Time stood still, and there was laughter

November 16, 1993|By Zofia Smardz | Zofia Smardz,Contributing Writer

When communism overtook the nations of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II, those abject countries entered a time warp from which they are still re-emerging, four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

To some -- indeed, many -- of the citizens of these nations, their long slumber in the shadow of Moscow was like a Sleeping Beauty dream of suspended animation, in which the preservation of memory was a primary goal.

Bohumil Hrabal writes: ". . . all around them that time was slowly standing still, in some places it had already stopped altogether, while another time, of different people, was already out there full of its own elan and new energy and endeavor . . . and so we had the era of great posters and great meetings, at which fists were shaken against everything that was old, and those who were living by the old time were at home, living quietly on memory . . . "

Mr. Hrabal, a leading dissident writer of the former

Czechoslovakia, wrote "The Little Town Where Time Stood Still" in 1973. Although it appeared in emigre editions, it was never published in Prague until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Now it makes its way to our shores for the first time, in an able if occasionally awkward translation by James Naughton. In this edition, it is

paired with an earlier and complementary novella, "Cutting It Short," first published in 1976.

Together, these works form a wistful tragicomedy of life in a pre-war Czech village. There, the beautiful and impulsive Maryska of the famous golden tresses teams up with her brother-in-law, the rowdy Uncle Pepin -- who had come for a fortnight's visit eight years ago -- to make life difficult and magical for her husband, Francin, the local brewery manager.

Their antics are full of verve and slapstick: climbing to the top of the brewery smokestack and having to be rescued by the fire brigade; sawing off a table's legs, carefully measuring each time, only to discover in the end that they have sawed the same leg precisely 10 centimeters four times. Maryska shortens her skirts and rides her bicycle through town with her knees showing. Uncle Pepin visits the "lovely ladies" at the local saloon, drinks and dances too much, and reminisces raucously about his glory days as a soldier in the Austrian army.

Beside them, Francin is the model of sobriety and dependability, the level-headed businessman. His only obsession is repeatedly taking apart and reassembling the engine of his Orion motorbike. It's an activity into which he bamboozles the townspeople, one by one, to help him, until they all take to running and hiding whenever they see him approaching.

This loving and laugh-filled reconstruction of an old order resonate with humanity and community, the sense of a place where people knew and cared for one another, despite petty squabbles and the daily losses life brings. It is a place -- and a time-- of annual fairs and cattle markets, evening promenades and fancy-dress balls, theaters and cinemas and music. And in its place came a new time.

Though Mr. Hrabal is a humorist, his message is serious, and so his little town marches unknowingly on into the new order. The TC brewery is nationalized, Francin is fired, and everything changes. The life seems to go out of everyone, even -- or perhaps especially -- Uncle Pepin.

As a bittersweet elegy to a vanished era, "The Little Town Where Time Stood Still" shouldn't have given Communist-era censors much trouble. But it is, of course, much more. It builds subtly to an understated powerful conclusion that is, finally, a stronger indictment of the "new time" that took over than many a far more incendiary tract.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Little Town Where Time Stood Still"

Author: Bohumil Hrabal

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Length, price: 302 pages, $23

Zofia Smardz is a writer who lives in Washington.

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