THE GENTLE BARBARIAN: A CEERES of Voices Conversation with Translator Paul Wilson
The Gentle Barbarian is is Bohumil Hrabal’s moving homage to Vladimír Boudník, a brilliant but troubled Czech graphic artist who died tragically at forty-four a few months after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Translator Paul Wilson discusses the book with CEERES Associate Director Esther Peters.
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About the Book
The Gentle Barbarian is Bohumil Hrabal’s moving homage to Vladimír Boudník, a brilliant but troubled Czech graphic artist who died tragically at the age of forty-four a few months after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He left behind a large body of innovative work and a larger-than-life legend that this book helped to create.
Boudník and Hrabal, though a decade apart in age, had a close and sometimes contentious friendship. From 1950 to 1952 – at the height of the Stalinist cult in that country -- they shared a two-room flat in the down-at-heel Prague quarter of Libeň, where they struggled to find their voices as artists in a place and a time that was hostile to free enquiry and experimentation.
While Hrabal was searching for new means of expression in his writing, Boudnik was developing a very public approach to art that he called “Explosionalism.” It was not a style, like Cubism or Pointillism, but rather a technique, a tool for unlocking the associative imagination he believed resided in everyone. The Gentle Barbarian takes us to the heart of Boudnik’s creative drive: his gift for infusing the objects and events of everyday life with transcendent magic, and his passion for sharing his ideas and his art with anyone willing to listen.
Hrabal’s anecdotal portrait includes another controversial figure in that early post-war Czech avant-garde: the poet Egon Bondy, the pen name and alter ego of a self-styled “left-wing Marxist” philosopher called Zbyněk Fišer. Bondy’s rivalry with Boudnik provides the book with some of its sharpest counterpoint and funniest moments.
Hrabal also captures the strange and often anarchic atmosphere of an era when the old, democratic Czechoslovakia was being dismantled and replaced by a police state. The Gentle Barbarian celebrates the creative spirits who strove to reject, ignore, or burrow beneath that artificial “revolutionary” fervor. Fueled by vast quantities of beer, emboldened by friendship, driven by a sense of their own destiny, they filled the intellectual and spiritual vacuum around them with manic humor, inspiration, and purpose, and in doing so, pointed the way to a kind of salvation.
About the Author
Paul Wilson is a freelance journalist, editor, radio producer, and translator. He spent ten years teaching English in Czechoslovakia (1967-1977). In that time, he experienced the Prague Spring, the period of “normalization” after the Soviet invasion in August, 1968, and the beginnings of cultural and political opposition, culminating in the appearance of Charter 77. He was expelled in 1977 for his association with the legendary rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe.
After his return to Canada in 1978, Wilson translated many plays, essays, books, and speeches by Václav Havel. His translation of The Engineer of Human Souls, by Josef Škvorecký, won the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1984. He was an editor of and contributor to publications like The Idler, Saturday Night, The National Post, and The Walrus. In the 1990s, he was books producer on three national CBC radio shows: The Arts Tonight, Morningside, and This Morning.
His essays, articles, reviews and translations have appeared in North American and European publications, including Granta, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. A collection of his essays, translated into Czech was published in Prague in 2012, under the title Bohemian Rhapsodies. His most recent published translations by Bohumil Hrabal include a collection of short stories called Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult (2015), a confessional memoir, All my Cats (2019), and his portrait of the Czech graphic artist, Vladimír Boudník, The Gentle Barbarian (2021) All of them are published by New Directions.
Wilson is currently working with the Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, on a long-term project to translate Holocaust survivor memoirs and diaries into English. He is also translating a novella by Josef Škvorecký called End of the Nylon Age, due out in the fall of 2021.
About the Interlocutor
Esther Peters received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2014. In 2015 she returned to the University as Outreach and Campus Programing Coordinator for the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies, where she is currently serving as the Center’s Associate Director.