Of Changes and Little Towns

Situated in Central Europe is the idyllic country of the Czech Republic, also called Czechia. It was previously a part of the bigger independent republic of Czechoslovakia which was formed after the fall of the Habsburg monarchy at the end of World War. On December 31, 1992, Czechoslovakia was parted into two separate states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic has had a tumultuous history but it is now one of the most advanced economies and is now one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world. Its capital, Prague, is a magnet for tourists and is also referred to as “the handsomest city of Europe” since the 18th century. The city also has a rich cultural scene that has attracted writers, poets, and musicians alike, pretty much like France’s Paris.

Speaking of its rich cultural scene, Czechia also has a long and rich literary tradition. Prague was the birthplace of accomplished and renowned writer Franz Kafka and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The country has also produced a Nobel Laureate in Literature, Jaroslav Seifert, the 1984 awardee. Among the most recognized Czech literary import is Milan Kundera who gifted the world with the unforgettable literary masterpieces The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Both books tackled the turmoil that has wrapped his birth nation’s recent history. Another Czech writer who left a great influence on contemporary Czech, and by extension, world literature, was Bohumil Hrabal. Hrabal is often considered one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century, with no less than Kundera hailing him as one of the best writers of today.

Born Bohumil František Kilián on March 28, 1914, in Židenice (now part of Brno), Austria-Hungary, Hrabal’s literary career started with poetry. In 1948, he produced a collection of poems, Ztracená ulička (A Lost Alley). However, the emergence of the Czech Communist Party forced him to withdraw the book from publication and instead, join an underground literary group. He would continue to write but his works only appeared in samizdat publications. Only when his émigré friends smuggled his works did Hrabal switch to a full-time career as a writer. Prior to this, he took on odd jobs such as a clerk, an insurance agent, a traveling salesman, a stagehand, a foundry foreman, and even as a compactor of wastepaper in a recycling plant. This is notwithstanding the fact that he received a law degree from Charles University.

“I like looking at the fading signature of the electric current, and I dread the day the mains will be brought to the brewery and all the brewery lamps, all the airy lamps in the stables, the lamps with round mirrors, all those portly lamps with round wicks one day will cease to be lit, no one will prize their light, for all this ceremonial will be replaced by the light-switch resembling the water tap which replaced the wonderful pumps.”

~ Bohumil Hrabal, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still

From works published through the samizdat, he published in succession a collection of short stories. There was no turning back especially when he made a major breakthrough in 1965 with the novel Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains). Among the works that his prolific career has produced is The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. It was originally published in Czech as Městečko, kde se zastavil čas in 1974. It was also among the several pieces that he originally shared through the samizdat. The book was made available to the anglophone-speaking world in 1993 when its English translation, translated by James Naughton, was released. It was later reissued by New York Review Books (NYRB) in 2015.

The reissued text is divided into two sections from two separately published works but had interlinking stories. The first section was Cutting It Short which was originally published as Postřižiny in 1976. The novella transported the readers to the Czech countryside, to the little town of Nymburk, the author’s home in Bohemia. of the 1930s. The focal point of the story was Maryška who was also the main narrator. She was married to Francin, the manager of the local brewery. With her husband gainfully employed and able to sustain the two of them – the couple had no children when the book started – Maryška has the luxury of buckling down and spending her time the way she wanted to. She was an incorrigible character, adamant in her ways and wild in her conduct.

She bided her time either drinking with her husband’s crew or climbing the chimneys of the brewery and having the town firemen rescue her from her predicament. She also speeds around the town using her bicycle. Her actions attracted the disapproving eyes of the locals. There is an ageless saying that goes, “opposites attract.” In the case of Francin and Maryška, it could not be truer. They are polar opposites, with Francin being the prominent moral voice to Maryška’s amorality. While his wife basks in disarray, Francin was a stickler for rules. She was adventurous and spontaneous while he commanded order and adhered to repetition and predictability; he was a creature of habit. Nevertheless, Francin adored every facet of his wife. Maryška, in turn, reciprocated his deep feelings.

The novella’s original title, Postřižiny, referred to the Slavic (and Jewish) tradition of ritualizing a child’s first haircut. As such, Maryška’s hair takes on an allegorical form. She has knee-length and unkempt blonde hair which, as the story advanced, took on the form of a distinct character itself. Deciding to cut her hair was a radical step that was both a challenge against the norms and a symbol of the changing times. It also represents the changing fashion. Other manifestations of modernization were slowly trickling into the town. But as many can relate, it takes time to adapt to changes. Sometimes, the response can be outright rejection, such as in the case of Francin. Modernity also came in the form of an electrode machine and radio. But it was not only hair that was cut in the story as other objects were cut such as a dog’s tail, table legs, Maryška’s skirts, and even Mrs. Krásenka’s nose.

“As I ran across the bridge, I found myself in a blizzrd, thousands of mayflies were cascading out of the lamps on to the paving of the bridge and walkway, it was slithery, like walking on ice, but the lights of the lanterns on the standards shone away pitilessly and clouds of mayflies soared up from the river into their glow, white-winged moths rose too from the blackness of the river, and winged beetles, only for the light which summoned them up from the river to strike them down to the pavements and roadway, where car tyres skidded and people fell about as if on Hogmanay black ice.”

~ Bohumil Hrabal, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still

The story’s perspective shifted in the second part which carried the book’s title, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. A couple of years after the events covered in Cutting It Short, Maryška and Francin how has a son; they previously struggled to have a child. From his mother, the anonymous boy took on the reins of the story, driving it through his lenses. The young boy’s preoccupation, however, was not with his mother nor his father but rather with his uncle Pepin, Maryška’s brother-in-law. He was an equally fascinating character who was a mirror of Maryška. They shared several similarities as they are both active. They share the same mischievous and spontaneous energy. They both thrive in chaos. Pepin was a man always on the move and rarely stays in a place for too long.

The Second World War also made its presence felt in the story, with the son witnessing his father and uncle deal with the presence of Nazi Germany. Pepin would even gain local popularity for his heroics in opposing the Nazi forces. However, the end of the war ushered in a new and different change – change was a unifying theme that linked both novellas – that would visibly upset the town and its denizens. The new communist order was an outrightly rejected change as it endeavored to alter the natural flow of life in the little town. Communism was a different brand of modernity. We witness the fall of the bourgeois as they were stripped of their assets, privileges, and social prestige. Francin was no different as he was fired from his job after the state took over the operations of the brewery.

As the story advanced, one can surmise that the book had biographical elements. Maryška was inspired by his mother and the anonymous narrator of the second book was the author himself. Pepin was also a character based on Hrabal’s own uncle. Toward the end of the book, Hrabal got more intimate as he shared details of his entanglement with Communist authorities. This would result in the censorship of all of his works, hence, the publication of his works through the illicit samizdat. Beyond the personal, Hrabal vividly painted the adverse impact of Communism on the landscape of his beloved hometown. Even traditional and cultural activities that gave life to the town died natural deaths. There were no longer any church processions and festivals or annual masquerade balls to attend or annual fairs where the town can gather and unwind. The once lively town was shrouded by a veil of conformity. As the book’s title suggested, time in the little town has certainly stood still.

Hrabal, a writer who is renowned for his unconventionality, again ditched literary norms. It was no straightforward story and was bereft of a robust plot. It relied on the creative voices of its main narrators, coupled with Hrabal’s descriptive and lyrical writing. The highly visual quality of his writing made the town come alive. He even breathed life into inanimate objects. With his masterful writing, he was able to capture in vivid detail the domestic life of a small village. The book was also riddled with wit and humor. Metaphors flowed and melded well with the more contemplative and thought-provoking elements of the story. It was a lush tapestry that he wove with his skills as a storyteller and wordsmith.

“Oh, how I suffered with this home, how I felt myself shot out through the window, even when it was closed, out through the walls, just out and out and out, where the branches of the old lindens and chestnuts waved at me through the window, where the rain tapped at me, where the wind called out to me, as it rattled in from the brewery through the open window!”

~ Bohumil Hrabal, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still

On the downside, Hrabal’s writing can be loose. This made the story meander every now and then. Dialogues were also scarce and in their stead were long and winding sentences and paragraphs. The lengthy paragraphs can stretch out for nearly a chapter. This makes up for a tedious read as the words can drag; this is an inherent weakness that often comes along with highly descriptive texts. The tediousness is an element that some readers can find challenging.

But its blunders did little to diminish the impact of The Little Town Where Town Stood Still. Within its pages, the book transported the readers to the Czech Republic (or to be more historically accurate Czechoslovakia) before and after the war while, at the same time, capturing the changes that were slowly taking place. We witness how a little town has severed its innocence with the entry of a radical young woman who challenged tradition and conventions. Change was a recurring subject, with modernity slowly altering the lives of the town’s denizens, including Maryška and Francin. It was also a vivid study of village life. Hrabal was also able to capture the inevitable and adverse impact of Communism on the little town which effectively made time stand still. The semi-autobiographic elements added a different layer to the story as the author’s voice merged with the characters he created. The Little Town Where Town Stood Still is, without a doubt, a gem of a read



Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

It was in the past four years that I discovered works reissued and/or published by the New York Books Review (NYBR). NYBR has introduced me to writers I never expected to encounter; this started with Hungarian writer Magda Szabó then with Italian writer Carlo Collodi. The latest addition to this is Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal; admittedly, I know very little about Czech literature as the only name I could associate with it was Milan Kundera. It is for this alone that I am thankful for NYBR; I have other books in the pipeline. When I picked Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, I had little iota about what it was nor do I have any idea of who Hrabal was. I just relied on the book being published by the NYBR. When I started reading The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, I didn’t realize it was an omnibus of two books but it was not stopping me from stepping into a new literary world. The long paragraphs and sentences were the first elements that stood out for me. These made the story drag but when I started to establish a pace, I started to appreciate the story and the direction Hrabal was steering his work. I liked the lyrical and descriptive quality of the writing. I am hoping to read more of the Czech writer’s works.

P.S. I find it interesting how little towns are often the subject, if not the setting of European works; Szabó’s The Door and László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango immediately comes to mind.

Book Specs

Author: Bohumil Hrabal
Translator (from Czech): James Naughton
Publisher: New York Review of Books
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 299
Genre: Literary


The Little Town Where Time Stood Still contains two inked narratives by the incomparable Bohumil Hrabal, whom Milan Kundera has described as “Czechoslovakia’s greatest writer.” Cutting it Short” is set before World War II in a small country town, and it relates the scandalizing escapades of Maryska, the flamboyant wife of Francin, who manages the local brewery. Maryska drinks. She rides a bicycle, letting her long hair fly. She butchers pigs, frolics in blood, and leads on the local butcher. She’s a Madame Bovary without apologies driven to keep up with the new fast-paced mechanized modern world that is obliterating whatever sleepy pieties are left over from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire.” The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” is told by Maryska and Francin’s son and concerns the exploits of his Uncle Pepin, who holds his own against the occupying Nazis but succumbs to silence as the new post-World War II Communist order cements its colorless control over daily life. Together, Hrabal’s rousing and outrageous yarns stand as a hilarious and heartbreaking tribute to the always imperiled sweetness of lust, love, and life.

About the Author

Bohumil Hrabal was born on March 28, 1914, in Židenice (suburb of Brno) in what was then the province of Moravia within Austria-Hungary to an unmarried mother. Hrabal’s formal education started in 1920 when attended a primary school in Nymburk. In September 1925, he spent one year at a grammar school in Brno (now Gymnázium třída Kapitána Jaroše) after failing during his first year. He later attended a technical secondary school in Nymburk where he struggled to concentrate on his studies. In March 1946, he graduated with a degree in Law from Charles University; his graduation was delayed by the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

Post-university, and despite his law degree, Hrabal took on odd jobs that ranged from being a clerk to an insurance agent to a travelling salesman to a stagehand to a foundry foreman, and to a compactor of wastepaper in a recycling plant. He also started writing during this period, even producing a collection of lyrical poetry in 1948, entitled Ztracená ulička. However, he had to withdraw his work due to the establishment of the communist regime. He still kept writing but his works were printed only in samizdat, a clandestine and illicit method of reproducing censored and underground makeshift publications.

In 1962, Hrabal shifted to a full-time career in literature after his works were smuggled out of communist Czechoslovakia by his émigré friends. He found a dedicated group of readers abroad. The short stories he published through the samizdat were collectively published in books such as Perlička na dně (A Pearl at the Bottom, 1963), Pábitelé (Palaverers, 1964), and Automat svět (The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, 1966). He made a huge breakthrough in 1965 when his novel Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains) was published.

Another obstacle came in August 1968 after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hrabal was banned from publishing, prompting him to publish again through the samizdat. Among his works published in the underground were Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, 1974), Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude, 1977), and Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England, 1973). He had written so many books during the period of censorship that some of his works were published posthumously, with the most recent, Křehký dluh, a collection of poetry, published in 2017.

Hrabal passed away on February 3, 1997, after falling from a window on the fifth floor of Bulovka Hospital in Prague.