It’s time for that lovely, lovely biannual reading event organised by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen aka Kaggsy59. This time we are reading books from 1976. The 1970s is not my favourite decade, probably because I still vaguely remember it as a child, consider it my parents’ decade and find most of the fashion and music slightly embarrassing (with the exception of David Bowie, of course).
I only have time to review one book, and it’s a slim one, but a real masterpiece: Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (transl. Michael Henry Heim). I have read other books by Hrabal, but never this one (maybe it was censored when I was young – it was certainly only available in 1976 via samizdat publishing in Czechoslovakia and other East Bloc countries).
The first-person narrator is Haňťa, a bit of a recluse, who has been compacting wastepaper and books for thirty five years (as he reminds us at the start of each chapter). He saves the books that catch his eye (some of them banned, some of them simply unwanted or full of errors) and his head is full of quotations and random bits of knowledge. Nothing much happens in the book, other than us witnessing his thought processes, but he remembers some poignant and often embarrassing moments in his life – faeces come up with startling frequency – and he begins to realise that he will be replaced by far more efficient, gigantic automatic press.
It’s really hard to review or describe this book, other than just give quote after quote, for this is without a doubt a very quotable book, especially for lovers of philosophy and literature. Haňťa is treated almost like an idiot by his boss, yet he has an encyclopedic knowledge and a genuine love for the written word and for learning.
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 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.
…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.
Although Hrabal is not overtly political in this book, there are plenty of political allusions, which were clearly perceived as such by the authorities, hence the publishing interdiction. But it’s all described in that slanted, metaphorical way that is so typical of literature written under dictatorships. Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’ (although some of them of course did try to fight a battle in 1968). There are more overt statements such as ‘somebody had to decide that the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped’. The narrator looks at the ‘new men’ with dismay: they represent the Communist ideal, nicely tanned, working tirelessly, guzzling down their milk or soft drinks uncomplainingly, completely indifferent to what they are pulping:
… not at all upset at the thought of going to Hellas knowing next to nothing about Aristotle, or Plato… They just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean…
The book has a dreamy quality, and is much more serious than Closely Observed/ Watched Trains, but here too we find some farcical moments, such as Manca, the girl that the narrator falls in love with, who twice has shit-filled mishaps that are profoundly traumatic for her. There is a third incident involving dog turd, but this one turns completely surreal, because Haňťa later sees a man at a flea market trying to sell a sandal and purple sock for the right foot, which he suspects might be his.
I stood there dumbfounded at that man’s faith, faith that a right-legged uniped in search of sandal and purple sock would happen by, that somewhere there was a cripple, size nine and a half, determined to make the journey to Stetin to buy a sock -and-sandal combination guaranteed to make him handsome. Beyond that man of great faith stood only an old woman selling two bay leaves, which she held up between two fingers.
This passage really struck me, because it reminded me of that sad, frenetic period in the early to mid 1990s in Russia, when people were selling anything and everything from their house out on the streets, desperate to survive.
In summary, a book that contains so many layers that I will no doubt have to reread it several times to uncover all of its nuances. I was also pondering why I found it so much easier to read and engage with than Piranesi, which is similarly about a lonely man living a confined existence and which also takes place mostly in someone’s head.