I love traveling and spend a lot of time on the road. In every trip, no matter how short and in every city, no matter how beautiful – I visit the bookshops. Prague was no exception. People fondly recall many things after they return from a trip to Prague – after all, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – but I remember the bookshops the most. There were so many of them, and so many Czech authors whose books I had struggled to find elsewhere. From Jan Neruda to Josef Barák to Jaroslav Seifert and of course, the Kafka, I returned with two bag-loads more than I left with.
Today, I will write about Too Loud a Solitude. Of all the books I picked up, this one tugged at my heart strings a little bit more than the rest. For Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude is a book which is deceiving in its simplicity, scathing in its humor and uncompromising in its honesty, but most of all, it is profound in a way that makes you think about it for a long time even after you have turned its last page.
From the very first line,
“For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.”
I was hooked. Fortunately, the book was short enough that I did not have to skip too many meals to finish it one sitting.
The book is about Hanta, an old man who has spent his entire life compacting paper, but is overflowing with ideas.
“I am jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.”
An unusual character, the book explores his world in minute detail and within the narrow perspective of his vision, which rarely expands beyond the compacting mill in the cellar, rife with mice and his home, that is so full of books that it might he collapse if he turns in his sleep.
Hanta is also an alcoholic, claiming that he has “drunk so much beer over the past thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery”, but it is only to “muster the strength for his godly labors”. Despite his job of destroying books, he has saved quite a lot of them from the evil shredder – either giving away or selling, but mostly just stacking up in his tiny home. But Hanta, who may be a nitwit according to his boss, is also a fountain of knowledge, from which can sprout Talmud, Hegel, Kant or Lao-Tzu.
“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 me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel”
In Hanta – the destroyer of the written word, yet also its perpetrator – Hrabal has found the perfect setting to examine the permanence and abstraction of ideas, the inevitable march of time which threatens the relevance of all of us, the different kinds of relationships one can have with the written word and the myopic nature of an individual’s perspectives.
“And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
The novel might have a narrow focus, but it also covers the gruesome details of Hanta’s existence, from the mice in his cellar to the details of his mother’s and uncle’s deaths and his haranguing boss. He also talks about his unlucky love life: of Manca, “who never having known glory, will never relinquish shame” and the nameless gypsy girls who “had their pictures taken everyday, but never saw a shot of themselves”.
Despite its short length and outlandish setting, the novel is rife with symbolism. It is as much a thought-provoking satire as it is a literary treat. If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t know what you are waiting for.
Link: Buy from Amazon