The narrator of this book is an idiot. His boss despises him, others laugh at him. He drinks beer all day, and works in a cellar compacting wastepaper. He has been compacting wastepaper in the same cellar with the same hydraulic press for 35 years, and has picked out classics of world literature from the garbage, amassing a library which towers over him as he sleeps, always threatening to crush him. Other times he leaves the books in the compacter, but arranges them carefully so that each bale he creates has its own unique literary character.
Like other idiots and fools throughout literary history, Hanta seems in his simplicity and ridiculous behaviour to express something more human and true than those around him. He is shocked by his visit to the new paper-compacting factory, where gigantic presses compact mounds of paper a thousand times bigger than he can manage in his old hydraulic press. The workers at the new press do work that is “inhuman”, just tossing the books into the press, “and it didn’t even matter what page they fell open to: nobody ever looked into them, nobody even dreamed of looking into them.” Hanta’s lovingly-created individual bales have been replaced by unthinking machines operated by unthinking workers who just drink milk and laugh as they destroy the books.
Having been written in Czechoslovakia in 1976, the destruction of books is of course an act of great resonance. This was a nation of strict censorship, where books would be destroyed if they were deemed to be against the state’s interest. Hrabal’s criticism of this censorship is thinly veiled, and must have taken a lot of courage to write at that time.
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It’s a story with resonance beyond the Communist bloc, however. It is not only books that are crushed in this book but individuality. Hanta is made obsolete by the more efficient new press, by a process more efficient but less human. This may have been a critique of the Czechoslovak government, but it could equally be levelled at “free” societies today. In our drive to do everything faster and more efficiently, we are losing something along the way, something so old and elemental we’ve almost forgotten what it is. As strange and probably insane as Hanta is, I found myself relating very strongly to the old man in the basement, struggling to hold onto what he cherishes, doggedly doing his job every day for 35 years and doing it with care and patience, despite the world around him valuing nothing but speed and efficiency.
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