The hospodská historka (“pub tale”) is a form of Czech story-telling which, in the twentieth century, became a staple of Czech prose; in a previous paper I proposed that what I call the “pub simile” (a pithy, usually humorous figure of speech which briefly interrupts the flow of discourse by explicitly comparing the thing being discussed to a second thing) is among its most salient identifying characteristics. Bohumil Hrabal, perhaps the author most closely identified with the Czech pub tale (After Jaroslav Hašek), expands the pub simile to the domain of the narrative voice itself, using comparisons such as “to gape like an old man at a country dance” for purposes ranging from the establishment of intimacy (inviting the reader to respond emotionally to the shared knowledge which makes the simile comprehensible) to the achievement of transcendence (joining strangely harmonious elements in order to create “minor work[s] of art”). In the novella Městecko, kde se zastavil čas, written in 1970 and first published in 1976, Hrabal employs simile primarily to create ambiguity, producing a surreal atmosphere in which semantic distinctions are blurred and causing in narrator and reader alike the confusion of imagination with memory.
Writing about the tendency of some nineteenth-century Czech poets to indulge in “self-conscious coloring” through descriptive chains of synonymic adjectives, Robert Pynsent in Julius Zeyer: The Path to Decadence hints at the potential for metaphor to deepen meaning when he suggests that it is in accumulations of synonymic nouns, rather than strings of adjectives, that we find “an augmentation of perceptive possibility” in narrative. Still, he notes, “it is difficult to have an accumulation of synonymous nouns, because both author and reader are bound by a tradition that a noun introduces a completely new idea and, more important than this, Czech is almost completely devoid of substantival synonyms.”
Hrabal seeks to understand his subject not by adorning it but by renaming it, exploring every angle like a Cubist sculptor, and he proceeds to solve Pynsent’s dilemma by abandoning the conventional notion of a synonym and subverting the expectation that a new noun must “introduce a completely new idea.” Moreover, he expands the formula to include verbs and even adverbs, using subjunctive clauses to ask “what could be” and freeing the narrative to flow temporarily through alternate channels before returning to “what is.” If, as J. D. Stern says, the “associative principle” which drives the shaggy dog stories of Hasek’s Good Soldier Švejk is “an exploration of the possible as opposed to the relevant,” Hrabal’s explorations through the use of simile in Městecko, kde se zastavil čas seek the relevant within the realm of the possible and, far from a retreat, are an assault on our perceptions of reality.
Harries, Karsten. “Metaphor and Transcendence.” On Metaphor. Ed. Sheldon Sacks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, 1981.
Hrabal, Bohumil. “Městecko, kde se zastavil čas.” Sebrané spisy, Vol. 6, 1994.
Pynsent, Robert B. Julius Zeyer: The Path to Decadence. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
Stern, J. D. “On the Integrity of the Good Soldier Schweik,” Czechoslovakia Past and Present. Ed. Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.