It’s been a while since I finished Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude, but I want to write something about it because it was such an odd, wonderful little book (98 pages). It took me a while to warm up to it, actually; I wasn’t in the mood for something as spare and quirky as this book is, but it ended up winning me over.
It’s about a man, Hanta, who lives in Prague and works as a trash compactor, specifically a wastepaper compactor, and he rescues books from the trash to take home and read. He has towering stacks of books at home, and he sleeps in fear that they will fall and crush him. His education has been reading these books, and what an education it’s been: he finds all kinds of wonderful things, books by Seneca, Kant, Erasmus, Goethe, and Nietzsche, reproductions of Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings, and lots of other treasures.
Hanta is a quiet and isolated man; most of his time is spent at work, and he works overtime in order to make up for his slowness: he doesn’t hurry through his job, but instead takes his time to appreciate the books that come his way. He’s so absorbed in his work, in fact, that he dreams about retiring only to buy a paper crusher so he can do his work at home. He occasionally wanders the streets of Prague and he sometimes gets visitors, most often his boss who is forever furious at him for not working fast enough, but most of his time he spends in the dim, enclosed setting cooped up with his machine. Early on in his career, he would get upset when people threw away good books and was particularly furious over the destruction of the Royal Prussian Library after World War II, but as time goes on, he becomes resigned, or perhaps numb, to the destruction, and just does what he can to save as many books as possible.
The novel (or novella, really) is written in first person, and the voice is memorable. It’s simple and poetic; at times the voice makes you think Hanta is foolish and naive, and at other times, he surprises you with something beautiful and profound. He keeps repeating himself, almost in a sing-song way; many chapters open with the same words:
For thirty-five 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. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to learn over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.
Hanta’s absolute devotion to his work makes his visit to a new Socialist-run wastepaper compacting business utterly shocking. Here, instead of lovingly observing every book that comes through the machine and rescuing them when possible, the workers are perfectly efficient; not a movement or thought is wasted, and it doesn’t occur to any of the workers to care about a book. The workers there are turned into machines themselves, no more than extensions of the hydraulic press they operate. Hanta knows that his days are numbered; his method of working carefully, lovingly, and, yes, slowly, has never pleased his boss or made him a success, but now it might disappear entirely.
By the end of the novel, Hrabal made me care very much about this strange man so devoted to his work, but even more so to books and the pleasure and wisdom they bring.