Czech Republic: out of bounds

This book breaks the rules. So far, everything I’ve read for this project has been written and published since the country in question existed in its modern-day form (hence the fancy footwork getting a story from South Sudan). However Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal first appeared in 1976 in what was then Czechoslovakia — in the days when the Czech Republic was nothing more than a figment of Communist leader Gustáv Husák’s nightmares.

I say ‘appeared’, but that’s not quite right. In fact, because of the repressive mechanisms of the state at the time, the book was self-published secretly. It wasn’t until 1989, around the time of the Velvet Revolution – when the country moved from Communism to liberal democracy paving the way for the split from Slovakia in 1993 – that it came out officially.

This made it the last novel that Hrabal, dubbed ‘the sad king of Czech literature’ by one biographer, published before his death. Clearly, this was an important literary milestone on the road to the new republic. I was going to have to take a diversion and have a look.

As antiheroes go, they don’t come much more dubious than Hanta, an eccentric loner who has spent 35 years crushing outlawed books and waste paper in a sinister police state. Working alone with his hydraulic press turning rare book collections into bales of compacted paper, he is an agent of forces that all freethinking readers must abhor.

Yet, as we enter into Hanta’s ‘heavily populated solitude’, we come to discover the love of books that he has developed through his work and the inadvertent education it gives him. As we read about the care he takes over the thousand of volumes he processes – and often rescues for his private collection – we encounter one of the most moving, passionate and devastating testaments to the power of literature the world has ever seen.

Hrabal’s descriptions of a book lover’s interactions with texts on every level are extraordinary. From Hanta’s accounts of his reading fuelling ‘an eternal flame I feed daily with the oil of my thoughts, which come from what I unwittingly read during work’, to the thought he puts into the construction of bales – frequently placing a favourite text in the heart of them or a picture that might catch someone’s eye from the side of the truck that transports them for pulping – we inhabit his obsession with books as objects and as windows on other worlds.

Perhaps the most powerful example of this is Hanta’s violent reaction to the ‘inhuman’ modern press he goes to visit at Bubny. Processing books at breakneck speed, the machine reduces the workers who feed it to thoughtless minions:

‘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 corrections, somebody had to read the galley proofs, and somebody had to check the page proofs, print the book, and somebody had to bind the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide that the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped […] 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, which silently, inexorably jerked the bristling pages off to the gigantic press to turn them into bales, which went on to the paper mill to become innocent, white, immaculately letter-free paper, which would eventually be made into other, new books’.

This understanding of destruction as part of the life-cycle of beautiful things is threaded through the text on every level. The same phrase starts each chapter before buckling under the pressure of the final section, while the plot itself, led through a spiral of literary references that are devoid of pretension and grounded in Hanta’s engagement with the beating heart of the texts he reads, folds in on a conclusion that is every bit as inevitable and necessary as it is heartrending. An astonishing piece of work. I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get over it.

Too Loud a Solitude (Příliš hlučná samota) by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim (Abacus, 2011)