#1976Club: Too Loud a Solitude

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.

Favourite Translated Books of the Year 2017

I am trying to find an alternative to the ‘Top 10 Reads’ of the year, mainly because I find it difficult to stick to such a small number. So this year I will be listing some of my favourites by categories (although not giving them awards, like Fiction Fan does so wittily) – and I won’t even stick to numbers divisible by five. I am not counting any of the books I read in the original languages – those will form a separate category. Interesting sidenote (and perhaps not coincidental): only one of the books below was on my Kindle rather than in paper format. Perhaps those read electronically don’t stick as well to my mind?

 

A rather dashing young Miklos Banffy.

Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Katalin Bánffy-Jelen & Patrick Thursfield)

The last book in translation but one of the most memorable of the whole year. It took me a while to get going with it. I had a number of false starts, i.e. I’d pick it up, put it down after a few pages and then not read it for a couple of weeks, by which point I had forgotten all the complicated names. But if you give it your full attention, it is the beginning of a wonderful historical saga that gives you a real insight into a certain place and time.

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love (transl. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

Short and punchy, knocking you out with its breathless verve and barely concealed fury, this story of a woman feeling completely out-of-place in her life and suffering from some kind of trauma or depression will leave you reeling.

 

The instantly recognisable silhouette of Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet (transl. Richard Zenith)

A diary or essay with so much to say about the human condition in general and the creative artist in particular that I know I will be reading it for the rest of my life.

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

Possibly my favourite non-fiction book of the year and one that I have been recommending to everyone, including my Russian friends. It also makes an appearance on Shiny New Books on my behalf.

Antti Tuomainen:  The Man Who Died (transl. David Hackston)

My favourite translated crime fiction read of the year, it has almost slapstick situations, a lot of black comedy but also a sad inner core about a dying man losing all his illusions about the people around him.

 

A rather cheeky chappy, this Bohumil Hrabal…

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains (transl. Edith Pargeter)

Another example of broad farce interspersed with real depth and tragedy, with surreal flights of fancy.

Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)

I loved the naive ideology of the privileged vs. the uncompromising voices of the oppressed who are resorting to violence – an endless debate even nowadays.

Seven favourites out of the 36 books in translation that I read over the course of 2017 (a total of 130 books read so far). So less than a third in translation (although this number would go up to about 60, so nearly half, if I added the books in other languages). What is a bit shameful is that my reading is so Eurocentric, although this might have something to do with my #EU27Project, which I  have been engaged in somewhat haphazardly this year. My only consolation is that I seem to have done a better job of it and been slightly more prepared than those negotiating Brexit…

However, in 2018, I hope that my translated fiction horizons will be broadened by my subscription to the Asymptote Book Club, about which many of you will have heard me chirruping, tweeting and even shouting! The very first title is still a top secret and I will keep my mouth firmly zipped up, but I will give you small clue: it is not European.

A good quartet [or a good book] is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas. (Stan Getz)

 

 

 

 

#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.