Too loud a solitude – Bohumil Hrabal

When I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing, I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been in the very heart of truth. Ten times a day, every day, I wonder at having wandered so far, and then, alienated from myself, a stranger to myself, I go
home, walking the streets silently and in deep meditation, passing trams and cars and pedestrians in a cloud of books, the books I found that day and am carrying home in my briefcase

A small volume by Czech writer Hrabal, Too loud a solitude is a love story. A love story with books, and strangely a love story with work. It is ironical that the protagonist destroys both his loves constantly, because each love comes in the way of the other.

Hanta is a crusher of books. In a communist era, where many books are found objectionable, someone is needed to eradicate all these objectionable books (a mountain of books that reach the ceiling every day), to crush them and make them pulp. Hanta loves his work, where he concocts beautiful bales of crushed paper which preserve and highlight the essence of books behind them (a beautiful yellow pale made from prints of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers). To him, each of these bales is a piece of art, and he can always identify which books have gone into which bale.

But Hanta also loves the books he is destroying. Often, he rescues some copies and puts them in his briefcase and takes them home, all the while springing with the anticipated joy of reading them. (I find a little of myself in those words – the self who is returning from a library or a bookstore, impatient about getting home and finding another world in someone else’s words)

Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don’t know.

With Hrabal’s description, I imagine a home where every inch is immersed in books which precariously hang over his head or wall him in. (Hanta has 2 tons of books in his home). Often, or perhaps all the times, he lives inside the world of these books. Characters give him advice on love and life, and visions constantly appear to him (helped along by his constant indulgence in beer).

Hanta sees no conflict in his love for books and his work (except very briefly at the beginning). His boss on the other hand has little patience for his deliberation or his need to understand the books before making a bale. As Hanta travels into the world of text, the books pile up and reach the roof. Hrabal contrasts this to an automated factory, where a string of workers carelessly throw books into a giant crusher without knowing what they are destroying. Needless to say, the indifferent way is the choice of the modern world, and much more efficient.

Hrabal describes a time when people are defined by their work. Hanta’s uncle, who used to change signals on a rail track finds himself at a loss on retirement, not knowing what to do with his time. He and his railway friends buy an old signal, lay a track and run a small train on it, ferrying children for a joy ride. They all recreate their work, as if the many years of repeating the mundane task was not enough, as if the many years had only left them with one identity. It is remarkable how Hrabal has captured the identification people make with their jobs, so much so that at the end of their work life, it is almost as if life itself had stopped.

In just over a 100 pages, we find out about work, about deliberation and indifference, about chanced encounters, about the contrasts in religion, about identity, about Communist life and about the beauty of books and their fascination to the reader. The joy of bringing this book home was not misplaced.




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