Worlds Taken Apart and
Put Together Again
Inspired by Bohumil Hrabal’s
“The Little Town Where Time Stood Still,”
by Radu Jude’s short movie, “Alexandra,”
by the recent event in Polish history (10.04.2010)
In December last year I was handing out an end-of-term assignment to my students based on the short movie “Alexandra,” directed by Radu Jude (2007), and on a fragment (Chapter 3) from “The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” by Bohumil Hrabal. The assignment was an essay writing task, prompted by such questions:
- How would you describe the members of this family?
- How many broken things can you identify in the short movie?
- Does the metaphor of the broken bicycle tell you something about the Romanian society? What about the society we live in, in general?
- What is the “oil” that keeps the mechanism of our society running?
- Can you think of any situation in which the mechanism of society got broken or came to a halt? Were the damages irreparable?
“The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” (1973)
- Have you ever looked for mistakes or flaws in some systems you were using?
- Are such mistakes predictable?
- How well prepared can we be for unexpected breaches in the systems we count on?
- If there are breaches, what keeps it all together?
- Are there any things beyond our ability to fix?
- Can we be ready to deal with things that we are unable to fix?
- What is the fuel that keeps our society moving on and progressing, despite breaches and tragedies?
No one could have predicted the tragic event that occurred only yesterday and left a country without its presidential couple and without an irreplaceable part of the Polish political and social infrastucture. The thoughts that crossed my mind in this context brought back many memories. Among them, the questions above, that I had formulated for the essay writing task thinking about events that break and reunite a society. I believe that the outcome of the tragic event in Smolensk, that we are experiencing in Poland and abroad at this time, is going to be overcome by precisely the kind of fuel that always brings people together in time of need: human solidarity, love, support and wisdom-driven actions.
Looking back on apparently minor things like this assignment, I am grateful for the inspiring moments that make us think further than we think we can. As usual, when I set a task for others, I set it for myself too. You can read my thoughts on Radu Jude’s short movie and Bohumil Hrabal’s novel below.
For the next seven days I will post on the English Learners Blog selected papers written by my students, on the same topic: events that breach systems and solutions that make them work again.
For a selection of my students’ papers click on the links below; for an overview in my own words, read on!
In a world affected by distrust and divide, even a child’s question can shatter long-held beliefs.
Alexandra is a child who lives with her mother, her grandmother, and her mother’s boyfriend in Bucharest. Just like any child her age, she is asking a lot of questions.
Why is water called “water” and why is her father’s name “Tavi” when daddy (in Romanian “tati”) seemed to have sufficed?
Her innocent childish questions become real threats to her father. They turn into proof of lying, deceit and manipulation in his eyes. His seven-year-old child must have been taught by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend not to call him father (“daddy”/ “tata”) any more. He feels he is gradually losing ground, especially since the divorce. Doubts give rise to suspicion and quarrels are easy to spark. When the “guilty” try to disculpate themselves, their efforts are vain. Tavi is not easy to give up on suspicion, since he is not in control of his daughter’s time any more. The only part of time he can “control” is her Sundays, and he is not going to give up on this scrap of her time without a fight.
It is difficult to make any righteous comments after watching the ten-minute cross-section of this family’s tragedy. Divorce, separation and distrust may affect the world as irreparably as wars or human loss.
How people deal with such tears and scars is a process that transcends nationality, gender and race. Just as these tears and scars, belief, love, hope and faith in the future are also universal. It is only natural for salvation to rest in them too.
We are all children of the Earth, contemplating with marvel the mysteries of its mechanisms.
Dad, as long as we still had the Orion, that dreadful motorbike, which had to go in for general repairs after every ride, used to spend every Saturday stripping it down, but never alone…
(1993, p. 164)
Bohemia is the little spool of a town on which Bohumil Hrabal’s story is wound. Apart from spool-like towns like Bohemia there are, of course, other smaller and bigger spools in the greater universe of lives and stories. However, Bohemians like the father in this story, who sets apart his motorbike without it being broken only to understand its mechanism and prevent future mishaps, who does this always in someone’s company (to ensure a legacy being instituted) and always with the aim of putting it together again a little better each time, always strikes my imagination into motion.
In this stirring of the imagination Bogumil Hrabal had won me over as a reader ever since I read on of his books for the first time – one of my all time favourites, “Too Loud A Solitude.” The force in his writing is remarkable, considering that he wrote several of his books as he was recovering from the grips of illness.
I wrote this Little Town in the early spring of 1973, when illness was in the offing, and I fondly imagined that I alone held the keys to these stories […] So again this text, like The King of England, is written by the spontaneous method of peril in lingering […]
Why, some may ask?
I am putting the bar so high that it vanishes in the glittering azure, because for what I shall be attempting, to join consciousness and unconsciousness, vitality and existentiality, to abolish the object as the outer and inner model, for that leap is required, and only my illness, that university of mine, which I lived through in the hospital on Charles Square, only that may perhaps be able to prepare for me a jumping-off point, from which I shall jump head first into the gravitational field of emotionality. Up then towards that which as yet is not.
Selected quotations from the author’s Afterword (1993, pp. 300-302)
The temptation of deconstructing, disassembling, and reorganizing the mechanism of a utility such as a motorbike, springs out of a noble desire of improvement known to us all. The frequency with which it occurs in this particular case is what pushes noblesse into the realm of the hilarious. Yes, our character falls prey to the same impetuous desire of disassembling and reassembling the inner mechanism of his bike every single weekend. He also likes to lure into his endeavours at least a witness or follower.
To anyone not in the know Dad, on a Saturday afternoon, would pop the question, “What are we doing then this afternoon?” And anyone unawares would reply honestly that they were doing nothing special[.] And anyone not in the know came along, little suspecting that Dad was dismantling the big end, and the neighbour would hand him the spanners and dad would delve further and further down towards the rattle in the engine, which was a congenital feature of that engine, a kind of permanent ailment it was, like someone with a hobble on one foot or with a stammer. [Y]oung men and old men alike took the bike apart with Dad, and time marched on towards midnight, and dawn began to rise, and dad decided that now was the time to put the engine together again, what joy awaits us when at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, when the bells begin to ring, let’s have a bet on it, Dad proffers his hand, I kick the starter just the once to try it out and the engine peals into life like the Sunday bells.
(1993, pp. 166 – 167)
Sometimes, however, bets don’t work, the unexpected happens, and plans that seem concrete vanish. Good intentions have to come to a halt, which in this case is as abrupt as time stopping.
…And Dad ran about with the hammer, and being unable to kill [what caused the problem and thwarted his plans], he took out his watch, put it on the little anvil and with one blow shattered it to smithereens, the only way to save himself from smashing in [the invisible head of the problem] instead of the watch…
(1993, pp. 165-166)
This is when the time stands still in the watch that was smashed and in the world of the one who smashed it into stillness. Tragedies make us feel like that, like the Time has stopped or, in any case, has to stop. However, Time itself never stops. It marches on, irrespective of tragedies. It is us who need to take some time, pick up the broken pieces and eventually move on.
Where do we take our strength from?
The hope in other people’s eyes, from helping hands, Chopin, candle flames, and memories.
For everyone the time to recover Time is a personal mystery.
What we can do is join in each other tragedy in support, love, and understanding, and
let our watches tick minutes of Life, Joy, Friendliness and Gratitude