'Subversive' Czech writer is a mix of Becket and Bukowski


"Too Loud a Solitude," by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by By Michael Henry Heim. 98 pages, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, N.Y., $16.95.

THE SPLENDID thing about fine writers is that they are inherently subversive. You suppress their books and set them to work on the railroad and they write books about closely watched trains.

Make them bale paper in a basement, they write books about baling paper in a basement. Put them in jail and they become the president of your country.

Bohumil Hrabal -- a great name for a writer of black humor -- had the bad luck to be born in 1914. He received his degree in law from Charles University in Prague just in time for it to be made irrelevant by the German "annexation" of Czechoslovakia.

"So the only bar that the law school graduate Hrabal ever came close to was the one in any number of Prague's pubs," wrote his friend, the Czech critic Daniel S. Miritz.

"Hrabal likes to drink his beer in taverns," Miritz observes.

In "Too Loud a Solitude," Hrabal's "hero" -- anti-hero? -- Han'ta describes the Grand Slalom of Prague taverns he makes with his buddy Cizek.

"We'd start off at the Vlachovka and move on to the Little Horn, then down to Paradise Lost and then to Myler's and the Coat of Arms, and at each place we'd order only one large beer, because we had to have time to make it to Jarolimek's and Lad'a's and around the bend to the Charles IV and, after a detour to the World Cafeteria, we'd go over to Haus

mann's and the Brewery . . . "

You get the idea.

The detoured law graduate worked as clerk, a train dispatcher, a postman, a salesman, a steel worker, a baler of waste paper, a stagehand and an extra. He became a kind of elder statesman and model for such writers of the Prague Spring of 1968 as Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky and Vaclav Havel, the jailed playwright who, of course, became president of Czechoslovakia.

Readers in the United States are perhaps most familiar with the Academy-Award-winning movie Jiri Menzel made from Hrabal's 1965 novel "Closely Watched Trains."

In "Closely Watched Trains," a movie simultaneously funny, moving and sad, a railroad worker finds love, sex and heroism during the time of the resistance against the Nazis. The movie irritated Czech cultural commissars who order their resistance legends straight.

"Closely Watched Train," of course, derives from Hrabal's experiences as a railroad lineman and dispatcher, and presumably as a lover.

"Too Loud a Solitude" comes from his work as a baler of waste paper.

"For thirty-five years now I've been in waste paper, and it's my love story," Han'ta, the narrator of this tale, announces in the first sentence of the book.

Han'ta repeats it again and again like an antiphon as he goes about his work.

"For thirty-five years I've been compacting waste paper and books, smearing myself with letters until I've come to look like my encyclopedias . . . "

Too Loud a Solitude" is a wonderful book: thick and dense and compact as the bales Han'ta creates in his basement lair. Hrabal has created a rich allegory, a satirical novel of modern life, of the repression and fragility and tenacity of thought and literature, a compacting of the high and the low, a view of heaven from the muck, and a meditation on the absurdity of modern life.

Hrabal is said to be Czechoslovakia's most popular writer. He writes in an irrepressible, colloquial style that seems popular in the most specific sense, as it is captured in Michael Henry Heim's luminous translation. Hrabal's language seems derived without apology from the people. He's an absurd compaction of Sam Beckett and Charlie Bukowski.

Han'ta, the anti-heroic trashman, is wise, witty, sensitive, intelligent, dirty, bloody and scatological.

He lives, he says, in a land where "it was and still is a custom, an obsession, to compact thoughts and images patiently in the heads of the population, thereby bringing them ineffable joy and even greater woe . . .

They are people, he says, "who will lay down their lives for bales of compacted thoughts . . ."

Han'ta compacts the bales.

"Rare books perish in my press," he says, "under my hands, yet I am unable to stop their flow: I am nothing but a refined butcher.

"Books have taught me the joy of devastation: I love cloudbursts and demolition crews . . ."

He works with his bare hands, disdaining the gloves and coveralls of the modern Socialist Labor Brigades. His allows his hands to crack and bleed as a kind of penance.

learned that the heavens are not humane, neither the heavens nor any man with a head on his shoulders," he says in a epigram that echoes throughout the book like his opening antiphon.

He places a book in every bale, open to a passage he finds appropriate.

"I have a need to garnish my bales, give them my stamp, my signature," he says. "I'm the only one on earth who knows which bale hides Goethe, which Schiller, which Holderlin, which Nietzsche."

Han'ta is not given to light reading. He leans toward philosophy. He quotes Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus.

He decorates his bales with reproductions of classic paintings. He's especially pleased with the bale which conceals Kant's "Theory of Heaven" within a veneer of Van Gogh's gold and orange "Sunflowers."

Han'ta wants to buy his compactor to take with him when he retires. He's collected tons of books to bale at home. They fill his rooms and he lives among them like the mice in his wastepaper. Two tons hang over his bed on jerry-built shelves, like a Sword of Damocles, or the plunger of a compactor.

But his hopes are frustrated, as they must be in a book informed by Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus," by a gigantic modern press run by the gloved youngsters of the Brigade of Socialist Labor.

Han'ta ends up compacting himself.

Hrabal's densely packed book never becomes heavy or clumsy. He moves his weighty tale with the illusive grace of a ballet dancer. And he is, despite Han'ta's dictum, a humane man.

H8 3 This book is available at the Enoch Pratt Library.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad