The Mysterious Death of Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997)

“So what actually happened to Hrabal? Did he fall out of the window, or did he jump?”

Many people have asked me that question, and when they see the dismayed look on my face, they answer it themselves with great confidence.

I wish I could do that too, but I can’t. After all, I wasn’t there with him, when at a few minutes after two pm on 3 February 1997 he leaned out of the window of his room on the fifth floor of Prague’s Bulovka hospital. There was no one there with him whose warnings to be careful not to lean out too far (and ultimately to get the idea of suicide out of his head) he might have heeded.

It was already eight years since the death of Karel Marysko, his dear friend and the first reader of his youthful poems, jotted down in green ink on sheets of company headed paper in the deserted office of the brewery at Nymburk whose manager was František Hrabal, the future writer’s father. Not long before Marysko, Hrabal’s wife Eliška had died, his beloved Pipsi (Marysko was the speaker whose tears of emotion prevented him from uttering the final words over her coffin). A few months earlier Hrabal’s brother, Břetislav (known to his family as Slávek) had passed on to the other world. The writer’s parents and his beloved Uncle Pepin had long since led a posthumous existence on the pages of his books, just like the waste paper packer Jindřich Peukert (the prototype for Hanta, the hero of Too Loud a Solitude) and the painter and graphic artist Vladimír Boudník, who took his own life (though once again one could argue that it was an accident).

On 3 February 1997 there was no longer anyone left in this world whom Hrabal would have care about enough to want to live for them. Apart perhaps from his cats. But what do they matter, when never before had there been so many people who thought of Hrabal as a teacher of life? Could a man like that take his own life? The doctors and the police ruled out the idea of Hrabal’s suicide. Jiří Kolář, his contemporary and mentor from the start of his creative work, also thought it unlikely. But Susanne Roth, Hrabal’s translator into German (to whom he left the rights to foreign-language editions of his books) published a violent protest in the Czech press against the media’s version of the writer’s death as an accident suffered by a decrepit old man.

A few months after Hrabal’s death Susanne Roth died of cancer. Perhaps her awareness of her own inevitable death was what made her express such a categorical opinion? But other translators and experts on Hrabal’s work are convinced he committed suicide too.

From his books, one can source arguments in support of this theory by the handful, including those written in his declining years as well as his earliest works. The heroes of Hrabal’s books make up a veritable suicide club: old Hanta doesn’t want to live in the new times; perhaps it is purely by accident that the hot-headed Vladimírek strangles himself; and the trainee Pipka punishes himself for losing in love. But at the very beginning there’s Cain, the title hero of an early story by Hrabal (written in 1949), who tries to kill himself, as a substitute for the author himself.

But does this mean that half a century later the writer completed the task bungled by his alter ego? Being well versed in modern French litera- ture since before the war, he became engrossed in the existentialists just after it. His Cain is a literary exercise on a theme put forward by Camus: after the war I couldn’t get enough of Camus’“The Stranger,” which affected me so much that under its patronage and inspiration I wrote “Cain,” he recalled years later. For his hero “the stranger” is himself; he turns the blade of his cold passion on himself. Once rescued, he comes to terms with life—only to be killed after the war by a stray bullet.

This theme reappears fifteen years later in Closely Observed Trains: After the failed suicide, Pipka is killed just at the moment when he wants to live the most. Maybe it is this sequence of events, the way Pipka’s desires fail to be realized (how true to life!), that causes the naive hero to sink so deep into the readers’ memory.

Suicide attempts by the main characters are a powerful theme in the dramatic development of many of Hrabal’s works. This is the case in Closely Observed Trains, Too Loud a Solitude and Tender Barbarian. But does this mean he himself had suicidal tendencies?

Have you ever thought of suicide?

As a writer? I’m always thinking about it. As a writer, I’ve been right on the edge of it. But to make up my mind to do it myself and go off to a riverbank somewhere—what an idea, no. Never, he told the Hungarian journalist László Szigeti in the mid 1980s.

So what did happen to him?

My life has reached its culminating point, he said in an interview a few years before his death. I must surely have lived and written purely in order to write “Loud Solitude,” he said as early as 1989. Hrabal had a long wait for his readers. Time and again the printed stock of his earliest volumes of poetry and collections of short stories got lost in the twists and turns of his country’s history; he did come to land, but only at a minor railway halt, or at the waste-paper depot. But such was the history of his country—it had indeed gone off the rails, such was the fate of everything he loved—sentenced to be put through the mill. On this rubbish heap he discovered a wonderful antidote to history; in ordinary, everyday life he found a remedy against getting stuck in a rut and growing apathetic. Not immediately, and maybe without even meaning to, because he did not spend his life at odds with his era, or even anywhere close to it; his time ran in the opposite direction. In the 1950s when his country was hurrying towards the bright future, he found his world in a suburban bar; in the 1960s when it was busy building socialism with a human face, he was writing about closely observed trains; and after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 when Czechoslovakia became one great “suburban hospital,” in spirit he was living at the brewery— the same one where he spent his childhood and youth. Later on, in the autobiographical trilogy he wrote in the mid-1980s, The Weddings in the House, he trod the same path once again, but in the opposite direction, going backwards. Just in time to catch up with history in 1989—and this time with the entire country too.

Only then, in his declining years, did he try to keep pace with it, to be a chronicler of modern times. He sent letter after letter, first to the American specialist on Czech studies April Gifford (Dubenka), whom he had met at the Golden Tiger inn, then to his beloved cat Cassius (named after the famous boxer Cassius Clay—alias Muhammad Ali), and finally to himself. But how long can you go on writing to yourself?

His readers adored him, but rather in the way we adore an ancient grandfather who cheers us up with anecdotes about the good old days. But he wasn’t at all in the mood for laughing. At that time he wrote: One day the regulars will finally throw me out of the Golden Tiger, because I’m always telling them to go to hell, I’m always calling them cretins, and talking about them and about humanity in general as an evil, stupid and criminal brood. Though people are also soberminded and ingenious (.) Because I myself am a cretin, I’m evil, stupid and criminal. I’m also a Czech writer, the heir to Jaroslav Hašek, and I’m simply not able to behave myself, I behave just like that hysterical McEnroe, when he gets furious on the tennis court, because he thinks the linesmen and the referees are picking on him, even the audience, especially when he’s not winning. But in Andy Warhol’s photograph, McEnroe is a sensitive, likeable young man, just like I was before I began to surround myself, before I began to be surrounded by a personality cult. And thus I was left like the Aurora. High and dry. I’m fine like that!

His readers believed he was the person he invented—Bohumil Hrabal, the hero of the books he wrote. Maybe that was the only sort of existence he wanted for himself now, and like a child who lets his body drop without fear, because he knows the swing will send it flying up again a moment later, he joined company with Hanta and Vladimírek?

It came suddenly, almost overnight: I couldn’t drink. Just as if my body and soul were rebelling, agreeing that from now on they would refuse their daily bath (.) One way or another, I discovered that even the tiniest drop of alcohol, just one little sip of wine, caused my liver to rebel and shout out “Stop, stop!” (…) Suddenly vanished, the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from swarming through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had been before (.) Depression caused by sudden abstinence.

No, that is not from an essay by Hrabal. He noted down this quote from William Styron’s Darkness Visible in the summer of 1993, and added a comment of his own: Every day I think about suicide (.) It’s Saturday, I’ve postponed suicide until tomorrow.

Hrabal’s final writings bear witness to everdeeper depression. His spiritual suffering came along with the pains he felt in his entire body, and his legs refused to obey him (they seem a bit far away from me, like the wooden legs of a puppet. He could only move about with a stick. This morning, as always after a delirious night, I shaved (sitting down, because I have trouble standing), and thought Dr Rypka may be right— after all, he did discover it from an X-ray—I’ve got degeneracy of the inter-vertebral cartilage, so sooner or later I’ll be in a wheelchair.

In December 1996, he fell over outside his summer home in Kersko. Partially paralyzed, he ended up in Bulovka hospital, where he had already spent the previous winter. Week after week went by, the Christmas holidays and then the New Year. January went by. His friends came to visit him, including Tomáš Mazal, translator Monika Zgustová and others; several of them got the impression that he was saying goodbye to them forever. They tried to keep up his spirits and talk about plans for the future, but Hrabal just waved them aside.

But several years earlier he wrote the following words about his friend, Professor Jaroslav Kladiva: To my friend Jarulínek, the man who led the funeral procession and spoke over the coffin of Jan Palach, to Jarulinek for making the funerary oration over Palach’s coffin, the heavens repaid him by letting him die of cancer, but all the same, in defiance of the heavens he renewed his fishing license, although he was already lying in the hospital on Charles Square, chained to the bedpost by death.

In January 1969 philosophy student Jan Palach set fire to himself in Prague’s Wencelas Square. He sacrificed his life to shake the consciences of his compatriots. Instead he shocked them so much that they ended up resigning themselves to the Soviet occupation. On the twentieth anniversary of his death Hrabal wrote: I’ve thought about jumping from the fifth floor so many times, because I’ve seen my wife (.) but I’ve postponed the jump; if I had the strength I’d buy a can of petrol too and set myself alight, but I’m afraid, I’m not brave. To him, the true champions were people like Mr Ruziczka, who after an acrobatic display jumped into an empty swimming pool in Moscow, broke his spine and cannot walk; he uses his arms like fins, but he has a beautiful wife, and above all, Mr Hrabal, he has the courage to live, a zest for life! But damn and blast, to hell and damnation, go and get stuffed, Mr Hrabal, with all your oy-oy-oying and searching for a reason not to live. You’re a walking reproach, Mr Hrabal!

He wrote that almost six years before his death, on 3 March 1991.

So where are we to find the key to the riddle of his death? In his books or in his biography? He mystified his own life story so much that there is no way to tell truth from fiction. Did he, in a moment of weakness, go against the grain of his own work, which was a non-stop apology for life, a testimony to the will to live at any price? After all, in his most famous works the theme of suicide acts as a counterpoint to a eulogy of life; throughout his time as a writer, he was only ever playing with the idea of suicide, first that of his heroes and later his own. That is a cruel game, but so is life itself. For as long as he was playing this game, Hrabal was always a writer. But once his eighty-three-year-old body refused to obey him, once his own organism had betrayed him and made it impossible to perform his daily ritual of casting a spell on death, once he could no longer write, the literature was at an end. Now he was nothing but a lonely old man, who could only expect one more thing from life—a slow and gradual death.

As Uncle Pepin used to say: This world is madly beautiful. Not that it really is, but that’s how I see it. If Hrabal did commit suicide, it was for one reason only: to spare himself the fate of Uncle Pepin, his “Muse in maltster’s clothing,”who ended his life in an old people’s home, wetting himself and recognizing no one, not even his beloved nephew. To spare himself the fate of his wife Pipsi, who spent months and months dying of cancer before his very eyes. To spare himself the fate of Karel Marysko, his brother Slávek, Professor Kladiva and many others.

Was that really what happened? Every time I reach for his books, Vladimírek will hang himself on the door handle, Bondy the poet will stamp his feet in rage in his tiny shoes, Uncle Pepin will let us in on another secret of Mr Batista’s sex manual. But Hrabal will never let us in on the secret of his death.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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