I bought and read Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal expressly for my Reading World Tour. It was an absorbing read, but very different from my expectations. According to Goodreads, it’s “tender” and “funny” and many reviews describe the narrator, Haňťa, as a relatable booklover, but some of these descriptions strike me as odd. Despite his love of literature and tragic occupation, Haňťa is a mouse-infested drunk, and each poetic description is balanced by something ugly.
Too Loud a Solitude is written from the perspective of Haňťa, a man who has run a hydraulic press in a Prague basement for thirty-five years. His basement overflows with wastepaper, too often including banned books and art prints. Haňťa saves many books, but more are destroyed. He compresses slowly, carefully arranging items so that his bales are works of art, framed by “sopping-wet Rembrandts, Halses, Monets, Manets, Klimts, Cézannes.” He thoughtfully chooses an item to go in the center of each bale, usually a book open to a particular page.
But between the loving descriptions of doomed books, there are long tangents about mice and the occasionally disgusting things Haňťa is given to recycle. When he’s given a load of bloody butcher paper, his basement fills with a horde of flies that slowly dissipates as the flies are drawn into the press:
And all the while I was loading armfuls of wet, red paper and my face was smeared with blood. Then I pushed the green button, and the press started compacting the flies along with the disgusting paper, the flesh flies that couldn’t tear themselves away from what was left of the meat and were mad for its odor and started rutting and mating, and as their passion drove them into wilder and wilder pirouettes they formed thick orbits of dementia around the drum full of paper, like neutrons and protons swirling around their atoms.
Haňťa sometimes hallucinates while working, debating and pondering the words of classic authors and philosophers. The contrast between his dreamy hallucinations of philosophers and the bloody, fly-infested paper create an interesting texture. There’s also his drunkeness, which forces him to climb the basement steps on all fours at the end of each shift, and that he doesn’t bathe, and that he’s crawling with mice:
Sometimes I lose control over my mice: I go out for a beer, lost in deep meditation, I dream as I wait at the bar, and when I open my coat to reach for my wallet, out jumps a mouse on the counter, or when I leave, out scurries a pair from a trouser leg, and the waitresses go wild, climb on chairs, stick their fingers in their ears, and scream bloody murder.
The basement is so thoroughly infested, that his bales include mouse corpses more often than not. I’m not wholly sure what to make of the consistent contrast between filth and dreaminess, but every page of this book has a tragic vibe. Not only is Haňťa required to do a job he’s philosophically opposed to, but he’s losing that job—his small press can’t compete with a massive, new press staffed by a team of people who spend their day compressing paper instead of drinking and curating each bale. While Haňťa would rather read books than destroy them, he revels in the solitary nature of his work. It gives him time to read and think and he’s never lonely:
I can be by myself because I’m never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to me.
And as most reviewers say about Haňťa, the man genuinely does love to read:
Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence in 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.
. . . I huddle in the lee of my paper mountain like Adam in the bushes and pick up a book, and my eyes open panic-stricken on a world other than my own, because when I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing, I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been in the very heart of truth.
Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) If it were just an ode to the joy of reading, I’m not sure this book would be memorable. As is, though, it’s about Haňťa’s struggle to save the books he can and to read as much as possible. The consistent contrast between poetic beauty and filth and decay is oddly compelling. The ultimate end of the novel, while tragic, seems entirely inevitable.
Image credits: Goodreads
NB: No page numbers are given for quotes in this review because my Kindle edition has a strange error that causes every page to display as page 10.