Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

EUROPE

I’d heard lot of praise for communist-, samizdat-era writer Bohumil Hrabal, so he felt like the obvious initial choice for a Czech writer.

The protagonist of Too Loud of Solitude works feeding books – and occasional families of mice – into a paper compacting machine, in a mixture of faint comedy and pathos, which reminded me a bit of my experience of Samuel Beckett (not that I’m any kind of Beckett aficionado – but I saw a play once).

“For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting waste paper, and if I had to do it all over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years”

Sometimes visceral, there is a kind of absurdist and fatalistic poetry in the repetition of actions and phrases, interspersed with hallucinatory, inchoate memories and visions as Hanta works in a mouse-infested basement destroying books and prints of old masters:

until suddenly one day I felt beautiful and holy for having had the courage to hold on to my sanity after all I’d seen and been through, body and soul, in too loud a solitude, and slowly I came to the realization that my work was hurtling me headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence“.

Hanta, who is often, perhaps necessarily, drunk, has rescued tons of rare books, which are piled perilously, looming over his bed, and threatening to squash him in his sleep:

There are nights when I think the books are plotting against me for compacting a hundred innocent mice a day, that they want to get even with me.”

Through Hanta’s work and his secret reading he has become an autodidact, and he quotes the German philosopher Kant:

When the tremulous radiance of a summer night fills with twinkling stars and the moon itself is full, I am slowly drawn into a state of enhanced sensitivity made of friendship and disdain for the world and eternity.

However, his emotional ups are counterbalanced in the second part of the book with increasing drunken despair, in response to the arrival of a much larger, industrial-strength compactor with threatens Hanta’s livelihood. This book is thought of as Hrabal’s most autobiographical novel (he too worked for a time as a compactor).

I found the book to be a quick read, but not an easy one, although I’m glad I made the effort to read it.

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