Too Loud a Solitude

Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude existed in not two but three different versions in 1976: two in verse and a third, which we are familiar with thanks to Michael Henry Heim’s 1980 translation, in prose. A further version, in which it was combined with the more recently translated Tender Barbarian, was published in 1981, partly in response to censorship, but primarily because recycling and reworking was central to Hrabal’s art – the narrator and central character, Haňťa, for example, had already appeared in a short story. Too Loud a Solitude also mines Hrabal’s own biography for its material, a process that began not on the page, but with the choices he made in his life:

“I even invented a theory to account for me, the theory of ‘artificial destiny’, sticking my own self somewhere I never wanted to be. I, shy little me, used to hawk life insurance, was an assistant in a pharmacy, had a job at a steel works, but always I kept on writing.”

(quoted in Jiří Pelán’s Bohumil Hrabal: A Full-length Portrait, translated by David Short). Like Haňťa, Hrabal worked compacting paper and books – though not for the thirty-five years his narrator announces at the start of every chapter, the first suggestion of the novel’s elegiac tone, leading the reader to suspect that Haňťa’s time may be up as larger machines and a less ‘hands-on’ (literally) approach replaces him. The object of his work was, of course, not simply recycling, but also censorship:

“Rare books perish in my press, under my hands, yet I am unable to stop their flow. I am nothing but a refined butcher.”

(The image of Haňťa as a butcher will be set before us when the slaughterhouse sends “a truckload of blood-stained paper”). Before he destroys these books, however, Haňťa reads them, though ‘read’ doesn’t convey the physical intimacy Hrabal’s language suggests as Haňťa describes “smearing myself with letters” and how he will “pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop.” It is as if he absorbs the books he must destroy, returning home…

“…with every bale I’ve compacted that day fading softly and quietly inside me. I have a physical sense of myself as a bale of compacted books, the seat of a tiny pilot light of karma, like the flame in a gas refrigerator, an eternal flame I feed daily with the oil of my thoughts, which come from what I unwittingly read during work in the books I am now taking home in my briefcase.”

Haňťa is aware that his daily work is barbaric – at one point he approaches a policeman and begs him to arrest him: “I’d committed a crime, a crime against humanity” – however, over time, he comes to see the “beauty of destruction.” He ritualises his job by “placing a book open to its finest passage in the heart” of each bale. More generally there is a spiritual dimension to Haňťa’s view of the world, though one not rooted in a particular religion. His digressions, in a narrative that is more digression than plot, frequently venture into religion and philosophy, for example where he riffs on Jesus and Lao-tze (though in “I see Jesus as a playboy and Lao-tze as an old gland-abandoned bachelor” I’m not sure ‘gland-abandoned’ would have been my go-to phrase in the translation, great as it sounds).

Unusually for Hrabal, the novel also touches on the Nazi death camps, here the destination of a Gypsy girl with whom Haňťa lived for a while, never knowing, he says, her name:

“She hardly ever kissed me, nor I her; we said everything with her hands and then lay there looking at the sparks and flickers in the old cast-iron stove, curls of light from the death of wood.”

The description of their relationship undermines any argument that Hrabal’s characters, or indeed the author himself, are clownish. In fact, the Gypsy girl’s disappearance lies at the heart of the novel, convincing Haňťa that “the heavens are not humane.” Her spirit can be seen in the mice who co-habit the basement with our narrator, “most of them friendly little creatures.” They both absorb and destroy the books like Haňťa by “munching” them. The mice, in turn, are conflated with Hrabal’s generation, lost to mundane, manual work:

“…the cellars are headquarters for Prague’s fallen angels, university educated men who have lost a battle they never fought, yet continue to work toward a clearer image of the world.”

It is a mouse that reminds Haňťa that “The highest law is love, the love that is compassion,” which, in turn, reminds him of the Gypsy girl. When she does not return at the end of the war, he is confident that, although the heavens are not humane, “I still was at the time.” Now, however, he feels that “anyone who compacts waste for a living is no more humane than the heavens.” At the same time, he realises that even his symbolic resistance to cultural destruction will no longer be possible when he visits the new “gigantic press that did the work of twenty”:

“Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking.”

(Though in typical Hrabal style, Haňťa is most shocked that the workmen are drinking milk rather than beer). It is this that sets up the novel’s tragic ending which only the power of Hrabal’s prose raises to transcendence.

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2 Responses to “Too Loud a Solitude”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This is proving very popular for 1976, Grant, but I didn’t know it had existed in different versions – how interesting! It’s such a powerful book.

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