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A career in liberating language and thought
on 11 January 2005
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.