Rethinking Hrabal’s prose: Carnival and Subversion in Closely Watched Trains

Though critics have used Baxtin’s concept of carnival and carnivalized literature in describing Bohumil Hrabal’s prose, the discussion of carnival elements in Hrabal’s work has often been overtly politicized. During the communist era, the term “carnival” often became a means to reinterpret “modernist” or “surrealist” aspects of Hrabal’s work as part of the folk tradition. The idea of carnival became a means to distance Hrabal from the avant-garde. While published criticism of Hrabal’s prose used carnival to characterize Hrabal’s more experimental fiction, the alternative culture considered Hrabal’s more conventional works as inferior or even conformist. In this context, Closely Watched Trains—one of Hrabal’s most popular and stylistically conventional works—has been somewhat neglected in Czech literature criticism.

This paper will attempt to fill the gap in critical literature on Hrabal’s prose. It will engage Květoslav Chvatík’s and Jaroslav Kladiva’s discussion of carnival elements in Hrabal’s narrative prose. I will suggest that Baxtin’s concept of carnival and carnivalized literature provides more than just another term for the grotesque or the surreal: it provides a compelling structural model for Closely Watched Trains. In Hrabal’s novel, as in Baxtin’s carnival, authoritarian views and hierarchies are countered by the physical life of the human body. Hrabal’s narrative creates ambivalent images which lower symbols of authority while expressing the openness of the grotesque body as well as its regenerative power. However, Closely Watched Trains not only contains images of the grotesque but operates on a division between an official culture and alternative life in which hierarchies are inverted. Both Baxtin’s description of carnival culture and Closely Watched Trains can be read as “double-voiced,” referring simultaneously to the time described in the narrative and the authoritarian culture in which their authors lived.

Baxtin’s carnival culture has often been interpreted as only a temporary diversion that allows the existing power structure to continue. In its conclusion, this paper will discuss to what extent Hrabal’s novel can be said to subvert or support the official culture. This discussion will engage various interpretations of Baxtin’s carnival, particularly Booker and Juraga’s dialogic reading of Baxtin, in order to show the liberating potential of Hrabal’s novel. Finally, this paper will suggest ways in which humor and subversion are linked in Hrabal’s other fiction, considering the recent publication of Hrabal’s posthumous Total Fears.

Partial Source List:

Baxtin, M. Problemy poètiki Dostoevskogo. Moscow: Sovetskaja Rossija, 1979.

—. Tvorčestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul′tura: srednovekija i rennesansa. Moscow: Xudožestvennaja literatura, 1965.

—. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas, 1981.

Booker, M., and D. Juraga. Bakhtin, Stalin, and Modern Russian Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press,1995.

Kladiva, Jaroslav. Literatura Bohumila Hrabala. Prague: Prazske Imaginace, 1989.

Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Baxtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford UP,1990.