Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Hardly a novel, and not a novella either, this short book has Hrabal straining beyond the reach of the light/serious allegory of I Served the King of England to something more personal and confused. It’s the story of Hanta, an old man who has worked for decades compacting waste paper, books especially, in his press, selecting a couple to take home with him and read. The beginning of the book describes his mostly solitary existence, the noises and sights of the press, and it’s beautifully personal and focused.

From there the book grows circular, since there is little to do but flesh out the situation. As Hanta says:

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.

Hanta finds that he is becoming obsolete. He has books stuck in his head, bits and pieces that repeat uncontrollably, but a new industrial machine is coming and he can’t stand to be taken away from his own little press. In the end he seals himself up in his house with his salvaged books, turns inward, and goes the way of Socrates and Seneca, as he puts it, chasing after a lost love who died in the war.

It’s tempting to draw all sorts of symbols out of the narrative, given the Communist backdrop and the frequent mention of all sorts of classical thinkers. But I resisted this because Hrabal isn’t one to let symbols dominate a fable. Just as the story of I Served the King of England illustrated the rise and fall and rise of a small man through his nearly myopic view, Too Loud a Solitude is worth seeing in its most immediate context.

There are two points to draw on. The first and most obvious is Hanta’s age. He has happy with his life, but his life is over just as the narrative begins. While the narrative dwells on how books survive in people’s minds, it’s not quite permanence. Hanta’s death and replacement by a greater industrial machine shunts him even more quickly into the solitude of the title. The books are his friends, occupying his house, but it’s a solipsistic sort of friendship. Hanta remembers bits and pieces of his books, but there is little to suggest that he has done much with them except use others’ words to reflect his own thoughts. He has processed the books as his press has.

(Which brings up a point I can’t answer: there is an English pun in the book, which I would guess is intentional, of the two meanings of the word “press.” In the book it is that which destroys books; it is also that which creates them. It is entirely suited to the narrative of metamorphosis and transubstantiation that creation and destruction are equated in this way. Is there a similar pun in the Czech?)

And that is the second point. Hanta is not an intellectual in the least; his view of books is explicitly non-academic and non-critical. He remembers little phrases and names the way we remember flavors of ice cream from childhood. He fixates sentimentally on some, like Lao Tse and Seneca, with a concerted arbitrariness. The books he saved from the press were chosen with great indeterminacy; his attachment to them is with no idolatry of their contents. Rather, he has completely internalized these books and converted them into part of his life. They have provided the social context in his later years that the social realm usually does. This, I believe, is the crux of the novel. How many people take in books so closely that they have no need to articulate their sense of the book–or moreover, cannot articulate it? How many people live with books like that?

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