Thursday, November 11, 2010

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel

As he reminds us with almost comic regularity, Hanta has been operating an antiquated wastepaper compactor on the outskirts of Prague for thirty-five years. He has some acquaintances in the town, but for most of his time he shares his solitude with his compactor, and with the mice that swarm the cellar in which he works. He works at a Sisyphean labor, taking time out only to go fill his pail with beer, because he truly loves his beer. He passes his days in greasy clothes and a state of inebriated equilibrium.

Amongst the newsprint and bloody butcher paper that Hanta compacts are books - beautiful old, leather bound volumes that have no use in a totalitarian society. Hrabal's book is a memoir from Hanta's point of view. He seems a simpleton, but one with an eye for books, and the ability to recall quotations from Hegel, Erasmus, and Schopenhauer. And he does more: he blesses each bale of compacted paper with a carefully chosen book or art print, often open to a particularly significant passage. When he can, he rescues books from the brink of oblivion. Some he gives to furtive acquaintances, a churchman interested in the history of aviation, a professor with a passion for old theatre reviews. He takes books home and fills every available space with them; he sleeps under a precarious platform upon which he has stacked two tons of books, and which could crush him instantly should he make an unfortunate shift in his sleep. He clearly has a mania. It is only late in the book that we will find out if there is a purpose to his madness.

As he performs his assigned role, his holy calling, Hanta recalls his life. He relates the tragicomical story of a love found and lost in two scatalogical episodes, with a denouement that is told with perfection. He remembers the strange gypsy girl who followed him home and waited at his door every night, who fed his meager fire and warmed his bed, whose name he does not recall and who disappeared when the Nazis occupied Prague. (He takes particular pleasure in compacting Nazi propaganda.) In the present, he sees the future in the form of a huge, state of the art, compactor manned by efficient young men in immaculate uniforms who eat their lunch with bottles of milk and who cast nary a glance at the volumes of humanity’s intellectual heritage riding the conveyor belt into oblivion.

His goal is to retire and move his faithful compactor to a spot on his uncle’s property, where he can give artistic expression to the memory of the sorry task he has spent his life performing. He has visions of young Jesus and old Lao-Tzu, and armies of rats fighting it out in the sewers. When his boss peers down at him and calls him an imbecile, and hires two uniformed young milk-drinkers to work the compactor, he beings to see the writing on the wall. Tense dualities abound in this book, particularly the progressus ad futurum and the regressus ad originem, but dualities yearn for integration, a state of completeness. Hrabal’s book is itself simple in execution, yet enormous in its implications, both sad and hopeful. In its brevity, it approaches a state of perfection.

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