Total Fears has been my favourite read so far this year. I guess over the years I’ve read almost all of Hrabal works that are in English, and in general enjoyed them – he has a world-vision I find pleasing. Perhaps I’ve been least impressed by Too Loud a Solitude, which a lot of people (including Hrabal himself) consider his best book: – by which I imagine, as quite often, they mean: most intentionally meaningful book. I enjoyed far more the last thing I read by him, a collection of short stories called The Death of Mr Baltisberger.
Total Fears is a collection of Hrabal’s essays, extracted from a larger collection in Czech, written in a free associative way: that is to say, Hrabal starts writing about a subject, then just wanders in his thoughts wherever he likes for the next twenty pages, before usually bringing the affair back round to the starting-point in the pleasing manner of ring composition. The essays are all written as letters to an American woman who visited Hrabal once and invited him on a lecture tour, which eventually he does go on – though this tour, and one also of Britain (he found it cold), I thought the least interesting episodes in the book; the better, and larger, parts dealt with the course of Czech history during his lifetime and his place in it, which seems mostly to have been in the pub. For Hrabal spends most of his time drinking, or at least this is how he portrays in it (when he visits America, he takes particular interest in places Dylan Thomas habituated) – both the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, he spent in the pub, excitedly watching events unfold, proud of the people taking part in them, sitting there drinking his beer.
The eponymous Total Fears essay, perhaps the best in the collection, also seems something of a key: a naked, unflinching piece of self-analysis. It is sparked by a journalist asking him one day how he come he never suffered as a dissident writer – along with some other reminiscences, among which is an essay on Hrabal by Ivan Klima, the emigre Czech writer (who, along with Kundera and Skvorecky, are pale shadows of writers beside Hrabal), about there being two sides to Hrabal, though Hrabal never says explicitly what the essay was about, only that he is “glad to have read Ivan Klima’s piece, he’s a man of character, whereas I, as I discover and am afraid to say in essence, am rather a man of no character”, and then goes on to relate how, out of fear, he passed information to the authorities about dissidents and those involved in publishing his own samizdat literature, despising himself as he did so but, living in a constant state of terror and humiliated as a human-being, nonetheless finding himself incapable of acting in any other way.
All enjoyable stuff.