For thirty-three years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopedias – and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years
So begins Too Loud A Solitude, a slim novel by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. The plot of the novel is rather simple; Hanta, an old man, has been operating a giant compactor for thirty-five years. He rescues rare books, which he reads and hoards in his house. Over the course of the story, one encounters two former girlfriends, his boss, former university professors who work in Prague’s sewer system and a host of other characters. Hanta, who drinks an incredibly amount of beer, has to face up to the end of his era in waste management as the youth of the Brigade of Socialist Labor and technological advances sound the death knell of his work.
Hrabal wrote Too Loud A Solitude during the communist era in former Czechoslovakia and therefore the book can be interpreted as a metaphor of the communist suppression of Czech culture during those time. However, this book is so much more than the already heavy issue of suppression. It is about how and where we find beauty when living the most mundane and, at times, the ugliest of existence. Hanta reads all the old masters, like Kant, Lao-Tse, Hegel, Satre, Socrates and Camus among others, quotes from them quite freely and fills his ugly and lonely life with, or rather compacts into his brain, the most beautiful and sublime thoughts and theories. The book is about the indestructibility of the written word, about the ephemeral yet infinite nature of thoughts. It is about the love of books.
“How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh…”
But the book is also a tragic comedy and what is most striking about Hanta is the enormous gap between his dreams and his real existence. Hanta’s stream of consciousness veers often and seamlessly between crude subjects, such as shitting on skis, to the beauty of paintings and bindings on rare books. Hanta is really one of the most interesting characters that I’ve come across in all of my reading. Too Loud A Solitude is a very powerful book. Hrabal employs a number of writing techniques including a touch of magical realism and the repetition of ideas and sentences to create this tour-de-force. It is a sad, witty, funny and moving story. A book that stays with you long after the reading is over. Highly recommended. I will end with Hanta describing how he rescues books from the compactor:
But just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the water of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth, and if for a moment I turn away, dazzled, I always turn back in time to rescue it, and after wiping it off on my apron, opening it wide, and breathing in its print, I glue my eyes to the text and read the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy…