Bohumil Hrabal



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Bohumil Hrabal (Czech, 1914)

Prilis Hlucna Samota/ Too Loud a Solitude (1976) is a surrealist apologue, grotesque but not quite allegorical. The bale machine recalls Kafka's "Penal Colony" and there are references to Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground". This short book is a display of virtuoso eloquence, but Hrabal excels at hyper-realistic descriptions of disgusting scenes, coupled with a Kafka-esque attention to meaningless details. In fact, it feels like a punk version of Kafka. The protagonist has become a very erudite man by simply picking books destined to the dump. He quotes all sorts of writers and philosophers. But that erudition also made him a man living in a loud solitude, incapable of mingling with the others and incapable of adapting to a changing world.

Hanta as a humble job running a press that compacts books into bales. He has been doing it for 35 years. Each month he compacts about two tons of books. This is not a trivial exercise: he needs to drink large doses of beer to carry out this task. Because he actually inspects the books, reads some, salvages some. He is constantly behind in his work, so that his office is full of books still to be compacted. He still has five years before retirement and has been saving money to buy the press so that the press can retire with him. He has stocked his house with his favorite books, three tons of them, and wants to devote himself to compacting just one bale a day, but a well-selected bale, and then hold a yearly exhibition of such bales. He has watched how huge libraries have been loaded on trains and shipped to other countries for a meager price. When his mother died and was cremated, he meditated that they do to people what he does to books. His only company is the mice that swarm in the cellar, munching books nonstop. His apartment is completely full of books. Hanta is in fact afraid that the piles and shelves of books may collapse on him and cripple him or even kill him.He sleeps on a chair. His uncle was a railroad signalman for forty years. When he retired, he and his friends found old railway tracks and three flatcars in a junkyard and built a mock railroad in his backyard, replete with a signal tower, so that the uncle can continue doing his job. One day Hanta realizes that he has been shrinking over the years. Ironically, he cannot stand fresh air anymore: it makes him cough. Rats and mice feed on the compacted books, and he imagines how these rodents must fight for supremacy in the sewers. He remembers when he was in love with Manca, and a grotesque episode caused them to be separated for years: she had accidentally touched excrements and during a whirling dance she contaminated all those around her. Her family, ashamed, moved to another region. Years later he met Manca again and they went to a tourist resort but, again, shit caused her another embarrassing situation. He drinks beer and has a vision of Jesus and Lao-tze. Two gypsy girls come to visit him and bring him books to compact. Their work is exploited by a gypsy man but they don't seem to mind. Hanta collects clips of theater reviews for an old philosophy professor. He is constantly burdened with guilt, partly because he is always behind work and partly because he compacts a lot of harmless mice with the books. His uncle dies alone and his decomposing body is not found for two weeks. Hanta has to use tools to pick up what is left of the body. Hanta is an admirer of Kant, especially of "Theory of the Heavens". Hanta feels that his job of destroying millions of books and the "loud solitude" that comes with it threaten his sanity, but he also feels that it gives him a god-like role in the world. He gets home tired and drunk, and old memories populate his mind. He remembers the gypsy girl that used to come to his place every night. They didn't even know each other's name, but they were happy. She was a surreal being who was afraid that kites would lift her to the heavens. One day she was picked up by Hitler's police and sent to an extermination camp. Hanta was particularly when after the war he was mostly compacting Nazi propaganda. One day Hanta visits a new press and is shocked to see that this is a giant machine that compacts book at lightning speed. The workers feel no attachment to the books because they can't even see the books as they are devoured inside the machine. Hanta realizes that he belongs to a generation that will soon vanish. The future is these heartless workers and this colossal machine. He decides to visit his old love Manca. She too has gray hair. Her husband is making a statue for her, a statue of a winged angel with her face. She always hated books but she found happiness. Hanta loved books and is ending his life lonely and desperate. One day his boss tells him that two workers from the giant press will replace him. His new job, instead, will be to compact blank paper, a job that will remove the joy of finding the collectable classics for which he lived his life. His boss, who always complained about Hanta's slow work, is ecstatic about the productivity of the new workers. Hanta even preys a saint in the church because he realizes that only a miracle can restore him to his old job. He tells the philosophy professor that there will be no more clippings for him. Hanta grabs a favorite book, enters his old press and presses the button to start the compacting, happy to choose his death the way Seneca and Socrates did. As he is being compacted to death, his last vision of the gypsy girl flying a kite with her name written on it, the name that he could never remember.
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