Bohumil Hrabal
San Diego: A Harvest Book, 1990
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim from the 1976 original
ISBN # 0-15-190492-X
98 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2005

In the second sentence the narrator tells us “for thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books.” And so he has and reminds us of this fact some 20-30 times in this short novel.

Hanta lives in Prague just at the period when the younger generation is mainly embracing the post WWII socialist movement. He grew up in a totally different world, one which has been a literate society for 15 generations.

… a onetime kingdom where it was and still is a custom, an obsession, to compact thoughts and images patiently in the heads of the population, thereby bringing them ineffable joy and even greater woe; living among people who will lay down their lives for a bale of compacted thoughts.

Hanta does not allow compacted thought in his head. Rather he rescues books from the compactor and comes to terms with them in his own thinking mind. In the uniformity and triviality of the new socialist culture he sees the end of hope.

There is a striking similarity in mood and spirit created in Hrabal’s fiction and Kafka’s. What sense are we to make of someone who while compacting books for 35 years for recycling using a hydraulic press and managing to salvage tens of thousands of volumes of beautiful, rare books, mostly by famous and influential authors? He doesn’t even count books by number but by weight. He has more than 2,000 lbs. of books held on shelves over his bed just a foot or two above his head, “like the sword of Damocles waiting to crash down and kill him.”

Metaphors and symbols abound and the novel maintains a strange other-worldliness, not quite the world we know, not quite fully other.

From his ton of salvaged books he has gleaned an encyclopedic knowledge of classical learning and contemporary philosophy singling out Sartre and Camus as key, “especially Camus.”

He works on as a destroyer and he watches in the crematorium when they do to his mother essentially what he does to books. He has learned the beauty of destruction and in the constant wars among rats in sewers, he seems to have gleaned an astonishingly desolate picture of human existence and the future.

There is another level of the book which is a bitter protest to much modern work which Hanta saw mainly in socialist Prague, which removes art and meaningfulness from work itself.

Hanta has for 35 years been a rescuer of great and beautiful books, itself an activity rich in positive human action, an art itself. He visits a new compacting machine press in nearby Bubny and is simply destroyed by what he sees:

By now I had calmed down enough to realize that the machine compacted and baled whole runs of books, and through glass walls I could see trucks pulling up with boxes of books piled to the brim, the entire printing of a book going straight into the pulper before a single page could be sullied by the human eye, brain or heart. Only now did I see the workers at the foot of the conveyor belt tearing open boxes taking the virgin books out of them, pulling the covers off, and tossing the naked insides on the belt, and it didn’t matter what page they fell open to: nobody ever looked into them, nobody even dreamed of looking into them, because whereas I stopped my press all the time, they had to keep the beast full and moving. It was inhuman.

There are ambiguities galore as to what Bohumil Hrabal is getting at. Some sections even suggest one theme might simply be a sort of Luddite notion of resisting change; of the inability of Hanta to adapt to it. He tells us

I was in the same position as the monks who, when they learned that Copernicus had discovered a new set of cosmic laws and that the earth was no longer the center of the universe, committed mass suicide, unable to imagine a universe different from the one they lived in and by up to then.

A third theme runs through the novel and especially echoes the title “Too Loud A Solitude.” Hanta has few human contacts, none close and no one he could really call a friend. He doesn’t even have much connection to the physical world beyond the tiny microcosm of his cellar press, his apartment and the tavern where he drinks huge quantities of beer. He would rather imagine the world as it appears in his books than to experience it.

This is a dark book of destructive meaninglessness and of a dreary society. It is a difficult and challenging book. And it is beautifully written, even poetic. I was often unsure what I was reading. But I came to accept Hrabal’s challenge and entered into this troubling world. I’m not sure of the outcome yet, but is has been well worth the read. Despite the differences in time and situation I have deep sympathies to the questions Hrabal raises.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett