Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult is a collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997), who surely ranks in the upper echelon of Czech writers in the 20th century.
Over the weekend, I finished reading these stories, which originally were written during the years immediately following WWII, when a Stalinist variation of Communism was being imposed on Czechoslovakia.
It got me thinking about all things Czech, especially beer.
Hrabal was a fascinating character, born in Brno to an unwed mother as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire, raised in the interwar period of the free Czechoslovak Republic, then surviving repressive Nazi and Communist eras to die in the reconstituted Czech Republic, minus Slovakia. He outlasted them all, and followed his own muse.
Even more so than Havel, who briefly worked in a brewery as "punishment" for dissident activities, Hrabal's life seems to embrace beer. His mother and stepfather met in the Polná brewery (Pivovar Polná), and in honor of thise fact, the writer is buried in an oak coffin bearing the same brewery's inscription.
As an artist and raconteur, Hrabal is synonymous with the proud traditions of Czech pub life. The photo above shows Hrabal, Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton at Prague's U Zlatého tygra ("At the Golden Tiger") tavern, and such was Hrabal's loyalty to it that to this very day, it devotes a section of its web site to him.
Hrabal, who was a firework of ideas and witty solutions, and who lived the glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the sixties, was surrounded by the best representatives of the intellectual and art world. This place was the intersection of the visits and visitors from all the Word. Everyone wanted to speak to Hrabal and look into the places where the plots of his novels are set.
The only beer U Zlatého tygra serves is draft Pilsner Urquell. One time in 1995, a half-dozen of us stopped there, despairing of being able to find a place to sit as a group. We spotted one man holding down a table, and I tried to ask him in gibberish Czech whether the seats were taken. He interrupted in English and invited us to sit.
No, it was not Hrabal. Our new friend was a native maker of documentary films, who had fled Czechoslovakia many years before but returned after the fall of communism. The filmmaker began explaining the history of the pub, then asked the man behind the counter if he could take us into the basement.
Off we went, threading down two flights of stairs to the cellar, where several dozen kegs of Urquell were stacked around an air conditioner of sorts, which brought the temperature down a few degrees from the subterranean norm. Back at street level, we proceeded to drain rounds of delicious beer. For all I know, Hrabal might have been in the room that night, although neither Havel nor Clinton were to be seen.
All of these memories came to the surface on Saturday, when I was killing time and amusing myself by examining the beer aisle at the Mejier on Charlestown Road.
In front of me on the shelf were twelve packs of Pilsner Urquell for approximately $17, tax included. That's a few cents less than a buck and a half for 11.2 ounces of what remains a fine lager, and maybe the best Pilsner in the world, in spite of its multinational enslavement.
I didn't pull the trigger, because I'd rather spend my money at Keg Liquors. The day will come, and quite soon. I might resume buying Urquell by the case, as I did 25 years ago.
Between Hrabal's storytelling, U Zlatého tygra's dungeon and those bottles of beer, there was a desperate craving for steamed dumplings, roasted pork and another glimpse of the Vltava.
Some sweet day.