Wonderful stories of Communist Prague by “the masterly Bohumil Hrabal” (The New Yorker)
Never before published in English, the stories in Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult were written mostly in the 1950s and present the Czech master Bohumil Hrabal at the height of his powers. The stories capture a time when Czech Stalinists were turning society upside down, inflicting their social and political experiments on mostly unwilling subjects. These stories are set variously in the gas-lit streets of post-war Prague; on the raucous and dangerous factory floor of the famous Poldi steelworks where Hrabal himself once worked; in a cacophonous open-air dance hall where classical and popular music come to blows; at the basement studio where a crazed artist attempts to fashion a national icon; on the scaffolding around a decommissioned church. Hrabal captures men and women trapped in an eerily beautiful nightmare, longing for a world where “humor and metaphysical escape can reign supreme.”
Hrabal's (The Little Town Where Time Stood Still) books are rightly considered Czech classics, but the seven stories in this volume are manifestly products of Stalinism, the cult of the subtitle, and an era when even an absurdist writer like Franz Kafka could pass for social realism. This is more or less the lesson of the frenetic title story, which takes us through the streets of a changed Prague. Next comes the vivid, complex proletariat melodrama "Strange People," which covers a factory strike from the workers' point of view and is surely one of the best fictional treatments of Marxist themes. It's not hard to see where Hrabal is coming from in stories such as "The Angel," which takes place at a women's prison, or "Betrayal of Mirrors," where a sculptor works passionately on a nationalist icon only to be caught up in the public battle over its commission. Questions of labor and mankind's soul under Communism abound in the whimsical "The Broken Drum," about an usher forced to choose sides in a battle between classical symphony and popular music, and the more scathing "Ingots," where a persecuted philosopher characterizes humanity as "nothing but rat finks, maniacs, bottom-feeders, big mouths with raging paranoia." Finally, there's "Beautiful Poldi," a nightmarish portrait of the famous steelworks, with its volunteer workers. This strange, revealing collection is major document of class consciousness, protest, and the Eastern Bloc.