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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Book of Hrabal

Esterházy Péter

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To purchase The Book of Hrabal

Title: The Book of Hrabal
Author: Esterházy Péter
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 168 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: The Book of Hrabal - US
The Book of Hrabal - UK
The Book of Hrabal - Canada
The Book of Hrabal - India
Le livre de Hrabal - France
Das Buch Hrabals - Deutschland
Il libro di Hrabal - Italia
  • Hungarian title: Hrabal könyve
  • Translated by Judith Sollosy

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Our Assessment:

A- : artful, wide-ranging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 31/12/1993 George Szirtes
World Lit. Today . Fall/1990 Marianna D. Birnbaum

  From the Reviews:
  • "These digressions would be irritating -- sometimes they are -- but the humour of the book lightens them, providing a sympathetic texture for back-handed intellectual flattery. In any case, there is little stuffiness or dryness in Esterházy. He knows he is an element of the the cultural stream his books attempt to define. He is trying to work back to true feeling, a true centre, only this cannot be stated or defined." - George Szirtes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Esterházy's brilliance is most evident in his use of language. The peculiar and inimitable rhythm of his sentences is based on his combining archaisms, slang, party jargon, and sophisticated prose with the precision of a mathematician: he cannot make a mistake. This presents an extremely difficult task for any translator to re-create; the effort would be most rewarding, however, for Esterházy is one of the best writers on the European scene today" - Marianna D. Birnbaum, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Book of Hrabal is a creative work of fiction. It is ostensibly about an Hungarian author (resembling Esterházy) trying to write about Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, but most of the novel centers on the author's wife, Anna (just as Hrabal's autobiographical trilogy is presented from his own wife's perspective). Anna is also a huge Hrabal fan, but she has other things on her mind too: finding herself pregnant, and with three kids already, she is seriously considering having an abortion (making The Book of Hrabal the rare novel to tackle this issue at any length). Oh, yeah, and God also shows up (including in a dialogue with Hrabal), as do two angels -- Blaise and Gabriel ("but everyone, including the Good Lord, just called him Cho-Cho").
       Abortion, language (from God's language, comprehensible only to the All-mighty himself, to the writer with writer's block), Czech and Hungarian history and relations, biography, marriage: The Book of Hrabal covers a great deal.
       The novel is presented in three parts: 'The Chapter of Fidelity', 'The Chapter of Infidelity', and 'Chapter Three'. The novel does progress chronologically, but with many shifts of perspective (although Anna does narrate the entire second section), digressions, and memories.

     To write about something -- what does that amount to ? Nothing. Sheer nonsense, the unity of form and content, the proof of the pudding, social progress, mastery of nature, union dues.
       Set in Hungary in 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes, Esterházy presents:
a nation living in uncertainty -- its future was uncertain, its present was uncertain, even its past was uncertain.
       Aside from external turmoil, there is also the domestic front: Anna is a 'literary widow', her husband busy (or not) at his work, she tending to family and now worrying about the possibility of yet another child to deal with ("Pussy blues, that's what it is. I don't want any more children"). Hrabal is an escape for both: "I would love to have an exchange of letters with you", muses Anna, while her husband:
On the one hand, the writer felt he understood Hrabal very well, and perhaps it wasn't entirely vainglorious to say so; he also observed that they were quite dissimilar. Dissimilar from head to toe. As different as two eggs. But this was just it: the writer was enabled to contemplate his own otherness, his strangeness.
       This is a 'story' that jumps in all sorts of directions; both (auto-)biographical and capturing an historical moment (situating it in historical and geo-political context, albeit from a highly personal and literary point of view), as well as, as so often in Esterházy's work, an exploration of language and literature itself.
       As Anna has it:
And you probably know what a Hungarian sentence is like, Bohumil, with not a structure in sight, or a decent relative pronoun, the words lumped all together, and yet ... A Hungarian sentence is this 'and yet'.
       And an Esterházy novel is, too, with (deceptively) not a structure in sight, and words lumped all together ..... And, as Anna notes:
     What has been left out is also everything.
       The Book of Hrabal is serious playful fiction at its best. Dense with literary allusions, timeless and of its very specific time and place (late 1980s Eastern Europe), mundane and ethereal, comic and serious, literary homage and personal confession, Esterházy weaves a fascinating work here. Much of its success depends on the use of language (itself a central theme of the book), and it seems inevitable that much is lost in translation; still, Judith Sollosy manages remarkably well in reproducing many of Esterházy's effects and much of his word-play -- and the suggested 'and yets'.
       This isn't straightforward fiction, but it is a challenge well worth engaging with. Its manageable size also make it a good introduction to Esterházy's œuvre (and, yes, Hrabal-fans should enjoy it too).

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 May 2011

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The Book of Hrabal: Reviews: Esterházy Péter: Books by Bohumil Hrabal under review: Other books by Esterházy Péter under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Esterházy Péter was born in 1950.

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© 2011 the complete review

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