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.
11 responses to “Too Loud a Solitude”
I came straight to this post from a radio interview with a very highly placed UK financial guru who was vociferously defending the decisions being made to close down libraries. People, he declared, no longer needed access to books when they had the internet. He would have been out there cheering on the wastepaper compacting business. There are days when I just want to weep at what our politicians are failing to prioritise. If things go on as they are Hanta will be able to build himself a house from all the books that will be thrown away here.
This reminds me to hang out more at the back of bookshops, particularly at the end of the month when it’s time for returns! But joking aside, it sounds like a moving and poignant novel. Hrabel is one of those names I hear around (and hear praised!) but have never read.
I love the sound of this book. You’ve reviewed it with a kind of tenderness and grace that resonates. I’m adding it to my list.
I cannot imagine closing libraries. I want a mixture of print books and ebooks and could never afford the kind of reading I do without the library. Book burning in a strange and modern incarnation.
This is a tender review, and it makes me want to read this book. It sounds like just the sort of thing I love, a small and beautiful story.
I am so glad you liked this book. I found quirky and charming and a little sad too, but also enjoyable and moving. Have you read Hrabal before? and if not, will you read more? I’ve also read Closely Watched Trains and found it quirky, disturbing, but very good.
I’ve heard of Hrabal and recall other bloggers reading this book. It sounds like something I’d like very much (and I can relate as the librarians are doing some heavy duty weeding in the library at the moment and I keep wishing I could save some of the books from the discard bins…), though it sounds very sad. I’m not sure how old this book is, but it certainly resonates even now.
Annie — those arguments are absurd. People think that “books” and “the internet” are one and the same thing? And also that everybody has easy access to the internet? Definitely not. Hanta is in such an interesting position, because he loves books but has to see them destroyed anyway. He can only do so much.
Litlove — oh, you can get books that way? I should add that to my list! 🙂 I’d heard Hrabal’s name quite a lot, and I’m glad I finally got around to him. At less than 100 pages, it’s a very low-risk way to start.
Jenclair — I’m so glad you are adding it to your list! I can’t imagine closing libraries either — well, I can, unfortunately, but I wish I didn’t have to imagine it.
Lilian — thank you, and I’d love to know what you think!
Stefanie — this is my first Hrabal, and I’m not sure if I will read more, but I would like to. It seems like Closely Watched Trains would be the next one to pick up. I’m glad to hear your thoughts about it.
Danielle — it’s from the 1970s, and yes, the ideas do resonate today. The political context is different, but libraries are still under attack, sadly. It must be hard to watch those books disappear.
This was my first of his novels too; I found it immediately charming, but then demanding, and, ultimately, rewarding. I did a tiny bit of reading about Hrabal on the ‘net afterwards and was all-the-more intrigued by what I had read: what a fascinating life!
BuriedInPrint — I’ll bet that reading about Hrabal would add to the experience. I feel like there were political things going on in the book that I didn’t fully understand, although I could get it on vague terms. I’m glad you ended up enjoying this one so much.
Wow, until I read your review, I had never heard of this book but it sounds like just the sort of thing I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing your wonderful review.
I also found it an odd, wonderful little book! I found the title particularly odd. Like the rest of the book, it seems to pack a lot of possible meanings into very few words. Enjoyed your review, anyway. I liked the point about the repetition – there is something about Hanta’s voice that makes him sound like the holy fool, strange and simple in some ways, laughed at by the world, but containing some grain of human truth.