Dog Bite Degustation: Hrabal's "Too Loud A Solitude"

on Monday, May 17, 2010
Bohumil Hrabal died like he wrote - ensconced in a whirl of misunderstandings, conjecture and nostalgia. When he fell out of the fifth floor of his Prague apartment building in 1997, various theories immediately began doing the rounds. One had it that he fell out while trying to feed the pigeons on his sill. His deep reverence for nature and gentle heart were there for all to see in his books, and so it was fitting that he should die doing something he loved. Others were more blunt. Old and sick, Hrabal threw himself from the window to end his suffering. Suicide was a continuing motif in his works, with one character throwing themselves from the fifth story of a building. Finally, there were the conspiracy theorists who claimed Hrabal was thrown from the window by political enemies - members of the old guard who still resented his membership of the resistance to Czechoslovakia's by-then-fallen Communist regime. However he came to his end, it was a great, if rather quiet, loss to the literary world.

Hrabal perfectly distilled all that is great about Czech literature. He had the unhinged political perspicacity of Karel Capek, yet managed to combine it with the bawdy humour of Jaroslav Hasek. And though his star might have been eclipsed in the West by the likes of Kundera, Klima and Skvorecky, I still find him the most likeable of all his compatriots. Those that know his work generally point to the novels "I Served The King of England" and "Closely Observed Trains" (both of which were made into great films by Jiri Menzel) as his best, but for me it is the obscure little gem "Too Loud A Solitude" that cements Hrabal in my top ten of all time and, therefore, ripe for revisiting in May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

I can relate to no character in modern literature more than Hanta, the tragic wastepaper compacter who narrates this novel. Although his job is to collect and crush discarded books, he is also a saviour of greater works, pulling them from the trash piles and stuffing them in his bag to take home. His little house is crumbling under the weight of all the books, but his love for literature far exceeds his sense of self-preservation. It is also, ultimately, his downfall. Too Loud A Solitude is reminiscent, in this way, of such fantastic books as Elias Canetti's Auto Da Fe and Thomas Bernhard's The Lime Works, in which the protagonist is quite literally consumed by the object of their obsession. For those more celluloid-inclined, same goes for the brilliant film Gattaca.

As a hymn to the beauty and importance of the printed word alone, Too Loud A Solitude is a magnificent literary feat. But there is a darker, more choleric side to the novel which deserves equal regard, for it doubles as a requiem for those caught between generations, at risk of being steamrolled by technological innovation. Hanta's plight reminds me of the Ben Folds song Fred Jones Part 2, in which a man who has devoted his entire life to his job fades into insignificance, left behind in the dust of progress. He is, as the song so beautifully puts it, forgotten but not yet gone. Like Jones, Hanta cannot catch up. His paper press is obsolete - bigger and better presses, operated by faceless, nameless peons, are the way of the future. He will no longer be able to rescue great books from the trash piles of history. Such a world Hanta cannot bear, and so he takes one last drastic step to escape the technological onslaught and be one with his greatest love.

It is disconcerting to see one's own obsessions portrayed to such devastating effect in the pages of a novel. Yet Too Loud A Solitude radiates with such wonderful warmth and beauty that I couldn't help but hear a gospel choir singing me down the road to hell.


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