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Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka

Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka

by Bohumil Hrabal
In these letters written to April Gifford (Dubenka) between 1989 and 1991 but never sent, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) chronicles the momentous events of those years as seen, more often than not, from the windows of his favorite pubs. In his palavering, stream-of-conscious style that has marked him as one of the major writers and innovators of postwar European


In these letters written to April Gifford (Dubenka) between 1989 and 1991 but never sent, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) chronicles the momentous events of those years as seen, more often than not, from the windows of his favorite pubs. In his palavering, stream-of-conscious style that has marked him as one of the major writers and innovators of postwar European literature, Hrabal gives a humorous and at times moving account of life in Prague under Nazi occupation, Communism, and the brief euphoria following the revolution of 1989 when anything seemed possible, even pink tanks. Interspersed are fragmented memories of trips taken to Britain — as he attempted to track down every location mentioned in Eliot’s “The Waste Land” — and the United States, where he ends up in one of Dylan Thomas’s haunts comparing the waitresses to ones he knew in Prague. The result is a masterful blend of personal history and fee association rendered in a prose as powerful as it is poetic..

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The publication of this book marks a major event ... As an addition to English Hrabalia, Total Fears is invaluable, and unlikely to be matched for some time.
— The Prague Post

In Total Fears, Hrabal glancingly commends Freud's writing about comedy and jokes, and calls it "typically Central European, and especially typical of Prague." [...] This is blocked humour about blocked people. Hrabal, in Freud's terms, is a great humorist.
— London Review of Books

Bohumil Hrabal at his most ecstatic, in the sense of almost religious fervor, full of the "mystic vision" of Eastern European writers. They are his dark night of the soul, his "Wasteland." Written from 1989 to 1992 (when Hrabal was 75), they are the sum of his fear and his shame.
— Los Angeles Times

New Presence
The present translated collection gives the impression of a unified body of work, written with a consistent style and voice and concentrating on particular themes. The style will be familiar to readers of Hrabal: a stream of consciousness reflection presenting a poetic train of associations . . .
Michael Hoffman
The conditions under which Hrabal created [his] oeuvre, the final lifting with the collapse of Communism in 1989 and their grievous, indestructible memory, are all recorded, along with visits to Britain and 'the Delighted States' in an extraordinary series of half-imaginary letters to "Dubenka" - a visiting American student who made a great impression on Hrabal . . . It is quick, rambling, spoken, but purposeful writing.
The Times Literary Supplement
The Prague Post
The publication of this book marks a major event . . . As an addition to English Hrabalia, Total Fears is invaluable, and unlikely to be matched for some time.

Product Details

Twisted Spoon Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.55(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


(Dear Dubenka,

Ever since I got back from the "Delighted States", from that journey you planned for me so preposterously and so fondly, maybe just so that we could see each other again, ever since that time I've been off the rails . . . It's like what happened to my mother, who, according to her death certificate, died of softening of the brain - but I've attained such an absolute peak of emptiness and I'm so, so alone, effectively in solitary confinement, tied up in a straitjacket, no longer living in time, but only and exclusively in space, which shocks and horrifies me . . .

One day an Italian who came to Prague by marriage, a young man who restores chapels, invited me to come out and see this thing he'd seen in Budec - to where Saint Wenceslas would ride out to visit his grandmother Ludmila, later strangled with a scarf - and there in Budec in the dome of the rotunda, rest the mouldered, mouldering bones of hundreds of generations of doves, who, whenever they sense their time has come, fly into the dome to die, several whole centuries of them there are, down beneath nothing but humus, guano, layer upon layer of generations of doves in that rounded dome, rising up from the pluperfect tense via the imperfect to the dove feathers and bones of the year that's just past . . .

So that's me, I who have aged so much now that I live and feed off childhood memories, these layers of mine are there somehow in the receding strata of that dove sepulchre in Budec - all I have to do is close my eyes and I'm back there, back in Zidenice, where I was born in the bed in which my grandfather later died, in a room which meant everything to me, because from the moment I opened my eyes there was always sunshine in that room, or if not sunshine, light at least . . . Our street, Balbínova, sloped up a hill, the pavement passed our pair of windows, and as people went up and down the street their heads either rose up or descended, severed by the two window-frames . . . That is my light, the little house on Balbínova, in Zidenice, where my unmarried mother gave birth to me, where my granny and granddad brought me up, that street of mine with its little low houses and that sunlight . . . I've always thought of the room where I was born as a little church or a room in a chateau, with its holy pictures and the Virgin Mary under a glass cover, and huge asparagus ferns, and a plush-covered table and on it a huge plush-covered book with a gold fastening, it looked like a bible, that family album, which I was afraid to open . . . Outside the windows were fields of maize and fruit trees and the rising hillside, where a vineyard ran and grandma had a field . . . When the time came, she took me with her, she hoed the tomatoes and beans, picked the gooseberries and currants, and again when it was time, she clambered about the trees picking the various damsons, plums and apricots, while I sat staring . . . What did I stare at? Nothing, I was simply there with granny, always bathed in sunlight, even if it started to drizzle . . .

Dubenka, just like I remember those first three years of my life, living with my grandmother, so I remember you now, I see you in light, you're dressed in light, you even have a halo, because you're so far away, because, Dubenka, then it came to pass, when I was four years old, they took me away to Polná, to the brewery, where the sun never entered, I lived there with my new dad and my mother, a stranger to me, and in that brewery apartment you had to have the lamp on even during the day, for sunlight you had to go into the yard or off into town . . . So I became a runaway, who always stayed out of doors till bedtime . . . I'm no different now, Dubenka, I'm just the same - the sun only comes out when I remember you, and even if it's a rainy day . . . I can still see you that first time you came to the pub the Golden Tiger, with your rucksack on your back. I was sitting under the little antlers, at the back of the pub where they have to leave the light on, you were searching for a face to match the name, and then you came up and you introduced yourself as April Gifford, studying Czech, you expected I'd be cross at you barging in like that . . . but I knew right away, my future was in your eyes, I melted, and so did my friends, you sat down with us and had some beer, and Mr Marysko said . . . April . . .? Aprilka . . .? No, we'll call you Dubenka . . . And from then on you were Dubenka . . . for April in Czech is "duben", the "oak month" . . . And when you took off your jacket, spattered with rain, somebody inquired: Is it raining out there? And you said . . . Yes folks, Mr Hrabal, it's raining, or as you Czechs say, it's pissing down . . . Hearing that, all the customers burst out laughing and they gave you a special look, as if you'd stroked them or something . . . And when we asked you where you were from, you told us, repeating the answer several times: Ze "Spokojenych" státu . . . From the "Delighted" States . . . But you pleased the customers most of all when, in reply to a question from our former Consul: So what do they teach you on that Slavic course, what good things have you learnt? you said guilelessly: Well, stuff like, for example - what a smart-ass Party we have . . . Hearing this, our Consul was tickled pink, and he said . . . This girl must come again! she's a sweet child . . . So now you'd introduced yourself, Dubenka, to the Golden Tiger - and I think once again of that young archaeologist, who showed me the excavated dome of that Romanesque church, all those layers of dead doves and pigeons - through the deep probe in its side I saw several centuries back, back to where the bones and feathers had turned to nothing but guano and humus, while there up above lay the dead doves, who, before they died, decorously spread out their wings like fans and tucked up their tiny heads, just as Lady Death, the dovely reaper has contrived it . . . O Colomba, Colomba, my little dove . . . as it is written in the Ursuline Church, where tiny, lace-wrapped Colomba rests, her bones that were brought to Prague by the Father of our Nation, the Emperor Charles IV . . . the Saint who preferred to die, rather than marry the one she did not love, she sleeps her sleep along with the Ursulines, like the doves in their layers do in the dome of the Romanesque rotunda of Budec near Prague . . .

Meet the Author

Bohumil Hrabal was born in 1914 in Brno-Zidenice, Moravia. He received a degree in Law from Prague's Charles University, and lived in Prague since the late 1940s. In the 1950s he worked as a manual laborer in the Kladno ironworks, from which he drew inspiration for his "hyper-realist" texts he was writing at that time. He won international acclaim for such books as I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. Hrabal is considered, along with Jaroslav Hasek and Karel Capek, one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century, and perhaps the most important in the postwar period.

James Naughton was Professor of Czech Language and Literature at Oxford University until his death in 2014. His translations of Czech literature included Bohumil Hrabal's The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and The Jingle Bell Principle by Miroslav Holub.

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