“Too Loud a Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal

The narrator of Too Loud a Solitude 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 Hanta’s lovingly-created individual bales have been replaced by unthinking machines operated by unthinking workers who just drink milk and laugh as they destroy the books.

Too Loud a Solitude was written in Czechoslovakia in 1976, so 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 it must have taken a lot of courage to write at that time.

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Too Loud a Solitude is 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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There are 9 comments

  1. Hey Vishy, that’s a great comparison! Made me smile – this book is so different from ‘Office Space’, but still you’re absolutely right. There’s something about that confrontation of the human with the inhuman force of a corporation or government that cuts across a lot of art forms, from a 1970s Czechoslovak book to a modern California movie. Thanks for stopping by and making me see a new connection!

  2. This looks like a wonderful book, Andrew! I love the fact that the author through the unlikely narrator reveals insights about the world today. The narrator reminds me in some ways of a character in the movie ‘Office Space’. I will add this book to my ‘To be read’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review!

  3. Ah, one of my favorite books by an author whom I adore. I developed a thing for Czech literature after reading one of Kundera’s books and was so glad to come across the works of Bohumil Hrabal. It is interesting this use of idiots and simpletons in the protryal of big issues. Brings to mind the narrators of Merce Rodoreda’s fiction. Thanks.

  4. Hi Kinna,
    Yes, I love Kundera’s work as well. Are there any other Czech authors you can recommend? I haven’t read anything by Merce Rodoreda, but her work looks interesting so I will read it – probably The Time of the Doves unless you have any other recommendation… I really enjoyed Stone in a Landslide, another book by a Catalan writer (Maria Barbal) that deals with the Spanish Civil War among other things, so have high hopes.

  5. I reviewed Carmen Laforet’s Nada not long ago and got a lot of Catalan recommendations in the comments. Rodoreda was among them. Nada is very special.
    Have you read Ivan Klima,another Czech writer? The descrption of Hrabal’s book reminded me a bit but I only browsed Klima’s books so far.

  6. Hi Caroline,
    Yes, there are some great recommendations there, and Nada sounds fantastic! I haven’t read Ivan Klima yet (hadn’t even heard of him, to be honest), but will check his books out. Love and Garbage sounds interesting!

  7. @Andrew Blackman

    You mean I somehow omitted to let you know that Rodoreda’s Time of the Doves was one of my best reads last year :). I recommend the book. Other Czech writers I like Ivan Klima, Josef Škvorecký and Karel Capek. I have not read any woman Czech writer though. I need to find one.

  8. Thanks Kinna, that’s a great review! The book motored to the top of my reading list 🙂

    Ivan Klima – the name sounds familiar and I may have read something by him, but can’t remember. But the other two are new names for me, so I look forward to discovering their work. Thanks! I’m thinking of doing some travelling next year around Europe, so would like to read more of the literature of the countries I’ll be visiting. I appreciate the recommendations!

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