HARLEQUIN’S MILLIONS

Bohumil Hrabal & Stacey Knecht (Translator)

One of the last novels of Bohumil Hrabal – the writer whom Milan Kundera called Czechoslovakia’s greatest – Harlequin’s Millions is set in a castle converted into a home for the elderly, whose eccentric, unforgettable inhabitants exchange phantasmagoric stories about their lives and their changing country in an attempt to uphold sight of the world outside their confinement. Hrabal uses his aging protagonists to tell of Nymburk, the small Czech town in which he grew up, and explore the mythologizing power of memory. Poised on the threshold between joy and melancholy, this novel admits us into the mind of a woman coming to terms with the passing of time.

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One of the last novels of Bohumil Hrabal – the writer whom Milan Kundera called Czechoslovakia’s greatest – Harlequin’s Millions is set in a castle converted into a home for the elderly, whose eccentric, unforgettable inhabitants exchange phantasmagoric stories about their lives and their changing country in an attempt to uphold sight of the world outside their confinement. Hrabal uses his aging protagonists to tell of Nymburk, the small Czech town in which he grew up, and explore the mythologizing power of memory. Poised on the threshold between joy and melancholy, this novel admits us into the mind of a woman coming to terms with the passing of time. Stacey Knecht’s translation brilliantly conveys Hrabal’s winding ecstatic sentences that capture the author’s flowing conversational style, described by James Wood as “anecdote without end.”

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  • Archipelago Books
  • Paperback
  • May 2014
  • 9780981955735

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About Bohumil Hrabal & Stacey Knecht (Translator)

Bohumil HrabalBorn in a Czech brewery, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) went on to become a steelworker and traveling salesman by day, and surrealist poet by night. In the 1950s he began to experiment with a stream-of-consciousness style. Banned in his native country during the political upheaval of Prague Spring, Hrabal nevertheless won the prestigious Jaroslav Seifert Prize in 1993 and has been celebrated as genius by Julian Barnes, Susan Sontag, and Milan Kundera. Many of his characters were “wise fools” – everyday men taken to drunken monologues of inadvertent but acute insight. Two of his novels have been made into classic films by Czech New Wave director Jiří Menzel – Closely Watched Trains, winner of the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and Larks on a String, winner of the 1990 Golden Bear. Before his death, Publishers Weekly named him the “most revered living Czech writer,” describing his work as “a humorous and breathless affair… [of] abounding energy and a rambunctious wit.”

Stacey Knecht is the translator of Marcel Moring’s The Dream Room, The Great Longing, and In Babylon; Anke de Vries’s Bruises; Marga Minco’s The Glass Bridge; Hugo Claus’s Desire; and Lieve Joris’s Back to the Congo. She has been the recipient of several distinguished accolades, including the James S. Holmes Translation Award (1993) and the Vondel Prize (1996). She lives in the Netherlands.

Praise

“[A] uniquely compelling blend of parable, fantasy, social realism and testament to the power of storytelling. . . . the voice of the narrator is spellbinding, even as the reader becomes less sure of her credibility. . . . An enchanting novel, full of life, about the end of life.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)Billed as “a fairy tale,” the novel…fancifully confounds expectations: a visiting doctor’s lesson on classical music turns into a psychotic rampage, for example. And Hrabal’s long, lyrical sentences (each chapter consists of a single paragraph) are not only exquisitely constructed, but also as spirited as the scenes they illustrate.”—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)A joyful, picaresque story, which begins with Baron Munchausen-like adventures and ends in tears and solitude.“—James Wood, The London Review of Book

Discussion Questions

1. Within the first sentence of Harlequin’s Millions we are introduced to the theme of time: “Just outside the little town where my time stood still is a small castle, and in that castle is now a retirement home.” In the second clause of this sentence are juxtaposed the past and present uses of a building, showing a change brought about by time. Nonetheless, in the first clause we are given a location in which time seems to hold no effect: it stands “still.” The wrought-iron clock in the castle, stuck at seven twenty-five, seems to further emphasize this latter idea. In what ways does time seem to have ceased flowing in this novel? What aspects of the narrator’s life, mentality or environment seem immune to the passing of days? And oppositely, how does the movement of time leave traces in the city, the retirement home, and the landscape; in society and mores; and in the narrator and those around her? In chapter 14 the narrator notices “how times had changed” in her “little town where time stood still.” Is this a recognition that her former idea of the immobility of time is false? Or has the narrator simply developed a different sense of her life’s and the world’s temporality? Finally, what is the narrator’s relationship to the distant past – that of the former castle and that of the history of the town as told by the “three witnesses to old times”? How real are these stories she hears and in the end she herself recounts about the past? What effect might either real or fictionalized history have on the present?

2. The narrator often recalls how when young she was the beauty of the town. Now past the threshold of old age, this former beauty of hers has disappeared, leaving her wrinkled and toothless. Yet in a gesture of situational irony, the narrator finds herself at this stage of life in a castle decorated with swirling frescos and sculpted nudes baring perfect bodies. What differences and similarities are there between the fleeting yet human beauty of the narrator in her youth, and the immortal yet impersonal beauty of the statues and the figures represented on the ceiling? What emotions do the frescos and statues instill in the narrator? And how does the narrator’s experience with the paintings and statues compare to the near bacchic frenzy inspired by Doctor Holoubek’s classical music in chapter 10? In chapter 13 the narrator discovers that many of the statues were damaged in drunken bouts of shooting, their missing body parts later replaced by cement. Though the narrator claims she first was “shocked” at learning this, she then states that because of their imperfections these statues “seemed even more beautiful to me than before.” What is the relationship in this novel between beauty and perfection, or between beauty and vulnerability? Aside from the castle and its decorations, is there a certain beauty to this retirement home, where mortality is set in relief?

3. The lives of the narrator and her husband seem punctuated by failed plans and unaccomplished dreams. The narrator’s store in Prague closes down in a pile of debt, the husband discovers he is unable to withdraw from his life insurance investment, both of their comfortable lives in the brewery are brought to a close by the new regime, their new house on the river is poorly designed and shaken by a malevolent wind. What forces cause these dreams to remain unfulfilled? Are these failures tragically outside the control of the narrator and her husband, or are they brought about by a lack of foresight and intelligence? How do these hopes become extinguished or continue to survive once the narrator and Francin are in the retirement home? In the very last chapter the narrator states that after her first visit she “dreamed of the retirement home” and “wanted more than anything to live there.” However, her “true story” is that she left the brewery and moved into her windy and desolate “villa on the Elbe.” How much of the narrator’s relation of her stay in the retirement home is only the creation of a dream? What is this connection between unfulfilled desires and the fabrication of fiction?

4. The “soft melody of Harlequin’s Millions” drifts constantly through the air of the old castle turned retirement home. What effect does this song have upon the pensioners and the narrators? What might the fact that it originates from the romantic scenes of silent movies say about its role in the novel? Is the sweetness of the music simply a pleasant background accompaniment, or is it in some way creating a false atmosphere of happiness – or is it perhaps doing something else entirely? One might also compare this ubiquitous tune to the dangerous power of Doctor Holoubek’s classical music. Why might Hrabal have chosen to name the novel after this song? The narrator furthermore describes how the pensioners immediately become anxious when one of the rediffusion boxes turns off, even though they otherwise do not seem to notice the presence of this song. What else is there in this novel, and perhaps in our own lives, of which only the cessation draws attention?