Witness to old times: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal

“…what is human happiness? Whatever it is, unhappiness is always lurking just around the corner…”

One of the last novels by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, Harlequin’s Millions opens as an elderly woman and her husband have settled into an old Gothic castle which has been converted into a pensioners’ home. This fantastical seniors’ residence, once the resplendent abode of Count Špork, is perched on the edge of a small town, a little place where, we are told, “time stood still”. From the opening pages, the reader is swept into the meditative melancholy reminisces of a once proud and self-centred woman. As she looks back on her own life and the way that history has formed and reshaped her hometown, and in fact, her country; images, phrases, and characters flow through her account echoing the serenade that is piped throughout the premises and lends the novel its name:

“The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and ‘Harelquin’s Million’s’ climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves, the corridors of the home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas, with the scent of cheap perfume, so no one is really aware of the music, only when there’s a power failure and ‘Harlequin’s Millions’ is suddenly cut off, stops short, the way everything stops as if by magic in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, all the pensioners glance up, they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like when the lights go out and everyone longs to hear it again, because without it the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable.”

HMThe gentle narrative flow will not be rushed. Each chapter is one long languorous paragraph. Our unnamed narrator is by turns sentimental and shrewd. Toothless, wrinkled and defiant, she casts her keen eye on her fellow pensioners and systematically dissects her own life and marriage. Her husband Francin remains glued to the radio, following all the news he can access from afar and looking ever to the future, while she realizes that she has become increasingly enamoured with the history of her town, with the past. Her guides are three eccentric male residents of the seniors’ home, her “old witnesses to old times” who periodically wax lyrical about the milestones that have passed, the characters who have come and gone, the memories that risk being erased like the weathered sandstone statues in the park and the cemetery headstones that are ultimately removed and carted away. It is difficult not to get wrapped up in this reflective monologue, swept away with her musings about joy, vanity and loss.

But be assured that this is not a novel without humour. In one particularly hilarious episode, a handsome young doctor who fills in for the regular octogenarian physician, arrives and shakes up the sleepy environment of the home. He cuts back sleeping medications, advises his male patients to smoke and drink more, and inspires this female patients to powder and preen. Then, as an antidote to the ceaseless string orchestra theme that filters through the grounds, he heads into the former banquet hall with a phonograph and an armful of records. Beneath the ceiling painted with glorious battle scenes from ancient Greece, the music he plays stirs in his ancient patients memories of youth, passion and the glory of war. But it is the doctor himself who snaps from the intensity of emotion, setting off on a wild rampage, trailed by his female admirers, like a hoard of crazed aged groupies. Needless to say, in the end, the medication regime is resumed, “Harlequin’s Millions” once again pours forth from the ubiquitous speakers, and order is restored.

An ode to his own hometown, Hrabal offers, in Harlequin’s Millions, a deeply affecting meditation on collective versus personal memory. For this little “town where time stood still”, time is only standing still for the observer. In the rooms and halls of the Count’s former castle, each elderly resident wanders lost in his or her own thoughts, passing time, waiting until it is their moment to move on. The past belongs to the community but its experience is in the sole possession of the individual. It is at once resilient and transient.

Stacey Knecht’s sensitive translation brings to life the beautiful, hypnotic prose of this wonderful novel – my first encounter with the work of Bohumil Hrabal and with another fine not-for-profit press, Archipelago Books. I am most impressed by both.