Central Europe has been sliced and diced with tremendous frequency over the past hundred years, and the two writers featured in today’s post reflect on the trauma of that destruction and dislocation.
Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, I Served the King of England, is set largely in Prague in the years preceding and following WWII. The book is a vivid and humorous warts-and-all reflection of the life a Czech man, Ditie, who achieves much but still finds social respectability beyond his reach.
The tale begins with his early youth as a lusty hotel worker and follows him through a series of service industry jobs, marriage, hotel ownership, and the tumultuous war years that gave him unfair advantages before everything was upended under Communism. His failure to gain acceptance among the other hotel owners on the one hand or within his German wife’s military circle on the other, culminates in a loss of ambition toward external rewards. Ditie’s waning years are spent working hard-labor jobs, partly with an exiled professor who helps him discover the riches and happiness of the interior life. Ditie is an unforgettable character whose story is told with striking imagery and occasional surrealistic flourishes.
Some months after reading Hrabal’s book I happened upon In Praise of the Unfinished by Julia Hartwig, a Polish poet who also survived the war years (and is living to this day). Her poems show great compression and attention to detail while simultaneously opening out to encompass what is most universally human. Many of the poems address the work of other writers and artists, and they seem to have something of the same wide-eyed sadness and grounded joy I found in Hrabal’s book. Something of this expansiveness – her embrace of contradiction, resignation, continuance, and fullness – can be seen in her concise poem, “It Is Also This,” shown in its entirety below:
Art casts a spell summoning life
so it can continue
but its space extends to the invisible
It is also an intelligence reconciling
discordant elements and similarities
It is brave
because it seeks immortality
by being – just like everything else – mortal
The connection between Hartwig and Hrabal, and a shared sense of their cultural and geopolitical fragmentation, came much more directly to mind when I read her poem “How to Honor a Place.” Near the end of Hrabal’s novel, when Ditie is employed as a lone road worker living high in the mountains, he arouses both laughter and fear when he tells the local villagers that he would like to be buried on the crest of a ridge, so his remains would flow toward both the North Sea and the Black Sea – then he would be a true “world citizen.” Hartwig’s poem is set on our own continental divide, where she says a river “must think hard” about which ocean it should belong to, which mother it should acknowledge, and in “whose gullet it is to be lost forever / and become nameless.”
Now, when standing on the North American continental divide, it is common to think about the rain and snowmelt that will flow from that high ridge towards either the Atlantic or the Pacific. So Hartwig’s poem about a visit there, and Ditie’s sentiment at the end of the novel, may not be quite enough for you to buy my sense that the two writers share some vague affinity in style and outlook. But when I found Hartwig mentioning Hrabal by name later in her book, I felt confirmed that “How to Honor a Place” is also meant as a tribute to Hrabal, whose novel struggles so rewardingly with the same question the poem asks as it ends: “And I / where do I belong.”