The amazing publication “Music and Literature” featured celebrated writer Dubravka Ugreśić in their 6th edition and she said, in an interview with Daniel Medin “We should remember here that at least two titles, which have imagined the future of books unforgettably. One of them is a monument to the literary landscape, the novel Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (masterfully translated by Michael Henry Helm). It is the best book about books that I know of.” As regular visitors here would know, it doesn’t take much for me to source a referenced work, especially if it is by an author I have previously read, and with a recommendation that it is “the best book about books” I had no hesitation in reading “Too Loud A Solitude” as soon as a copy arrived in my mailbox.
Our protagonist is Haňt’a, a manual labourer, who has been compacting wastepaper for the last thirty-five years, as the opening of each chapter attests, “For thirty-five years now I have been compacting wastepaper” (actually it is slightly differently worded for each chapter, but the general idea is the same, even though the slight change of words actually alludes to something different each time). His boss sees Haňt’a as a beer swilling imbecile, but Haňt’a has a secret, he has been rescuing great books, reading classics, and he is learned in a vast array of literature.
Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in my like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
To read Hrabal is also to savour language, to sip on the words, the structure, the knowledge, the illusion. This is a short work, but very much like Haňt’a’s hydraulic press, Hrabal has compacted an awful lot into 98 pages. Working underground, in a police state, all day in a cellar, drinking vast amounts of alcohol and, when he has the time, going to his home, a construction completely filled with books (so much so even tons of books teeter over Haňt’a ‘s bed). He is even shrinking under the weight of his books, is this a mental burden or a physical one? Horror tales of the manual labour are blended with the celebration of printed works themselves:
Today for the first time I noticed I’d stopped looking out for the mice, the nests, their families. When I throw in blind baby mice, the mother jumps in after them, sticks by them, and shares the fate of my classics and wastepaper. You wouldn’t believe how many mice there are in a cellar like mine, two hundred, five hundred maybe, most of them friendly little creatures born half-blind, but there is one thing we have in common, namely, a vital need for literature with a marked preference for Goethe and Schiller in Morocco bindings.
Chapter four doesn’t open with the “For thirty-five years..” instead jumping straight to an opening scene of blood;
One afternoon the slaughterhouse people brought me a truckload of bloodstained paper and blood-drenched boxes, crate after crate of the stuff, which I couldn’t stand, because it had that sickly sweet smell to it and left me as gory as a butcher’s apron. By way of revenge I piously placed and open Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam into the first bale, a Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller into the second, and, that the word might be made bloody flesh, an Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche into the third. And as I worked, a host, a swarm of those dreadful flesh flies the butchers had brought with them from the slaughterhouse buzzed around my head, attacking my face like a hailstorm.
Later the writers visit Haňt’a in his dreams. “In Praise of Folly” by Erasmus is an essay that is a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society as well as the Roman Catholic Church, “Don Carlos” by Friedrich Schiller an historical tragedy in five acts that is set in the Spanish Court at Aranjuez and explores the conflict between Don Carlos and this father, King Philip II, and “Ecce Homo” by Friedrich Nietzsche, subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is” a work where Nietzsche offered his own perspective on his work as a philosopher as well as a human being. As previous Hrabal books have explored, through long rambling sentences, he can pack al lot into a short space, here a single paragraph giving a wealth of works to explore, correlations, references, links.
But the inclusion of compacted reference or classic works into bales of wastepaper is not only Haňt’a’s forte, he decorates the bales with reproductions of artworks on the outside, the reality of his disgraceful surroundings and meaningless work, beautified by major works of art, Van Gough, Gauguin. This juxtaposition a feature throughout:
Depressed, burdened with guilt, I made my way down to the cellar and lay on my back in the hollow still warm from the Gypsy girl in the turquoise skirt, I lay there listening to the sounds of the street, the beautiful concrete music of the street, and the dripping and flushing of wastewater that was constantly running through the five-story building above us, to toilet chains being pulled, listening to what was going on below, clearly hearing the far-off flow of wastewater and feces through the sewers, and far beneath the surface – now that the flesh flies’ legions had beat a fast retreat – the keening and mournful squeaking of the two armies of rats battling throughout the sewers of the capital, battling for supremacy over the sewers of Prague. Neither the heavens are humane nor is life above or below – or within me. Bonjour, M. Gauguin!
Bonjour, M. Gauguinan artwork by Paul Gauguin, a work set in the bright outdoors, not in a cellar with the flies, mice, sewers.
As progress, and an efficient communist state, comes into being, the future of conveyor belts holding entire print runs, turning the anonymous books into pulp becomes a reality, the books unceremoniously being “tossed, their naked insides on the belt, and it didn’t matter what page they fell open to, nobody ever looked into them…” With parallels to Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, there is a connection between Haňt’a and the camps but you’ll need to read this yourself to discover it, the section is set to the delivery of Immanuel Kant’s “The Metaphysics of Morals”….
Haňt’a’s favourite book? Seneca’s “On Tranquillity of Mind” – another to explore?
Another masterful work from Hrabal, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book that, like our protagonist, compacts an awful lot into a short space. Thanks to Dubravka Ugreśić for her recommendation.