Bohumil Hrabal studied law in Prague just before the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and closed the universities. Although he graduated in 1946, his working life was spent on the railways, as a salesman, steelworker, stagehand, and compacting waste paper. In "Too Loud a Solitude", he comments that the intelligentsia was kept under tight control by both the Nazis and Communists, condemned to menial tasks and denied expression. Hrabal was one of the foremost Czech writers of the 20th century, yet for much of his life was denied publication. He writes from experience - his prose captures the everyday language of the working man. In "Too Loud a Solitude", we have the thoughts of a man who, for thirty-five years, has pulped books for the police state. The narrative places us inside the mind of Hanta, a misfit, ill-educated drunkard, whose solitary life is given shape and purpose by his job. He operates a hydraulic press which makes cubes of waste paper. The press is his only constant companion. But Hanta liberates rare books from destruction: he takes some home to stack in every available space, others he uses to decorate each cube of pulped paper, giving it a fine idea at its kernel, or decorating it with pictures of condemned art. Hanta can quote Goethe, Christ, Lao Tzu, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer. His education has come from stripping thoughts from the condemned books. He circumvents censorship. Ideas cannot be kept trapped on the pages of a book, or tightly bound within a cube. Ideas escape to infect the human mind. Destroying books simply frees their words. The novel packages Hanta's thoughts - each chapter is a monologue, a series of reminiscences, hopes, dreams, experiences. But ultimately, he is dragged back to the real world - his hydraulic press is to be replaced by a huge, modern one. He will be made redundant - the working class is finally being eradicated by technology. After thirty five years, Hanta and his press are as obsolete as the steam train. Hrabal gives us the everyday language of the pub: his characters are ordinary working people, their lives are given form by their work, and can as quickly be made meaningless. But Hanta's life addresses the irony of censorship. Marx had spent so much of his revolutionary life reading in the British Library. Lenin, too, had read voraciously, fleeing Tsarist Russia in order to be able to think freely and elaborate his communist philosophy. Yet the Communists proscribe the working class' ability to read and write. The new socialist regime was no different from the Nazis in its determination to censor thought and expression. It would provide the acceptable answers, no one was to be allowed to ask questions. Hrabal's writing has a distinctly visual quality. Although he was influenced by surrealism and by writers like James Joyce, his stream of consciousness style has still adapted well to the cinema - many of his works have been filmed. "Too Loud a Solitude" is a humorous, tender insight into the loneliness and isolation of a working man. It is an affirmation of human consciousness and imagination, written in a delicious style; it is a book to be savoured, re-read, dipped into from time to time, and valued for its humanity.
This is a fantastic book. It's very interesting in several ways: as a look at (a) life under a totalitarian system; as a thought-provoking exploration of books/art and life; and simply for the joy of the writing. The book's also very funny. It's teasingly philosophical, without being coyly or tweely so, and full of allusions which only add richness to the reading experience - they're never in-your-face or for effect. And the books main character isn't just a cut-out with which the author can vent his views. He's fully rounded. Julian Barnes calls Hrabal "a superb writer" and Kundera, without beung falsely modest, says he's the best contemporary Czech novelist. Here he isn't as self-consciously thoughtful/literary as either of those two, and he packs into a hundred pages more than most writers manage in many more.
The narrator of this book is an idiot. His boss despises him, others laugh at him. He drinks beer all day, and works in a cellar compacting wastepaper. He has been compacting wastepaper in the same cellar with the same hydraulic press for 35 years, and has picked out classics of world literature from the garbage, amassing a library which towers over him as he sleeps, always threatening to crush him. Other times he leaves the books in the compacter, but arranges them carefully so that each bale he creates has its own unique literary character.
Like other idiots and fools throughout literary history, Hanta seems in his simplicity and ridiculous behaviour to express something more human and true than those around him. He is shocked by his visit to the new paper-compacting factory, where gigantic presses compact mounds of paper a thousand times bigger than he can manage in his old hydraulic press. The workers at the new press do work that is "inhuman", just tossing the books into the press, "and it didn't even matter what page they fell open to: nobody ever looked into them, nobody even dreamed of looking into them." Hanta's lovingly-created individual bales have been replaced by unthinking machines operated by unthinking workers who just drink milk and laugh as they destroy the books.
Having been written in Czechoslovakia in 1976, the destruction of books is of course an act of great resonance. This was a nation of strict censorship, where books would be destroyed if they were deemed to be against the state's interest. Hrabal's criticism of this censorship is thinly veiled, and must have taken a lot of courage to write at that time.
It's a story with resonance beyond the Communist bloc, however. It is not only books that are crushed in this book but individuality. Hanta is made obsolete by the more efficient new press, by a process more efficient but less human. This may have been a critique of the Czechoslovak government, but it could equally be levelled at "free" societies today. In our drive to do everything faster and more efficiently, we are losing something along the way, something so old and elemental we've almost forgotten what it is. As strange and probably insane as Hanta is, I found myself relating very strongly to the old man in the basement, struggling to hold onto what he cherishes, doggedly doing his job every day for 35 years and doing it with care and patience, despite the world around him valuing nothing but speed and efficiency.
It was James Kelman's 'How Late It Was, How Late' that drew the praise 'a brilliant song of a book', but that could just as easily apply to this title. 'Too Loud a Solitude' relates the story of a young man, who, though working in a book pulping plant, loves books and attempts to save some of the better ones from being destroyed. As he spends much of his time with books, he picks up a lot of their language and cannot tell which thoughts are his own and which come from the books he is constantly surrounded by. And then a bigger, better pulping machine comes along...
Sometimes I think you read a book which just echoes through all other books you've ever read- 'Too Loud a Solitude' is thin but fat with so many references, ideas, images, and BOOKS in it, reading it's not even like reading: it's so quick and easy and almost-familiar, it's like being starving and then eating bubble-n'-squeak. You wouldn't expect it but potatoes of comedy and old broccoli of tragedy are rendered delicious and new by a re-fry.
Perhaps the most vivid chapter for me is the one in which the hero describes his uncle's DIY garden - the uncle's built a series of tracks, and a signalling tower, and bought a train, all put in a field behind his house. He joyfully gives rides to his old colleagues and children from his village: it's like Hrabal makes your local weirdo everything he wants to be, and it all makes perfect, beautiful sense.
That's what it is - it's an unusual book, about a weirdo, and yet - it is the most perfect, beautiful sense. I don't know why it's not one of the most important books in the world.
"For thirty-five years now I've been in wastepaper, and it's my love story." So begins Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude. The narrator, Hantá, has worked as a trash compactor his entire adult life and his job centers on creating machine compressed bales of waste paper. The most depressing aspect of his job is the fact that a core part of the waste left for compacting consists of books, hundred and thousands of books no longer wanted or desired by the then current political regime. Hrabal's novella explores in its own unique way the life and after-life of books and knowledge. At first glance, Hantá comes across as an unwashed, miserably drunk, under-educated worker. However, from the outset it becomes clear that the books condemned to destruction by Hantá have left an indelible imprint in his own soul. Hantá notes that his "education has been so unwitting I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books." He notes that he doesn't really read, rather, he will "pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop." As the story progresses Haòtá thoughts are sprinkled with thoughts and quotations from the Talmud, Kant, Erasmus and all the great thinkers of the ages. Hantá cannot destroy all the books submitted to him for destruction. Rather, he has spent thirty-five years sneaking books out in his briefcase, one or two at a time. His modest house is overrun with books and Haòtá notes that too loud a sneeze could condemn him to death if the books towering over his bed collapse upon him. Despite the despair caused by the nature of his work and his being lost in too loud a solitude, Hantá continues to live for his books. At the end of his work day he makes his way home "yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don't know." Hantá's life though is beset with woe. His boss looks down upon him on account of his slovenly and drunken appearance and his work has been made obsolete by a new compacting machine on the other side of town. Hantá makes a trip to view the new compacting factory and upon his return to his own decrepit surroundings engages in a futile fury of compacting in a manner reminiscent of John Henry and his hammer. Hantá is also wracked by guilt at the destruction of thousands of books. He hears the crunch of human skeletons whenever his hydraulic press crushes beautiful books with astonishing force. At the end of the day, Hantá attempts to relieve himself of his guilt by dint of the Talmudic saying "For we are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us." Hantá clearly wants to believe that he is simply releasing what is best in the books he must crush. The tone for the book's conclusion is established by reference to this crushing of olives. Hantá's internal monologue reveals his awareness that he has consumed the contents of thousands of books. He is aware that he cannot write words that can express adequately all that he has learned. He is wistful at the thought that being crushed may be the best or only way to yield what is the best in him. Consequently, the physical contents of Hantá's last bale of waste should come as no surprise as the narrative ends. Too Loud a Solitude does chronicle a life and a death foretold. Hrabal, despite obtaining a degree in law from Prague's Charles University was forced to work as a manual laborer in the 1950s. This included a stint as a waste compactor. In 1997, beset with ill-health, Hrabal fell or flew out of his fifth floor hospital room and plunged to his death. Some have argued that he slipped while feeding some pigeons. (Defenestration, whether self-inflicted or not, has played an important role in Czech history from the First Defenestration of Prague in 1419 through the death of Jan Masaryk in 1948). Having read Too Loud a Solitude one can only think that perhaps Hrabal, at the end of his life felt it was time to yield to the world all that was best in him once in a manner that would resonate for him and with his native readers. Too Loud a Solitude is a beautiful, thoughtful piece of work that should be appreciated by anyone that loves the written word. By making us and Hantá wince at the destruction of the written word the beauty and importance of those words are heightened for all of us.
This quirky novella sits in a category of its own. The narrator carries the reader through what are appalling circumstances by laughing and turning repression within a Police State into a big joke.
Hrabal has crafted a modern version of a rambling picaresque story where his narrator seemingly out-foxes authority. Mind you, nothing grim or violent appears. We meet no Russian commissars, no bullying Czech officials, no Nazis. The Second World War isn't even mentioned. The narrator is focussed on life in his little enclosed world. Occasionally he is touched by outside things. The narrator's gypsy lover disappeared one day - she had been picked up and shipped to a concentration camp. Another day in the past a load of books arrived that had been seized from a Prussian library - spoils of winning the war. And on a day recently books arrived that were heavily splattered with fresh blood - no explanation given.
Nor are we told why the books are being pulped and recycled. Nearly every chapter starts with the beginning "For thirty five years I've been compacting wastepaper..." and during the subsequent discussion we get a view of what has been pulped - mostly books of philosophy and ideas, and reproductions of great works of art. This is a world which clamps down on beauty, and free thought.
Other people stumble through this zany world. Men who work in the sewers used to be leading intellectuals, now forbidden other employment. A former philosophy professor covertly buys old 1920s and 30s magazine from the narrator, because he wants to read reviews (criticism no longer exists). A former scientist cleans a church. No comment is made, the reader being left to draw his or her own conclusions.
One late chapter has the narrator visit a new paper pressing facility, and is impressed and disturbed at the way it has been efficiently designed to pulp greater quantities of books than in the past. More and more and more books are to be pulped. Socialist Workers are taking over the industry, and the narrator's days at the press (and stealing books) are numbered.
An unpromising start to this short novella, and I feared that unlike my previous experience of Hrabal, Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books), it would be the meandering plot-less nonsense, much beloved by contemporary authors. However, once you sink into the pace of the work, and begin to understand the character a little more, the delights of this book emerge fully. There is much poignancy and humour, and my fellow passengers on the flight to Prague on which I read this would have considered me with grim annoyance, for I laughed aloud and somewhat loudly to tell them that the funny little orange volume I held was the sort of thing they should be reading, instead of several tints of porno, or wizard sticks and excrement shaded infernos. For in this slim tome are the words of a wise man who can tell you about love and loss, sex and fear of the future and loneliness, and all of this as if you were sat opposite him nodding yes to the smack down of two fresh half-litre glasses of high-foamed beer, having just wiped the tears from your eyes, a wetness wrought by both laughter and sorrow, put there by the lingering sympathy and disillusionment of this most humane of authors.