‘Too Loud a Solitude’ by Bohumil Hrabal

Image source: scan of personal copy

Too Loud a Solitude was first published in 1976; this translation, by Michael Henry Heim, was first published in 1990. Too Loud a Solitude is a first person narrative by Haňta, a man who, for the last thirty-five years has been compacting books into a pulp, whilst drinking beer constantly to help him get through this ordeal. He doesn’t even like drinking, it’s just that it makes him think better, or so he claims. Haňta enjoys his job, mostly because it gives him access to so many books to read; he’s read so much that he can no longer remember what are his own thoughts and what are those that he has read. The opening page is just brilliant and I will quote a rather large part of it:

I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

Haňta is dedicated to his job, he lovingly makes each bale into a piece of artwork by adding special books or images from books of the Old Masters. His boss thinks he’s a beer-soaked idiot though.

Haňta has a huge book collection at home and looks forward to his retirement when he can lovingly compact only the books he truly treasures—he aims to have his own compactor when he retires. He’s got so many books at home that there is a genuine fear that he’ll be crushed to death if one day they were to fall on top of him.

Haňta’s cellar is overrun with mice which he happily sends into the compactor to get crushed with the books. Two of his friends, ex-university men who are forced to work in the sewers, tell Haňta of the ongoing battle that’s going on underground between the white rats and the brown rats—a war of epic proportions is raging which plays on Haňta’s mind. Haňta tells us of his earlier life as well. He tells an amusing story of his love for a girl called Manča; you will just have to read the book yourself to find out why she earned the nickname Shithead Manča.

Haňta has quite a few visitors in his cellar, some are real like the two gypsy girls and the professor, whilst some are not, like Jesus and Lao-tze. Haňta is used to having visions when he drinks; his father and grandfather also had visions when they drank.

After his uncle’s funeral Haňta spends time thinking about the life he’s lived, the books (and mice) he’s sent into the compactor, the books he’s read:

It never ceased to amaze me, 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.

Rather than hurtling towards an infinite field of omnipotence Haňta seems to be hurtling towards some sort of nervous breakdown as he starts ruminating about his life, both past and present, he remembers a gypsy girl he loved in the past who disappeared one day; he discovered that she had been sent to a concentration camp; as a form of revenge Haňta loves compacting Nazi literature.

Although there’s not much of a plot to this novella it does end in quite a dramatic way but I will say no more on that. This is a strange but rather fun book to read; Hrabal’s style reminded me of early Beckett (such as Murphy) or the wackiness of Kurt Vonnegut. The story is about the love of reading and the way that books are treated by the majority of people, as waste matter that needs to be disposed of. At first I thought the books were being compacted due to censorship but I don’t think that’s the case, they’re just books that are no longer needed as only a few oddballs are left that enjoy reading them. Whenever I read a book such as this I’m aware that I’m probably missing out on all sorts of symbolism. The Wikipedia page says that the ‘novel is vibrant with symbolism’ but gives no examples. Hrabal also repeats things throughout the novel, especially the fact that Haňta has worked as a paper compactor for thirty-five years, which gets mentioned nearly every chapter. This could annoy some readers but I found it amusing; again it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s style. I’m not sure what effect it has other than to make the reader realise that this fact is of extreme importance to the narrator. I have a couple more books by Hrabal and will look forward to reading them soon.

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12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hrabal, Bohumil

12 responses to “‘Too Loud a Solitude’ by Bohumil Hrabal

  1. Love his books have a number on my shelves.i think this is being made into a animated film I posted about a fundraiser for the film last year

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fun. I just checked and I have a copy which I’ve yet to get to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve struggled a bit with Hrabal in the past – this sounds like a good place to try again though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I enjoyed it. I don’t know how one would classify his style which is possibly one of the things I like about it. At 98 pages it’s a quick read as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review.

    This sounds like the kind odd and quirky and unusual book that I would like. I can see how something like this would work better with minimal plot and a lot of focus on the character.

    Interesting that you compared the style to Vonnegut, whom I love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Yes, it’s very quirky, which I also love. Vonnegut and Beckett were the closest writers I could think of.

      Like

  5. The only Hrabal I’ve read is Closely Observed Trains, which I understand isn’t terribly representative (there’s a review at mine). I have his I Served the King of England which I suspect may be closer to this in tone.

    Vonnegut and Beckett is a lovely comparison, but does suggest that Closely was indeed atypical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      ‘Solitude’ is the only Hrabal I’ve read so far though I did see the film of ‘Closely Observed Trains’ years ago. I can’t really say at this stage which is more typical of his output but I like both.

      I also have a copy of ‘I Served the King of England’ as well as ‘The Death of Mr Baltisberger’. I’m not sure which one I’ll read next, it may be another one that I come across.

      I’m currently reading some of Kundera’s later books. I don’t know why I’m suddenly reading Czech authors.

      Like

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