Bohumil Hrabal

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Bohumil Hrabal
Portrait of Bohumil Hrabal taken in 1988 by Hana Hamplová
Portrait of Bohumil Hrabal taken in 1988 by Hana Hamplová
BornBohumil František Kilián
(1914-03-28)28 March 1914
Židenice (now part of Brno), Austria-Hungary
Died3 February 1997(1997-02-03) (aged 82)
Prague, Czech Republic
Resting placeHradištko
Alma materCharles University, Prague
Notable worksClosely Watched Trains
I Served the King of England
Too Loud a Solitude

Bohumil Hrabal (Czech pronunciation: [ˈboɦumɪl ˈɦrabal]; 28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) was a Czech writer, often named among the best Czech writers of the 20th century.[1]

Early life[edit]

Hrabal was born in Židenice (suburb of Brno) on 28 March 1914, in what was then the province of Moravia within Austria-Hungary, to an unmarried mother, Marie Božena Kiliánová (1894–1970). According to the organisers of a 2009 Hrabal exhibition in Brno, his biological father was probably Bohumil Blecha (1893–1970), a teacher's son a year older than Marie, who was her friend from the neighbourhood. Marie's parents opposed the idea of their daughter marrying Blecha, as he was about to serve in the Austro-Hungarian Army.[2] World War I started four months after Hrabal's birth, and Blecha was sent to the Italian front, before being invalided out of service.[3] Blecha's daughter, Drahomíra Blechová-Kalvodová, says her father told her when she was 18 that Hrabal was her half-brother. Bohumil and his biological father never met formally, according to Blechová-Kalvodová.[3] Hrabal and Blechová-Kalvodová met twice; a dedication in a picture from 1994 says: "To sister Drahomíra, Hrabal!"[3]

Hrabal was baptised Bohumil František Kilián. Until the age of three, he lived mainly with his grandparents, Kateřina Kiliánová (born Bartlová)(d. 1950)[2][4] and Tomáš Kilián (died 1925), a descendant of a French soldier injured at the Battle of Austerlitz,[5][6] in Brno, while his mother worked in Polná as an assistant book-keeper in the town's brewery. She worked there with her future husband, František Hrabal (1889– 1966); one František Hrabal was listed as Bohumil's godfather when he was baptised on 4 February 1914, but František was also the first name of Bohumil's future step-grandfather, a soft-drinks trader. František Hrabal, Hrabal's stepfather, was a friend of Blecha.[7] He is a prominent character in some of Hrabal's most famous fiction work,[8] and in Gaps, the second volume of his autobiographical trilogy, Hrabal wrote that he declined an invitation to meet his biological father and considered František Hrabal to be his father.[9]

Marie and František married in February 1917, shortly before Bohumil's second birthday. Hrabal's half-brother, Břetislav Josef Hrabal (1916–1985), was born later that year; Břetislav, known as Slávek, is said to have been an excellent raconteur.[2][4] The family moved in August 1919 to Nymburk, a town on the banks of the Elbe River, where František Hrabal became the manager of a brewery.[10] Both Marie and František were involved in amateur dramatics,[11] though Marie was more active.[12] Hrabal later recalled having a complex about this, and feeling embarrassed by her being the centre of attention.[13]

Hrabal's portraits on Postřižinské beers

Hrabal's uncle was Bohuslav Kilián (1892–1942), a lawyer, journalist and publisher of the cultural magazines Salon and Měsíc. The latter had a German version, Der Monat, that was distributed throughout Europe, but not in Nazi Germany.[14][15]

In 1920, Hrabal started primary school in Nymburk. In September 1925, he spent one year at a grammar school in Brno (now Gymnázium třída Kapitána Jaroše, later attended by Milan Kundera). He failed the first year, and later attended a technical secondary school in Nymburk. There too he struggled to concentrate on his studies, despite extra tutoring from his uncle.[2][4]

Wartime activities and early adulthood[edit]

In June 1934, Hrabal left school with a certificate that said he could be considered for a place at university on a technical course. He took private classes in Latin for a year, passing the state exam in the town of Český Brod with an "adequate" grade on 3 October 1935. On 7 October, he registered at Charles University in Prague to study for a law degree. He graduated only in March 1946,[16] as Czech universities were shut down in 1939 and remained so until the end of Nazi occupation.[17] During the war, he worked as a railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty, near Nymburk, an experience reflected in one of his best-known works, Closely Observed Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky). He worked variously as an insurance agent (1946–47), a travelling salesman (1947–49) and a manual labourer alongside the graphic artist Vladimír Boudník in the Kladno steelworks (1949–52, and again briefly, 1953), an experience that inspired the "total realism" of texts such as Jarmilka that he was writing at the time.[18] After a serious injury, he worked in a recycling mill in the Prague district of Libeň as a paper packer (1954–59), before working as a stagehand (1959–62) at the S. K. Neumann Theatre in Prague (today Divadlo pod Palmovkou).[7]

Bohumil Hrabal painted among his beloved cats on the "Hrabal Wall" in Prague

Hrabal lived in the city from the late 1940s onward, for much of it (1950–73) at 24 Na Hrázi ul. in Prague - Libeň; the house was demolished in 1988.[7] In 1956, Hrabal married Eliška Plevová (known as "Pipsi" to Hrabal, and referred to by that name in some of his works), the 30-year-old daughter of Karel Pleva, procurator and manager of a wood factory in the South Moravian town of Břeclav. In 1965, the couple bought a country cottage in Kersko, near Nymburk; the cottage became home to his numerous cats. Eliška died in 1987.[7]

Early writing career[edit]

Hrabal began as a poet, producing a collection of lyrical poetry in 1948, entitled Ztracená ulička. It was withdrawn from circulation when the communist regime was established. In the early 1950s, Hrabal was a member of an underground literary group run by Jiří Kolář, an artist, poet, critic and central figure in Czechoslovak culture.[19] Another member of the group was the novelist Josef Škvorecký. Hrabal produced stories for the group, but did not seek publication.

Two stories by Hrabal (Hovory lidí) appeared in 1956 as a supplement in the annual Report of the Association of Czech Bibliophiles (Czech: Zprávy spolku českých bibliofilů), which had a print-run of 250. Hrabal's first book was withdrawn a week before publication, in 1959. It was eventually published in 1963, as Pearls of the Deep (Czech: Perlička na dně). In the same year, he became a professional writer. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Czech: Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé) followed in 1964 and Closely Observed Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky) in 1965.

Ban from publication and later career[edit]

Bohumil Hrabal in 1985

After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Hrabal was banned from publishing.[20] In 1970, two of his books – Domácí úkoly and Poupata – were banned, after they had been printed and bound but before they were distributed. In the following years, he published several of his best known works in samizdat editions (including The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (Czech: Městečko, kde se zastavil čas) and I Served the King of England (Czech: Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále).

In 1975, Hrabal gave an interview to the publication Tvorba in which he made self-critical comments, which enabled some of his work to appear in print, albeit typically in heavily edited form.[21][22] Hrabal's interlocutors were anonymous in the journal, but it was later discovered that the published interview was at least a third version of the text,[22] and that the more explicitly ideological statements were inserted by editors Karel Sýs and Jaromír Pelc according to contemporary party doctrine.[22] One such passage reads " a Czech writer I am connected to the Czech people, with its Socialist past and future".[21]

Some young dissidents were incensed by Hrabal's actions; poet Ivan "Magor" Jirous organised an event on Kampa Island at which his books were burned,[22][23][21] and the singer Karel Kryl called him a "whore".[24] However, his defenders point out that an edited version of a key text, Handbook for the Apprentice Palaverer (Czech: Rukovět̕ pábitelského učně), was published alongside the interview, which ended the ban on publication and permitted his work once again to reach the broader Czechoslovak public.[21][22][25] Ludvík Vaculík, who had published his work in samizdat and would later continue to do so,[26] defended him, saying that the interview demonstrated that Hrabal was a writer of such standing that he could not be suppressed and the regime had had to acknowledge him.[22][25] Additionally, some of his writings continued to be printed only in samizdat and as underground editions abroad,[21] including Too Loud a Solitude (Czech: Přílíš hlučná samota) which circulated in a number of samizdat editions until it was finally published officially in 1989. Hrabal avoided political engagement, and he was not a signatory of the Charter 77 civic initiative against the communist regime in 1977.

Hrabal's two best-known novels are Closely Observed Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky) (1965) and I Served the King of England (1971), both of which were made into movies by the Czech director Jiří Menzel (in 1966 and 2006, respectively). Hrabal worked closely with Menzel on the script for Closely Observed Trains which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. The two men became close friends and subsequently collaborated on other film projects, including the long-banned 1969 film Larks on a String.

Hrabal was a noted raconteur,[22][27][25] and much of his story-telling took place in a number of pubs including, most famously, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger) on Husova Street in Prague.[27] He met the Czech President Václav Havel, the American President Bill Clinton and the US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright at U zlatého tygra on 11 January 1994.[21][28][22]


Hrabal's grave

Hrabal died in February 1997 after falling from a window on the fifth floor of Bulovka Hospital in Prague. Initially, there were reports that he fell while attempting to feed pigeons,[29][27] though these were rejected by friends including his translator, Susanna Roth,[30] who angrily dismissed the reports as a way of censoring Hrabal even in death.[22] The story was later publicly renounced by professor Pavel Dungl, Bulovka's chief physician.[31][32] First Roth[32] and later Tomáš Mazal noted that suicide recurs as a theme throughout his work,[22] and both Dungl and Mazal said that early in the morning on the day of his death, Hrabal mentioned to Dungl an "invitation" he received in his dream from a dead poet and painter, Karel Hlaváček, who was buried in a cemetery next to the hospital. Some years later, Professor Dungl said he had no doubts about Hrabal's death being a suicide.[33][31] He was buried in his family's crypt in a cemetery in Hradištko near Kersko. According to his wishes, he was buried in an oak coffin marked with the inscription "Pivovar Polná" (Polná Brewery), the brewery where his mother and stepfather had met.


Hrabal wrote in an expressive, highly visual style. He affected the use of long sentences; his works Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) and Vita Nuova (1987) consist entirely of one single sentence. Political quandaries and the accompanying moral ambiguities are recurrent themes in his works. Many of Hrabal's characters are portrayed as "wise fools" — simpletons with occasional inadvertently profound thoughts — who are also given to coarse humour, lewdness, and a determination to survive and enjoy life despite harsh circumstances they found themselves in.[citation needed]

Much of the impact of Hrabal's writing derives from his juxtaposition of the beauty and cruelty found in everyday life. Vivid depictions of pain human beings casually inflict on animals (as in the scene where families of mice are caught in a paper compactor) symbolise the pervasiveness of cruelty among human beings. His characterisations also can be comic, giving his prose a baroque or mediaeval tinge.[citation needed] He is known for his "comic, slightly surreal tales about poor workers, eccentrics, failures, and nonconformists"; his early stories are about "social misfits and happily disreputable people".[34]

Alongside fellow satirists Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Čapek and Milan Kundera, Hrabal is often described as one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century.[citation needed] Author Ewa Mazierska compared his works to Ladislav Grosman's, in that his literary works typically contained a mixture of comedy and tragedy.[35] His works have been translated into 27 languages.[citation needed]


  • It's interesting how young poets think of death while old fogies think of girls. — Bohumil Hrabal in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age
  • Bohumil Hrabal embodies as no other the fascinating Prague. He couples people's humor to baroque imagination. — Milan Kundera.
  • To spend our days betting on three-legged horses with beautiful names — Bohumil Hrabal


In Czech[edit]

The complete works edition of Hrabal spisy was published in the 1990s in 19 volumes by Pražská imaginace.

Year Title Title in English Publisher Notes ISBN
1948 Ztracená ulička A Lost Alley Hrádek ISBN 9788070230800
1963 Perlička na dně Pearls of the Deep Československý spisovatel ISBN 9788020419279
1964 Pábitelé Palaverers Mladá Fronta ISBN 9788020415431
Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age Československý spisovatel ISBN 9788020408792
1965 Ostře sledované vlaky Closely Watched Trains ISBN 978-80-204-2948-3
Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore Mladá Fronta ISBN 9788020421401
1966 Automat svět The World Cafeteria/The Death of Mr Baltisberger ISBN 9780349101583
1967 Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatel This Town is Jointly Administered by its Inhabitants Československý spisovatel ISBN 9788071857907
1968 Morytáty a legendy Murder Ballads and Other Legends ISBN 9788020408228
1970 Domácí úkoly, Úvahy a rozhovory Homework: Contemplations and Interviews Mladá Fronta ISBN 978-80-204-3278-0
Poupata Buds Confiscated and burnt by the Communist regime ISBN 9788020402714
1973 Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále I Served the King of England Petlice Samizdat; Petlice was a secret, anti-Communist publishing house ISBN 9788020201423
1974 Něžný barbar The Gentle Barbarian Exile edition: 1981 ISBN 9788020701107
Postřižiny Cutting It Short ISBN 978-80-204-2043-5
Městečko, kde se zastavil čas The Little Town Where Time Stood Still Exile Edition: 1978 ISBN 978-80-204-1361-1
1977 Příliš hlučná samota Too Loud a Solitude Česká expedice Exile edition: 1980; Česká expedice was a secret, anti-Communist publishing house ISBN 9788020701565
1978 Slavnosti sněženek Snowdrop Festival Československý spisovatel ISBN 9788020419064
1979 Krasosmutnění Joyful Blues/Beautiful Sadness ISBN 9788020433435
1981 Harlekýnovy milióny Harlequin's Millions ISBN 9788071853060
Kluby poezie Poetry Clubs Mladá Fronta ISBN 9788020423290
1982 Domácí úkoly z pilnosti Československý spisovatel OCLC 479201923
1986 Život bez smokingu Life Without a Tuxedo ISBN 978-80-274-0834-4
Svatby v domě In-House Weddings Pražská imaginace Exile edition: 1987; Pražská imaginace was a secret, anti-Communist publishing house ISBN 0887811922
Vita nuova Exile edition: 1987 ISBN 0810125463
Proluky Vacant Lot/Gaps Petlice Exile edition: 1986 ISBN 978-0887811685
Kličky na kapesníku – Kdo jsem Knots on a Handkerchief – Who I Am: Interviews Pražská imaginace ISBN 80-208-0984-8
1989 Chcete vidět Zlatou Prahu?: výbor z povídek Mladá fronta Jaromír Pelc (ed.) ISBN 8020400567
1990 Totální strachy Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka ISBN 8071100234
Listopadový uragán November Hurricane Tvorba ISBN 9788020426871
Bambino di Praga; Barvotisky; Krásná Poldi Československý spisovatel ISBN 8020201475
1991 Ponorné říčky Underground Rivers Pražská imaginace ISBN 80-7110-025-0
Růžový kavalír Pink Cavalier ISBN 80-7110-055-2
Atomová mašina značky Perkeo Československý spisovatel ISBN 8020801332
Básnění Pražská imaginace ISBN 9788071100638
1992 Aurora na mělčině Aurora on the Sandbank ISBN 8071101044
1993 Večerníčky pro Cassia Cassius's Evening Fairytales ISBN 8071101176
1997 Bibliografie dodatky rejstříky ISBN 9788071101666
1998 Já si vzpomínám jen a jen na slunečné dny Triton ISBN 9788386646609
1999 Buďte tak hodná, vytáhněte rolety: výbor z milostné korespondence ISBN 9788072540686
2014 Skřivánek na niti Hrabal spisy collection #2; short stories (Perlička na dně, Pábitelé, Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet, Morytáty a legendy) ISBN 9788020432810
2015 Jsme jako olivy Hrabal spisy collection #3; short stories (Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé, Ostře sledované vlaky, Postřižiny, Městečko, kde se zastavil čas, Něžný barbar, Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, Příliš hlučná samota) ISBN 9788020433367
2016 Rukověť pábitelského učně Hrabal spisy collection #4; short stories (Slavnosti sněženek, Krasosmutnění, Harlekýnovy miliony, Autíčko) ISBN 978-80-246-2499-0
Život bez rukávů Hrabal spisy collection #4; autobiographical trilogy ISBN 80-204-0236-5
2017 Křehký dluh Hrabal spisy collection #1; poetry ISBN 9788020432803

Selected English-language editions[edit]

Complete works in 19 volumes by Pražská imaginace
Year Title Translator Publisher Notes ISBN
1968 A Close Watch on the Trains or Closely Observed Trains or Closely Watched Trains Edith Pargeter Jonathan Cape Foreword by Josef Škvorecký ISBN 9780810112780
1975 The Death of Mr Baltisberger Michael Henry Heim Doubleday ISBN 9780810127012
1992 Cutting It Short James Naughton Time Warner Books UK ISBN 0356206688
1993 The Little Town Where Time Stood Still Pantheon Books ISBN 9780679422259
1989 I Served the King of England Paul Wilson Harcourt Brace Jovanovich ISBN 9780811216876
1990 Too Loud a Solitude Michael Henry Heim ISBN 9780233987019
1995 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age Michael Henry Heim Harcourt Brace ISBN 0151238103
1998 Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka James Naughton Twisted Spoon Press ISBN 9788090217195
2007 In-House Weddings (Writings From An Unbound Europe) Tony Liman Northwestern University Press ISBN 0810124300
2008 Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp David Short Karolinum Press ISBN 9788024614472
2010 Vita Nuova: A Novel Tony Liman Northwestern University Press ISBN 0810125463
2011 Gaps: A Novel (Writings From An Unbound Europe) ISBN 9780810125506
2012 Harlequin's Millions Stacey Knecht Archipelago Books ISBN 9780981955735
2014 Rambling On: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab David Short Karolinum Press ISBN 9788024632865
2015 Mr. Kafka: And Other Tales from the Time of the Cult Paul Wilson New Directions Publishing ISBN 0811224805
2019 All My Cats ISBN 9780811228954
2020 Why I Write?: The Early Prose from 1945 to 1952 David Short Karolinum Press ISBN 9788024642680
2021 The Gentle Barbarian Paul Wilson New Directions ISBN 978-0-8112-2858-9

Film adaptations[edit]

Year Title Based on Language(s) Director Notes
1964 Fádní odpoledne Fádní odpoledne Ivan Passer
1966 Smrt pana Baltazara Automat svět Czech Jiří Menzel Segments of the anthology film Pearls of the Deep
Podvodníci Short story "Swindlers" Jan Němec
Dům radosti Chapter V of Bambini di Praga Evald Schorm
Automat Svět Automat Svět Věra Chytilová
Romance Short story "Gypsy Romance" Jaromil Jireš
1965 Sběrné surovosti Baron Prášil Juraj Herz Originally filmed as part of the anthology film Pearls of the Deep
1966 Ostře sledované vlaky Ostře sledované vlaky Czech, German Jiří Menzel
1969 Skřivánci na niti Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet Czech
1980 Postřižiny Postřižiny
1981 Mořská Miss Chapter "Such A Beautiful Mourning" from Siren Magdaléna Příhodová
1984 Slavnosti sněženek Slavnosti sněženek Czech Jiří Menzel
1989 Něžný barbar Něžný barbar Petr Koliha
1994 Andělské oči Bambini di Praga Dušan Klein
1995 Une trop bruyante solitude Příliš hlučná samota Véra Caïs
2006 Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále Czech Jiří Menzel


  1. ^ "Bohumil Hrabal", by James Wood (London Review of Books, Vol. 23 No. 1, 2001)
  2. ^ a b c d “Vítová: Hrabal dostal šest pětek, a v Brně skončil”, Brněnský deník, 29 March 2009
  3. ^ a b c, 31 October 2004, reprinted from Právo
  4. ^ a b c Fasurová, Hana (29 March 2009). "Vítová: Hrabal dostal šest pětek, a v Brně skončil". Brněnský Deník.
  5. ^ “Naivní fuga”, Bohumil Hrabal (Pražská imaginace, 1995)
  6. ^ “Já si vzpomínám jen a jen na slunečné dny”, Bohumil Hrabal (Stanislav Klos, 1998)
  7. ^ a b c d Hlučná samota : sto let Bohumila Hrabala : 1914-2014. Petr Kotyk, Světlana Kotyková, Tomáš Pavlíček (Vydání první ed.). Praha. 2014. ISBN 978-80-204-3279-7. OCLC 885931402.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  8. ^ Hrabal, Bohumil (2015). Spisy 3 / Jsme jako olivy / novely (in Czech). Václav Kadlec, Jiří Pelán, Claudio Poeta (Vydání první ed.). Praha: Mladá Fronta. p. 455. ISBN 978-80-204-3281-0. OCLC 905087913.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  9. ^ Hrabal, Bohumil (1991). Proluky (in Czech) (Vyd. v ČS 1 ed.). Praha: Československý spisovatel. pp. 75–76. ISBN 80-202-0243-9. OCLC 25583922.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  10. ^ "Měšťanský pivovar v Polné - Pivovary.Info".
  11. ^ Mazal, Tomáš (2011). Cesty s Bohumilem Hrabalem (in Czech) (Vyd. 1 ed.). Praha: Academia. p. 16. ISBN 978-80-200-1924-0. OCLC 750943943.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  12. ^ Mazal, Tomáš (2004). Spisovatel Bohumil Hrabal (in Czech) (Vyd. 1 ed.). Praha: Torst. p. 203. ISBN 80-7215-226-2. OCLC 56880551.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  13. ^ Hrabal, Bohumil (1990). Kličky na kapesníku : román-interview (in Czech). László Szigeti (1. vyd ed.). V Praze: Práce. pp. 19–20. ISBN 80-208-0984-8. OCLC 23462559.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
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  17. ^ The Oxford companion to World War II, by Ian Dear, Michael Richard, Daniel Foot
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  19. ^ “Očitý svědek (Eye-witness)”, Jiří Kolář (K. Jadrný, 1983)
  20. ^ Buchar, Robert (24 October 2003). Czech New Wave Filmmakers in Interviews. ISBN 9780786417209.
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  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Mazal, Tomáš (2004). Spisovatel Bohumil Hrabal (Vyd. 1 ed.). Praha: Torst. ISBN 8072152262. OCLC 56880551.
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  24. ^ "History of the literary cultures of East-Central Europe: junctures and disjunctures in the 19th and 20th century" By Marcel Cornis-Pope, John Neubauer (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2007)
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  26. ^ "Stránky spisovatele Ludvíka Vaculíka". Rew, Oniin. Retrieved 10 May 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
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  30. ^ Hofmann, Michael (21 July 2022). "Goofing Off". London Review of Books. Vol. 44, no. 14. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 25 August 2022.
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  33. ^ Reportéři ČT (31 March 2014). "Ukradená sebevražda pábitele". iVysílání. Czech TV. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  34. ^ Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, Publishers. Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995. Page 3.
  35. ^ Mazierska, Ewa (15 November 2008). Masculinities in Polish, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Black Peters and Men of Marble. Berghahn Books. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-78238-216-4.

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