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.