Hordubal, by Karel Čapek

Hordubal is about a man calle Juraj Hordubal, who is a farmer and has a young wife and child, but goes away to America for ten years and when he comes back, slightly richer, thinking to be welcomed back, finds another man living in his house, with whom his wife seems to be having an affair, and his daughter has forgotten him and has come instead to idolise this other man.

What is so good about the writing then?

Yes, the plot doesn’t sound of any particular interest perhaps, but the book is carried along by the style Čapek adopts, and how the style fits in with the main character of Hordubal. The narration drifts easily from third person narration into first person consciousness – particularly into the whimsical, optimistic consciousness of Hordubal; and the reader is rather carried along by this, since he can’t help siding with Hordubal, hoping and believing along with him, and yet knowing his hopes and beliefs are futile, that he is misinterpreting everything – putting a good slant on it – and yet at the same time he is doing so wilfully, and so terribly empathising with him.

Here’s a passage from the novel, when Hordubal first comes home to surprise his wife Polana and his child Hafia, as an example:

And then Juraj Hordubal didn’t know what to say: he had thought out so many opening phrases, why was it that none of them would do? He won’t put his hands over Polana’s eyes, he won’t tap on the window at night, he won’t return with the cowbells tinkling, and with words of blessing; but dirty and unkempt he rushed in. Well, what wonder if a woman gets frightened? Even my voice would be strange and stifled – Lord tell me what I can say with such an inappropriate voice!

Polana drew back from the entrance; she stepped back – too far; oh, Polana, I could have slipped past – and murmured with a voice which was hardly a voice, and hardly hers: “Come in, I – I’ll call Hafia.” Yes, Hafia, but before she comes I should like to put my hands on your shoulders, and say, Well, Polana, I didn’t mean to frighten you; thank God, I’m home at last. And see, see how she’s furnished the house: the bed’s new, and deep with feathers, the table’s new, and heavy, sacred pictures on the wall; well, my lad, even in America they don’t have it better: the floor’s made of boards, and geraniums in the windows: you are a good manager, Polana! Very quietly Juraj Hordubal sat down on the box. Polana is clever, and she knows her way about; from what you can see you would think that she owns twelve cows, twelve or more – Praise be to God, I didn’t toil in vain; but the heat in the mine, my God, if you knew what a hell! Polana did not return; Juraj Hordubal felt uneasy somehow, like someone quite alone in a strange room.


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