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Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan claims that “Too Loud a Solitude” achieves more in its 98 pages than most writers do in a lifetime. An unsuspecting reader may be forgiven for misconstruing such a lofty assertion for downright impudence. Until he/she reads the book that is. I was also one such rustic, before a fellow member of a book club on Facebook named, Senior Reading Racoons, drew my attention to the book. Bohumil Hrabal, pulls an absolute masterpiece out his hat with this breathtaking and pungent allegory. An allegory of resistance, a parable of reconciliation and a testament to realisation.
In an unnamed totalitarian state, Haňťa spends thirty five years of his life compacting wastepaper using a hydraulic press. Going about his chore over unlimited pitchers of beer from a subterranean bowel beneath a street – books and papers are hurled down a hole in the pavement by the baleful – Haňťa rescues scores of books from being compacted by the press. Preservation foments an autodidactic verve in Haňťa. Great works of masters such as Goethe, Schiller, and Hegel are digested by Haňťa as the compacter morphs into an inveterate reader. “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.”
Haňťa’s workplace is emblematic of squalor. Home for curious rodents, many of whom get compacted along with the books, the dank and damp basement also accords shelter for flies that keep swirling about in frenzied patterns, attracted to papers thrown in by the butchers. “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.”
However from this malodorous detritus of filth, emanates a paradoxically refreshing air of metaphysical ruminations. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, and Kant’s Theory of the Heavens are all grist for the mill of Haňťa’s reflection . From a forbiddingly rancid environ, emerges a refined soul. A soul torn within by angst and rend asunder by failures. A love affair gone horribly wrong (Haňťa’s former date Manča has this singularly unique tragi-comic misfortune of being adhered to fecal matter in the most peculiar of ways), a wretched boss who treats Haňťa like personal chattel, and an existential crisis of solitude should have all contrived to crush Haňťa’s soul. But the unseen guidance of Sartre and Camus always ensures that Haňťa regains his balance.
However, when the technology of hydraulic presses becomes obsolete and monstrous machines capable of compacting innumerable bales of books and papers manifest themselves, it’s not just the books that get crushed. The disdainful manner in which workers clad in homogenous overalls tare the covers and discard the pages on a conveyor belt which in turn transports them to cavernous barrels into which they are dumped before being crushed, destroys Haňťa’s very soul. When his miserable excuse of an employer appoints two new and efficient assistants, effectively rendering Haňťa redundant, the straw finally breaks the camel’s back.
Haňťa may as well be Bohumil Hrabal himself in disguise. When this marvelous book was completed in 1976, he was prevented from getting the same published in a then politically charged then Czechoslovakia. But in a paean to his protagonist’s resilience, Hrabal got his work self-published.
American author Peter Orner on his experience of reading “Too Loud A Solitude” remarked: “The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel…” While I might not have resorted to following Orner’s emotional manifestation of illumination, I was certainly humbled by the realisation of my own infinitesimal existence.