Cutting It Short by Bohumil Hrabal

In The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Abacus, 2011, 134 p. Translated from the Czech, Postřižiny (Cutting,) by James Naughton.

 The Little Town Where Time Stood Still cover

From the sixty-metre chimney of the limited-liability municipal brewery it is obvious that the small town where this short novel is set is situated on an island in the Elbe. The story is narrated by Anna Czilágová, (born Kalovice, in Moravia.) Her husband, Francin, manages the brewery and loves order and regularity. They are somewhat ill-matched as Anna loves chance and the unexpected. Francin constantly complains that the ways she does things are not suitable for a decent woman. Only when she is sick can he feel that she needs him as much as he needs her. He owns an Orion motor-bike, which very rarely survives an outing without breaking down and which he sequentially invites every man in the town to help him service (which takes hours) so that they avoid his eye thereafter.

Uncle Pepin, actually Francin’s cousin, descends on the couple one day to stay for a week or so but never leaves. In his spare time he frequents only drinking establishments which have ladies’ service. He is a hit with the ladies, or likes to think he is. Nostalgic for the old Empire, Pepin’s recurring phrase is, “a soldier of Austria can never be defeated.”

Anna’s golden hair (which is always lifted out of the way by the local shopkeepers as she mounts her bicycle to keep it from tangling in the wheels,) which she had to avoid treading on on the way up, flies out like a beacon in the wind, where she sits having scaled the brewery chimney with Uncle Pepin, watching the fire brigade called out to rescue them from their perch, as those below thought they were engaged in a suicide attempt. This is only one of the scenes which have a magical realist feel, but there is also a layering of everyday detail, as when Anna helps the local butcher to make sausages, or she consumes cream horns (in an unsuitable unlady-like manner, of course.)

The new fashion comes to the town with the advent of wireless, soldiers bringing in the apparatus, allowing everyone in turn access to an earpiece with the sound, but thinner, stretched out, of a brass band playing Kolíne, Kolíne all the way from Prague. In the build-up to the book’s final significant event various things get cut short, the brewery chairman’s horse’s mane and tail, Anna’s skirt, her dog’s tail.

A curiosity is that the story is partly translated into Scots. At first, because the words appeared in Pepin’s speech, I wondered if this was an attempt to represent a regional Czech accent but then Scots words (doucely, spale, wame) cropped up in the main text. (The translator was brought up in Edinburgh.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the dynamo pumping the …… where the light bulbs shine, the dynamo starts to” (dynamo was probably repeated in the original Czech but its repeat is superfluous,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.) “‘Direktion!’” (why use the German spelling?) pelargonias (pelargoniums. If, in any case, the word had a Greek plural it would be pelargonia,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “hundred of barrels” (‘hundreds’.)

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  1. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

    […] makes sense to publish this story in the same volume as Cutting it Short since it carries on the story of Francin Czilágová and his cousin Uncle Pepin from that […]

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