I was inspired to revisit Bohumil Hrabal by his appearance in Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert, described there as “a writer of hectic digression” with “a comic refusal to be polite, and to stop talking.” I’ve read two of his books before, the other one being the epitome of his comic refusal to stop talking, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which comprises one sentence that lasts for a hundred pages. I didn’t feel fit for that much hectic digression, so Too Loud a Solitude it was.
By contrast, this hundred page novel is made up of, oh, at least a dozen sentences. Or at least some of them last a page or more. But it’s a readable and charming story, where the narrator, Haňťa, opens almost every chapter with a variation on a theme:
For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story…
For thirty-five years I’d compacted wastepaper in my hydraulic press, never dreaming it could be done any differently…
For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting old paper, and if I had it all to do over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years…
Each opening allows him to spin off into, well, hectic digression, on his life in a police state, where for a living he pulps books deemed unsuitable by the authorities. Of course, the first lesson is that ideas cannot be flattened down into print and that “inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” In other words, “How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anyone wanting to compact ideas had to squelch human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped, because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work.”
The squelching of human heads is an indicator of the comic grotesquerie that Hrabal delights in, and the book has a fine line in scatological slapstick; indeed the only thing I remember about Too Loud a Solitude from first time around is a lesson in the dangers of al fresco defecation while wearing skis. I’m not proud.
Haňťa combines his earthy humour with great erudition, because for thirty-five years now, he has been rescuing books from his pulper and taking them home:
Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, never 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.
As such the tale is littered with literary references, spliced in with his memories and observations, and the whole is told in a spiralling narrative that returns to its themes over and over amid the apparently inconsequential diversions, “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.” Which is not to say that the tale doesn’t have a direction, and an ending, which it does: as appropriate and devastating as one could wish for.
Hrabal’s achievement in Too Loud a Solitude is astonishing: to bring together elements of modern European history and aspects of humanity in a story which is simultaneously horrifying and absurdly funny. My only regret was that I know I would have got so much more out of the book if I knew the slightest thing about Czech culture, literature and history. Well, there’s one way to help that: read more Bohumil Hrabal.