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Bohumil Hrabal: Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude)

It’s only a short book but it really is both great fun and a very good book. The hero/narrator is Haňtá. As he tells us at the beginning of nearly every chapter, he is in wastepaper and has been for the past thirty-five years. He spends much of his life in the cellar of a wastepaper compacting firm, operating the hydraulic compactor. But he does not just operate the compactor, he saves books from it and not just any books but Hegel and Herder and Schiller and Erasmus. Some of these books he gives to libraries or academics, some he takes home to his apartment which is now so full of books that he has had to build a special shelf over his bed to take the current ones. And in each bale of compacted paper, he puts a special book and, since someone dumped a pile of art prints, a print by Rembrandt or Franz Hals or some other famous painter. Not only does he quote from all of these learned authors – not least because, to his boss’ disgust, he spends too much time reading the books he has acquired – he even talks to Jesus and Lao-tzu.

Though he is alone down in the cellar, he does get visitors. At one time there was a gypsy girl who visited him and he had an affair with her, even though they never even knew each other’s names but she was taken off by the Nazis. The collectors and scavengers visit him and then there are, of course, the mice, with whom he shares his cellar and which he often crushes in his compactor. He has even had contact outside his job. There was Manča, his girlfriend with whom he went to a dance but she got faeces on her dress and spread it around while they were dancing. They met up again later in life, twice. The first time was skiing where there was another faecal mishap and then he found her, now old, with her lover making a giant sculpture of her. His uncle had retired from the railways and had built a signal box and then installed a small train and track in his back garden and was encouraging Haňtá to bring his compactor there when he retired but the uncle died and nobody found his body for two weeks so Haňtá had to go and scrape it up.

But Haňtá is the victim of progress. A new waste compacting unit opened up, cleaner, faster and capable of compacting much larger quantities (Haňtá is always behind in his work and has to work weekends to catch up). The employees mock him and then his boss brings in two of them to replace him and, he has to admit, they are faster and more efficient. He drifts around the city, somewhat at a loss, but in the end finds his way back to the cellar and happiness. It’s a wonderful story of learning and love and books and a man surviving and living in his own world, a world separate from the world of others.

Publishing history

First published by Ceskoslovensky spisovatel in 1976
First published in English by Harcourt Brace in 1990
Translated by Michael Henry Heim