Monday, February 06, 2012

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabil
Translation by Michael Henry Heim
Harcourt Brace & Company

I have enjoyed the works of Bohumil Hrabal to date and that streak continues with Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. An 117-page sentence from an old shoemaker/brewmaster to some young ladies (he directly addresses them over a dozen times), the book wanders through many topics but often centers on his experiences. Not that he’s always nice to the young ladies, telling one that she’ll need falsies if she wants to be in a play with him while at the same time he tells her friend that she’ll do for a role even if she isn’t beautiful. Jirka paints himself as the hero of many vignettes while extolling his memory, yet he can’t get Jesus’ miracle at the Cana wedding correct—was the mistake meant as irony or to cast doubt on Jirka’s stories? Like many of his tales, the ambiguity makes his talk engaging. His rambling sometimes follows a related stream of consciousness, other times there is no relationship between topics.

There are several topics Jirka returns to over and over, such as Batista’s book on safeguarding marital bliss and sexual hygiene. Bondy the poet, pushing his two kids in a baby buggy, makes several appearances in his conversation, as does Anna Nováková’s book of interpreting dreams. Jirka regales the ladies with his love life, although he ends most anecdotes with him turning down offers so he will remain chaste or at least keep his freedom. The question lingers, though, with just what is Jirka trying to accomplish with the young ladies? He’s already confessed “I can’t resist the charms of a beautiful woman”. At the same time he believes advice given in Batista's book: “Mr. Batista’s book says a twenty-year-old beauty gives any healthy young man a charge though she’s no more use to an old man than an overcoat is to a corpse”.

Other topics get many mentions—Jirka seems to be quite the connoisseur of great art and popular culture. Like most garrulous narrators, what he reveals between the words and what he leaves out of his tales proves to be as important as what he recounts. At times his stories take a dark turn or have somber details. Even in these instances, Jirka's liveliness buoys his talk.

Some quotes to give you a flavor of his rambling:
• [P]ublic opinion is made by idiots and drunks

• [M]en were still gallant in those days, a professor once said to me, We never gave the monarchy its due, he said, We never gave the brothels their due, our men had too much vital force in them, it made them supersensitive

• [A] butcher has to watch himself as well, we had one in our platoon by the name of Kocourek, Miroslav Kocourek, and this Kocourek had a bandaged finger, and one day he was stuffing liverwursts and the bandage disappeared into one of them, and because chances were an enlisted man would get the one with the bandage he forgot about it, but guess what, young ladies, it was the doctor! That’s right, he was on his third liverwurst, and the minute he cut into it he recognized his handiwork and puked and Kocourek was sent to the front, bud did he die there? No, he turned hero and won all kinds of medals

• [W]hat I’m giving you now, young ladies, are like windows on the world, points, goals, scores, the principle the late Strauss applied to his heavenly melodies, sending them out into the world to refine the emotions, … because our refined emotions require us to compose a farewell melody or poem to be dispatched with a bouquet of roses

• [W]hich must be why Bondy the poet says that real poetry must hurt, as if you’d forgotten you wrapped a razor blade in your hadkerchief and you blow your nose, no book worth its salt is meant ot put you to sleep, it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out

• I found a schoolmaster’s daughter who would do it for a nice white roll, but all I had was our army bread, so she kissed my hand…I was always the gentleman, which is why I was in correspondence with Europe’s finest beauties

• [T]hree days later I was off to Dalmatia and the sea, you should have seen the storm that came up, when nature goes wild like that and gets into a man’s pants it’s enough to turn him into a poet

• [A] dandy of a Jew gave me a gulden to shine up his belt and his gun for him, he was going into town to establish some international relations, as he put it, but along came our beast of a Sergeant Brčul, six and a half feet of bad blood, and said, Where’s the Jew boy? Went to town, I said, well, the Serge he starts cursing…because Freiherr von Wucherer had expressly forbidden soldiers from going on rampages in town, so he comes and lies down in the Jew’s bed and when the Jew staggers back after midnight, totally beat, Brčul leaps up, knocks him down, kicks him all over the floor in his special uniform, and when I went out to relieve him I found him swinging in the wind, hanging up by his own hand and shiny belt, nobody appreciates that kind of thing anymore
(the suicide or the shiny belt?)

• [A] fortune-teller once read my cards and said that if it wasn’t for a tiny black cloud hanging over me I could do great things things and not only for my country but for all mankind

• [T]he doctors had to amputate his member and insert a silver tube in its place, so you see, young ladies, you can have all the riches in the world and still lack what matters most

(Jirka ends his story where he started, reminding me of the path of epicycles astronomers had to manufacture to explain an earth-centric universe. This quote is the opening of the book.)Just like I come here to see you, young ladies, I used to go to church to see my beauties, well, not exactly to church, I’m not much of a churchgoer, but to a small shop next to the parish house, a tiny little place, where a man by the name of Altman sold secondhand sewing machines, dual-spring Victrolas from America, and Minimax fire extinguishers, and this Altman he had a sideline delivering beauties to pubs and bars all over the district, and the young ladies would sleep in Altman’s back room, or when summer came they set up tents in the garden and the dean of the church would take his constitutional along the fence and those show-offs would put a Victrola out there and sing and smoke and tan themselves in their bathing suits, a sight for sore eyes it was, a heavenly sight, Eden on earth

(Now the end of the book—Jirka picks up the initial thought and reveals that story-telling to young ladies is nothing new. It turns out the young ladies are sunbathing, inspiring him to start his story.)[S]o anyway, ladies, there I was, sitting on my Minimax fire extinguisher case, while six beauties lolling in the sun listened to my stories and the dean of the church standing on his watering can with one arm over the fence stared at me like I was an apparition while in fact I was only a loyal reader of the illustrated weeklies and Havlíček and Mr. Batista’s book on sexual hygiene

Update (13 Feb 2014): A better overall review by Gabe Habash is available at the Publishers Weekly blog.

Picture source
The apparent movement of sun and planets with earth as center, much like Jirka's storytelling style

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