22 August 2014

Nerdsville Book Club: July Edition - Too Loud A Solitude By Bohumil Hrabal

In the spring of 2012, I spent a semester of N.Y.U. studying in the Czech Republic. It was a bit of an emotional whirlwind -- an inevitability, I think, when living in a post-Soviet country. Though so much of the nation's history (and recent history, at that) is rooted in darkness and war, what I found most fascinating was the art and literature that managed to thrive underground in the decades leading to the Velvet Revolution. One of our professors was Jan Machacek, a member of the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe, primarily active from 1968-1989. They were intrinsically linked with the Velvet Revolution, and protested non-violently but passionately for the end to Communism in Czechoslovakia. Jan even introduced us to David Černý, the sculptor deemed a "hooligan" for his empowering and political work.

Suffice it to say, that was my favorite class. As Černý spoke to us about drugs as inspiration, his love for weed, his terrifying tower babies and Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand, I remember him citing Bohumil Hrabal as one of the greatest and most profoundly influential Czech authors of all time, but it's taken me until now to pick up his literature. In this case, the short story (or novella) Too Loud a Solitude, which he self-published in 1976 due to the censorship and book banning of the era. This was Isha's choice for our July reading, and so I had an inkling that it was going to be a good one.
From the first page of the novella, I knew this was going to be a story I resonated with deeply. The protagonist and sort-of-ironic-but-no-less-wonderful-hero of our tale, Haňt’a, works in wastepaper as a compactor of books. His occupation is to destroy the literature that the government feared and wanted to kill off, including the writings of Kant, Schiller, Nietzsche, Milton, and many other's whom produced revolutionary and brilliant texts, be they Paradise Lost or The Birth of TragedyHaňt’a tells us, "I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books," and I immediately want to hug this imaginary man and tell him, thank you. Because this is something I have struggled with my entire life. 

In a way, this novella is a more grounded version of Fahrenheit 451 by American author Ray Bradbury, which was published years before in 1953. Where Fahrenheit seems more a dystopian tale, serving as a general warning for the consequences of book burning, but even more so, of a total movement against education and knowledge, Too Loud a Solitude is deeply dependent on the time it is being written and the nation of its origin. It holds within its 98 pages themes relevant to the Romani people of Czechoslovakia -- the oppressed that we so often forget about when discussing World War II and the years thereafter. It has themes relevant to power struggle. To classism. To love and loss and failure and war and pain.

Haňt’a repeatedly tells us, "Neither the heavens are humane nor is any man with a head on his shoulders," and you cannot help but feel he is right. Whether in his relationship with a Gypsy woman who is ultimately captured by the Gestapo, his memories of his first love, whose life is ruled by public mockery, or his metaphors of the rat wars going on in Prague's sewers -- the white and the brown rats competing for... maybe just survival... we get the feeling the over-arching message in the text is the loss of humanity. And the ease with which we harm, kill and destroy not just the objects around us (books, in this case), but the humans around us. Or at least, that's what it felt like to me.

Haňt’a has landed his occupation of thirty-five years because those in control see him as an "idiot" and a hermit. Definitely not as a threat. But unbeknownst to them, he has been collecting books, taking them home and learning from their inner-workings. The novella ends around the time that we are introduced to a new piece of technology -- a machine that will be able to destroy books by the dozens. While I won't reveal the ending, I will say that I cannot help but take this as a final warning. And one that highlights the risks that come with technology and the lack of knowledge it can (sometimes, inadvertently) breed.

My generation and those younger than me have sort of forgotten how to speak to one another. We have forgotten how anything actually works, because we don't need to know. We pick up an iPhone and know how to use it because we have always had technology at our disposals. And today's kids and teens even more so. But (and bear with me in this pessimistic rambling), what happens when a major global catastrophe occurs, be it an apocalypse or a dystopian future? What happens when everything is destroyed, and we have to start from scratch? No one will know how to actually build anything, save an older generation who may not have survived the apocalypse in question. No one will know the knowledge behind it. Because we all simply use things, bearing no mind for how they work or why they work. And no one will know how to interact, because for most of our lives we've used texting and everything from MySpace to Instagram to convey our feelings. I'm guilty of these things as much as the next person. But I do worry. And I think maybe Bohumil Hrabal worried, too.

Please check out reviews and commentary by Isha and Charlotte, too. They each have something totally different to say. Which just goes to show how unique and individual an experience reading actually is.


  1. I love your point regarding this generation being a generation with lack of knowledge. I completely agree and think one of the most important questions everyone should ask with everything is why? I always want to know why as I always want to understand, but with most it's only when things break or things go bad where people want to understand things. The question should come before that!

    I have so many books in my life because I want to preserve. I don't want a Kindle because that's not how I know books or wish to read books. It makes me sad that local libraries are becoming a rarity because no one visits them anymore. If I were to ever have children I'd like to have the opportunity to show them what I have read and hope they share the love of literature I do - not the love of an iPad or X Box.

    Great post as always :) xxx

    1. People definitely don't ask "why" enough. And I totally admit to being guilty of it myself. If the world ends and we have to re-build, I would be of zero use when it came to engineering, technology or construction of any kind. And I think that's a major problem of our generation and those younger. But it's not the kind of thing that people will realize until it's too late, as you noted.

      I feel exactly the same about Kindles. While I can appreciate them from a nerdy/techy side, I'd never want one. I love the smell of books and the process of going to a bookstore or library and browsing the shelves and learning about other authors through that. Libraries barely hold any stock these days because people don't go anymore. It's just so sad.

      Thank you for picking this short story and being so lovely <3

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