A strong interest in Czech cinema led to curiosity about Czech literature. Paul Leppin’s Blaugast, written in the 1930s and Hermann Ungar’s dark story The Maimed, published in 1923, both have strong elements of fin-de-siècle decadence and moral decline. Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, an author I’d had in my sights for some time, presents an entirely different view of Czech society through his wonderful novel, Harlequin’s Millions. This delightful tale is set in a retirement home, formerly Count Spork’s castle, set on a hilltop overlooking the town where our nameless narrator once lived. She and her husband, Francin sell their home and become residents joining Francin’s bed-ridden, older brother, Uncle Pepin, who already lives there. While the narrator is familiar with the castle, it’s an entirely different experience to take up residence.
I had been in the castle at least ten times or more, but then I was a guest, scared of everything and easily panicked. Today I stood here as a person who is going to be living here for a long time, until something happens to me, suddenly someone will come to me, whisper sweet nothings and make me all kinds of promises and then set me free, in a landscape that knows no limits, no bounds.
The retirement home consists of the mostly-invisible staff and an assortment of pensioners; the lucky ones wander the perimeter of the once-grand estate or sit and play cards while the bed-ridden residents remain immobile. Residents are not allowed to leave the castle without permission, so the retirement home is a jail of sorts. Many of the sights, smells and sounds within the home are unpleasant, but these realities of the mortal condition are set against the surreal atmosphere within the retirement home. All day long the strains of Harlequin’s Millions is piped though speakers scattered throughout the castle and its surrounding park:
The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and Harlequin’s Millions 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 that 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.
Our narrator, a witness for life inside the castle, begins wandering the grounds, taking a forbidden path, and discovers the decaying, mostly ignored splendor of the Count’s former home. Inside the castle, tucked away in forgotten corners are “white statues of nude young women, Greek goddesses perhaps, caught unawares by a male gaze and defending themselves, in terror, with raised arms.” The ceiling is “decorated with frescos of naked, dancing women and men,” while other frescos depict a wedding scene between two beautiful young people and a lustful naked faun “abducting a nymph.” In the days of its early splendor, the castle seems to be designed with youth and beauty in mind, and yet now it’s the last residence of the elderly and infirm. It seems that the decaying, neglected castle reflects the condition of its residents:
the gutters and drainpipes were full of holes, some had even been torn from the wall, at such moments the castle somehow resembled all those old people, who cleared their throats and then nearly choked in fits of coughing.
Left to her own devices, our toothless narrator finds that memories of her past flood back–her early married life, a failed business venture and the shock of the communist takeover. Many stories unfold through the three “witnesses to old times,” Vaclav and Karel and Otokar, elderly men who appear repeatedly throughout the story and tell the narrator fantastic tales from the past, acting as chroniclers of a long-forgotten history of the town and its residents.
There’s a fairy tale quality to this book which is enhanced by its castle setting and the narrator’s solitary walks when she discovers secret places in the forgotten corners of the castle. But if this is a fairy tale, it’s an inverted fairy tale. The tale isn’t told by a beautiful young princess imprisoned in a tower, waiting to be freed by a lover, but by an old woman who is facing the end of her life. At first it seems difficult to peg the story to a specific time frame, but the references to communism ground the story.
Harlequin’s Millions is a wonderful book. As we follow our narrator and make discoveries through her eyes, in spite of its subject matter, this is ultimately a book which reinforces the delight and joy of life. There are too many wonderful episodes to recount, but for this reader, two episodes must be mentioned. Sunday is visiting day, and some pensioners gather in spite of the rain and “peer all the way down to the bottom of the road and sooner or later a car always came driving up the hill toward the gate, and the pensioners would hurry back to the vestibule, settle themselves into an armchair and put on their best smile.” But the pensioners wait for visitors in vain while those who have visitors begrudge the time taken from their card games.
Those same pensioners who had run outside so impatiently to await the arrival of their beloved family were the ones whom hardly anyone ever came to see. More likely, someone would come whom no one had expected, or had even had time to expect, this was often the case with the five little groups of pensioners who sat and played cards all day, and when the nurses came to tell them that their relatives had arrived, that they had visitors, they had to quickly finish up their game of Mariás and then, sulking, they left the card table and went downstairs to the reception hall, if it was a nice day they took their relatives to a bench ion the park or the courtyard and still sulking, told them to have a seat, and then the relatives, when they saw that they hadn’t been expected the way one expects to be expected, actually felt better, they were glad to see that their father or father-in-law was much too busy with other things, they were glad that the pensioner was making their visit easier that he was still a person who didn’t sit around waiting for members of his family to rescue him, to brighten up his Sunday, but who without even bothering to hide his impatience kept looking at his watch, continually pushing back his sleeve to keep an eye on the time, which passed inexorably, while upstairs his friends sat waiting for him to return so they could resume their game of Mariás, that eternally moveable feast, that perennial Sunday that was always marked in red on the calendar, because playing cards is much more fun than telling all those pointless stories that had been told and retold in the family while there was still time.
That quote gives a sense of Hrabal’s style, and the long, beautifully constructed run-on sentences that create a rhythm to the tale in which time is of the upmost importance.
For this reader, the novel’s best segment occurs when the retirement home’s regular doctor leaves for his annual trip to Marienbad. His replacement, “young Doctor Houloubek,” a man who condones smoking and drinking of hard liquour, enthusiastically and misguidedly organizes an afternoon of classical music. Gone are the soothing strains of Harlequin’s Millions, and instead the pensioners are aroused by Afternoon of a Faun & Brahms’ violin concerto opus seventy-seven–a musical interlude that causes a comical near-riot.
The narrator records her observations about human nature while noting that this is “the first time” she’s ever “been able to take a good look at what is going on around me.” She notes the predictably to certain patterns of behaviour, and how visitors complain about petty things–having to queue for food, or order a cake days before they needed it as “by Saturday there wouldn’t be so much as a cream puff left on the bakery shelves.” The visitors also have a tendency to tell their elderly relatives how lucky they are to live in this retirement home, and when the pensioners try to explain the realities of life inside the castle and the difficulties of old age, the relatives immediately change the subject or become distracted in order not to listen.
While there is a great deal of gentle humour in the narrator’s memories and observations, there’s a serious side to the tale. She relates how the brewery, once managed by Francin, is nationalized under Communist rule. The narrator and her husband are rejected by the brewery workers as management in a government in which class is supposed to be leveled. The narrator notes that “all the old women in the castle, whom I’d driven to exasperation a quarter of a century ago with my dresses and my figure,” are now “thrilled” to see that the narrator is just another old woman like them. While Communism acts as a social leveler for brewery workers, the narrator understands that Time is the true leveler that trumps all other considerations of beauty, wealth, possessions, status, & health. Utterly delightful, and told with a charming sense of mischief, Harlequin’s Millions is highly recommended.
Review copy. Translated by Stacey Knecht