s nostalgic love for a long since past Czechoslovakia comes to the fore – he even gives a list of the things they have lost, ranging from annual fairs and Advent markets to lovers strolling through the woods, card games in the pub, musical boxes and the various theatres, choirs and the symphony orchestra. But, in this novel, we see why these were lost. Firstly, World War II intervenes. It actually plays a relatively minor role, with, till the very end of the war, only the presence of Herr Friedrich who has been sent to convert the brewery to a munitions factory, which he never manages to achieve, and who tries to be a good Nazi but only manages to object when there is singing and frivolity immediately after the assassination of Heydrich.

More importantly is the post-war takeover by the communists. The foreman, who had been one of the men but had become a management toady, is the first to go, because he had repressed the workers. But then it is the turn of Francin, the narrator’s father, who was manager of the brewery, who is dismissed because he had been too nice to the workers and therefore they had not been able to develop a strong sense of class consciousness. Francin had appeared throughout the book, with his never-ending attempts to get his motorcycle repaired, recruiting, at various times, most of the town to help him. Now, once he is out of a job, he manages to find a dilapidated lorry in the woods and works on that with equal lack of success. Getting food is a key effort, including mushroom hunting in the woods (along with many other people and involves Francin’s tricks to outsmart the other mushroom hunters) and stealing apples from the orchard. The two brothers’ relationship – warm but not without its problems, as they are two very different men – still predominates and the book ends with the death of Uncle Pepin.

Publishing history

First published by Odeon in 1989
First published in English by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1990
Translated by James Naughton