Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim 1976
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990

I’d never heard of this book until I read Gina Ochsner’s The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight (2009).

There is a link on her website, to an interview, in which she says “my favourite book of all time is Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. If you’ve not yet read it, you must stop reading everything else and – right now, as in this very moment – run out and find a copy”.

And, well, not much gets my reader’s blood pumping like that kind of enthusiasm for a specific book.

So that’s how I was introduced to Bohumil Hrabal, via his translator, Michael Henry Helm, although it seems that I should have heard of him before (here’s his wikipedia page, but I’m glad that I visited it after I finished reading this novel and not before).

Too Loud a Solitude is one of those slim books, like last Friday’s Fences in Breathing. But, unlike some of these deceptively demanding skinny novels, I felt an immediate connection with Hanta, what with his love of words and books and all that’s contained within.

“My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or a sip it like a liquer 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.”

Isn’t this just one of those beautiful sentences that you want to pop into your mouth and suck like a fruit drop?

“If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.”

You know exactly what he means, right? But Hanta’s job is not to revere books, but to crush them. He works as a paper crusher, surrounded by books but required to destroy them.

“But just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth, and if for a moment I look away, dazzled, I always turn back in time to rescue it, and after wiping it off on my apron, opening it wide, and breathing in its print, I glue my eyes to the text and read out the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy; then I place it carefully among my other splendid finds in a small crate…”

Although, as you can see, he manages to rescue a few. At first I took all of this at face value, and I just loved the bookishness of it all, and Hanta’s determination and spiritedness.

But about a third of the way through the novel, I started to get that niggle that I get when I realize that what a book seemed to be about isn’t only about that. You know the niggle? The one where you start to think that the farm animals aren’t really farm animals after all?

And just as those farm animals had something to say about Stalinism and Communism and Capitalism, Hanta has something else to say as well.

You can see it in his reactions to his tour of the Socialist waste paper compacting station: “But it was the gloves that got my goat: I always worked with my bare hands, I loved the feel of the paper in my fingers, but nobody here had the slightest desire to experience the palpable charm of wastepaper….”

I’m not going to say that you just stop reading everything else and run out and get a copy of Too Loud a Solitude. Gina Ochsner has already told you (and me) that. But I will say that I’m grateful she said so: it’s well worth the time, and I’m certain I’d’ve missed it without her encouragement. Er, insistence.

Anyone else taken an author’s reading recommendation(s) lately?