November Hurricane

Bohumil Hrabal and Vaclav Havel
Bohumil Hrabal at the restaurant U zlateho tygra, Prague, 1960s, archive of Tomas Mazal

November 17 marks the 26th anniversary of the start of Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. We are marking the occasion with an excerpt from the writing of one of Vaclav Havel’s favorite writers.

From “November Hurricane,” by Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Paul Wilson, November 2015

In 1989, Hrabal, who by that time was a widower, wrote a series of letters to his friend, April (he called her “Dubenka”), later published as “Letters to Dubenka.” One of those letters was written about the time of the student demonstrations in Prague that triggered the “Velvet Revolution,” in which Vaclav Havel played a crucial role. At the time, Hrabal was staying at his country home in Kersko, not far from Prague. Hrabal had recently returned from a tour of the United States, and many of these letters reflect his experience of that trip.

Dear Dubenka,

It’s the evening of November 17th, the cats are snuggling together in a ball, breathing into their paws, and I went out by the white fence into the dark and starry night, and Cassius Clay, the black tomcat, went with me, I held him in my hand and there, in the northern sky, there appeared a huge pink patch, the northern lights, that I’d seen here so often, the northern lights adorned with twinkling stars. . . and I knew that this scarlet heavenly sign augured nothing good. . . . I knew that in Prague, permission had been granted to hold a quiet, candle-light demonstration and a procession that would begin in the chapel at Albertov and follow the same route travelled by the coffin carrying the remains of the student, Jan Opletal, shot to death on October 28, 1939 by the German occupiers. . . .

Next morning, a friend of mine came from Prague, thunder-struck, to tell me he’d been at the demonstration for four hours, and had counted fifty thousand people in an enormous procession that stretched from Plavecka Street all the way to the National Theater. . . . And after dark, standing outside the Smichov Cellar Restaurant, he saw that Narodni Trida was full of wide-eyed young people shouting slogans, and then about eight o’clock a militia unit in white helmets, from the Ministry of the Interior, attacked them from Spalena Street, but the students sat down on the ground and there they were, confronting each other, the demonstrators, students and young people, sitting on the ground, holding up flowers and lighted candles and singing. . . . and there was a long period of silence, then the clash happened, with beating and shouting and yelling and wailing and bawling. . . . And my friend, who had come to tell me this, had a pallid face and unblinking eyes, and he said he’d never experienced anything like this before and that afterward he was separated from the rest by the armed militia, who pushed them down a side-street as far as the U Medvidku pub, and they knocked down several journalists. . . . and then, about an hour later, when he came back to where the clash with those who were sitting down and offering flowers and candles to the armed militia took place, my friend saw, he said, wiping his moist cheeks with his hand, he saw strewn on the pavement outside the Reduta Jazz Club, scarves and hats, and even pair of women’s panties . . . and an older man emerged from the arcade with tears in his eyes, holding a black shoe in one hand and a yellow one in the other. . . and the sound of singing and angry voices came from the National Theater. . . And my friend would never forget what he saw there, and he’d already witnessed plenty of similar things and events, and then he saw a group of young people, the courageous ones, coming down Mikulandska and Vorsilska streets and in the arcade by the legal aid office and on the cobblestone sidewalk in from of a few small shops, they laid candles on places that were stained with the still-warm blood of those who had been beaten . . . .

And Dubenka, when I heard this I thought of the “December Hurricane” in Franz Kafka’s childhood, those nationalist street-fights and clashes with the police, of those anti-semitic incidents when Vienna declared a state of emergency in Prague, and on that Saturday afternoon when my friend told me what he’d seen in Prague, I thought of Detroit in flames, when in the centre of that industrial city black policemen did not and could not stop demonstrators from manifesting their will, and that in the end it is the people, yes, the people, that is the determining force that can sweep away everything standing in its way, even though it was only hundreds of thousand of defenceless young people, young women with unblinking eyes, upset enough to walk through the Prague streets as though going to their first dance, and students and workers, and apprentices and older people and the elderly who set aside their carping and complaining and, though they may have wished to be somewhere else, marched alongside the young people. . . .