“A human heart that thinks” – The Tender Barbarian by Bohumil Hrabal

We English speakers are horribly deprived of the likes of Bohumil Hrabal. It’s our own fault, of course: translated works are not as eagerly sought after as they deserve to be and, as a result, one of Czechia’s most celebrated writers has remained largely obscured to us. In this new edition from Twisted Spoon translated by Jed Slast, Hrabal seeks to introduce us to a yet more overlooked Czech figure, self-described ‘explosionalist’ Vladimír Boudník. Boudník attended art school following a gruelling and traumatic stint at a forced labour camp during the second world war, and with his uniquely public-facing artistic ethic influenced many of his Czech contemporaries.

This collection of texts contains material produced by both Hrabal and Boudník during their lifetimes, compiled by Hrabal following Boudník’s death in order to pay tribute to a cherished friend. The work begins with a fictionalised account of their lives in Prague, written by Hrabal in his usual densely extravagant but beautiful style. Vladimir Boudník possesses an artistic purity, grounded heavily in nature and impulse, which causes him to be both an impressive enigma and an infuriating hippie to those around him. In an amalgamation of prose and dialectic, Hrabal introduces an antithesis to Boudník: Egon Bondy, a fellow poet and friend who serves to pass crude and perhaps envious judgments on Boudník through gritted teeth. He laments Boudník’s natural genius in one segment, exclaiming,

I’d have to study this a whole year, while that monster Vladimír blurts it out on a walk perfectly elucidated, as if he were just blowing his nose! (Page 57)

One of my favourite pretentious literary person pastimes when reading translated works is discovering new phrases which, having no obvious English counterpart, are presented more literally. In The Tender Barbarian, that phrase belongs to Egon Bondy, who frequently treats the reader’s eyes and inner ear to three divine words: “fuck me Jesus!” I imagine that it’s said with the same cadence as “fuck me sideways,” creating an entirely Amy-made narrative that there is a Jesus-specific sex position, and that it is as ubiquitous as fuck me sideways. Take that, atheists.

The other half of The Tender Barbarian comprises of numerous extracts, including letters and short excerpts of prose written by Boudník, and two picture segments dedicated to his art. Boudník’s art is a sensuous mix of sexuality and absurdity, shrouding the childish character introduced in Hrabal’s prose in the unexpected darkness belonging to the real man. His writings, however, reveal a philosopher, a “human heart that thinks.” (Page 73) Boudník’s manifestos on the explosionalism movement, his debates with the arts academy, and his more general thoughts on mankind are pointed, intelligent, and surprisingly applicable to contemporary issues. Particularly striking was his perspective on the purpose of paintings:

The painting should never be a snapshot. Photography serves this purpose. The painting must be a “filmstrip” chock-full of suspense and psychological explosions concentrated on an immobile surface and shown in an infinite short time in synergy with the viewer’s kinetic imagination. (Page 110)

While I am sure that the photographers among us will disagree with his sentiments regarding their medium, Boudník’s description of paintings is exuberant, and indicative of one who is truly idolatrous of art.

Thankfully, Bohumil Hrabal did not use his platform to endorse a talentless hack who happened to be his friend. Rather, he further immortalised an unfairly obscured figure whose creations and ideas are still striking and cogent decades after they were first brought forth from within his mind. The Tender Barbarian is a moving tribute to an affecting individual in Hrabal’s life, one who boasted an artistic bond with the natural world enabling him to “revive by bending down and touching a finger to the earth, [giving] him fresh energy and [linking] him to a mystical and yet very real communion.” (page 57)

Any Cop?: I’m not sure how effective this work would be as an introduction to Hrabal. His prose can feel heavy and laborious, but believe me when I say that the stories and characters he is capable of creating are worth the effort. Perhaps begin with Too Loud a Solitude, his gorgeous novella about a paper crusher who, at great personal risk, saves the books which he is tasked to destroy. Then, once Hrabal has ensnared you, pick up The Tender Barbarian and insert yourself into the fold of this half-fictionalised poets’ and artists’ circle.


Amy Riddell

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