One of the last novels of Bohumil Hrabal – the writer whom Milan Kundera called Czechoslovakia’s greatest – Harlequin’s Millions is set in a castle converted into a home for the elderly, whose eccentric, unforgettable inhabitants exchange phantasmagoric stories about their lives and their changing country in an attempt to uphold sight of the world outside their confinement. Hrabal uses his aging protagonists to tell of Nymburk, the small Czech town in which he grew up, and explore the mythologizing power of memory. Poised on the threshold between joy and melancholy, this novel admits us into the mind of a woman coming to terms with the passing of time. Stacey Knecht’s translation brilliantly conveys Hrabal’s winding ecstatic sentences that capture the author’s flowing conversational style, described by James Wood as “anecdote without end”.
A word about Harlequin’s Millions from Ivan Vladislavić:
Hrabal is a master at using the roles, rules and atmospheres of a particular place – the railway station of Closely Observed Trains, the hotel dining rooms of I Served the King of England – to explore a world of human experience. In Harlequin’s Millions, the setting is a castle on the edge of a “town where time stood still,” formerly the seat of Count Špork, now a retirement home for the district’s pensioners. In this apparently confined space, he unfolds an expansive drama of old age and death, the fragile beauty of memory, and the persistence of desire. The book is infused with the memory of “old times” and a melancholy awareness of lost youth and faded beauty. Time does not stand still, it flows on relentlessly, and we carry the past with us only in stories. Hrabal’s light, cascading prose, with its resistant undercurrents of pauses, diversions and repetitions, is perfectly suited to his themes. He carries you along on a sensuous rush of detail, and then suddenly bumps you against the bedrock of history. This is a mesmerizing novel, beautifully translated.