Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Michael Henry Heim

It’s ironic, really, that having been faced with so many BIG books on the current TBR, I should have swerved aside and read two very slim volumes one after the other…. I’ve read Hrabal before (“Closely Observed Trains”) and so when I saw this one in the charity shop and read the blurb I really had to pick it up. “Solitude” is an even shorter work than “Death at Intervals”, clocking in at just 98 pages. However, where the latter ended on an emotional yet positive note, “Solitude” is a more sombre book with a much bleaker conclusion and which takes in dark themes on its journey.

The book is narrated by a man called Hant’a; for thirty-five years he has worked compacting waste paper and books into pulp, bailing them up and sending them off to be processed. Within the repressive regime in which he lives, it isn’t clear if this is censorship or just a way of dealing with the amount of old paper and detritus which hangs around in the city; however, Hant’a has rescued myriad books over the years, works of literature and philosophy, and these have made their way home to his little flat where they threaten to take over completely. Hmmmm – familiar scenario, that….

…because 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 to 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.

Hant’a’s boss calls him a beer-soaked idiot, and he certainly does drink – it’s his coping mechanism, but despite this he’s absorbed much from his readings and applies his philosophical leanings to his life as much as he can. As we follow him through the daily round of life he thinks back to the past, to his youth, the love of his life (a strange, nameless Gypsy girl) and the mysteries and meanings of life. However, as the narrative progresses it soon becomes clear that Hant’a is an anachronism; his ancient, one-man compressor is out of synch with modernity, and the coming of the shiny new world and leading-edge machinery is too much for him.

Hant’a is the ultimate unreliable narrator and this is compounded by lack of clarity about what is his original thought and what comes from the books he’s read, piecemeal. The narrative becomes increasingly hallucinatory and disjointed as the book goes on, blurring the lines between reality and drunken fantasy. There are repeated and recurring phrases, and also recurring themes; shit turning up in inappropriate places and times, for one, presumably signifying the general crappiness of human life and how, no matter how we try to dress things up, it all turns to waste. The sewers feature regularly, with two sets of rats undertaking a subterranean war beneath the city. Then there is the disjuncture between Hant’a’s love of books and his destruction of them, which he treats as an art form (perhaps as a way of coping with that destruction). And it was interesting how the dealing with waste paper was very different in the new plant than with the way Hant’a was required to deal with the stuff. He would be processing anything from old classic libraries to blood soaked butchers’ paper. However, the shiny new factory was a modern sanitised place which no doubt represented the modern restrictive regime, as whole runs of books were being pulped, presumably for subversive content of some sort.

… they just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean, no thought that somebody had to write the book, somebody had to edit it, somebody had to design it, somebody had to set it, somebody had to proofread it, somebody had to make the corrections, somebody had to read the galley proofs, and somebody had to check the page proofs, print the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped, and somebody had to put all the books in storage, and somebody had to load them onto the truck, and somebody had to drive the truck here, where workers wearing orange and baby-blue gloves tore out the books’ innards and tossed them onto the conveyor belt…..

The city the book is set in is presumably Prague (I don’t think this is ever stated) and I guess that the regime is the Soviet one. Certainly, the modern workers in the new paper processing plant, drinking milk and planning their state funded holidays, certainly sound like Soviet shock workers. But the context and setting is never explicit, rather implicit, spreading over a long period of time (that oft-repeated thirty-five years) and covering one particularly shocking incident during what is presumably WW2: the point where Hant’a’s love is carted off to a concentration camp by the authorities in a heartbreaking paragraph. He revenges himself on Nazi literature, pulping it with abandon and commenting “The heavens are not humane, but I’d forgotten compassion and love.”

The book is strung with quotes from and references to the literature Hant’a has absorbed randomly from the books he’s saved. There are probably many allusions I missed and commentary on the state of Prague or living under Soviet rule that I didn’t pick up on, but that didn’t detract from the sheer impact of the storytelling or the dramatic, if perhaps inevitable, ending. This is a book that’s as moving in its way as “Death..” was, yet it’s one I can’t love in the same way because of its incredible sadness. Reading a book about the destruction of books and the written word is perhaps an odd choice for someone like me who loves them both; but we should never forget how fragile and vulnerable books are, yet how important they can be as weapons against tyranny, and how we need to protect them. Hrabal is a powerful author, a master of economy, and yet capable of some beautifully flowing prose sentences. Quite how he manages to say so much in such a short book is hard to really appreciate, which may be a measure of just how good a writer Hrabal is. Highly recommended, if you can cope with the darkness and the awful treatment of beautiful books…