Everyone has a book that they’ve read, and loved, that very few other people have ever heard of. Be it philosophical texts or obscure first novels or even pulp crime that you’re vaguely embarrassed to own, we all have a book that we’re passionate about and seem to be a lone voice amongst the praise heaped on best sellers and Booker prize winners. For me that book is Too Loud a Solitude by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal.
Once upon a time, in what seems like a previous life, I worked in a bookstore. Unsurprisingly, that job lends itself to reading lots and lots of books, and it was a fellow employee who introduced me to this particular book. Perhaps Hrabal’s best known work is I Served the King of England, which was recently adapted into a movie, but Too Loud a Solitude, for me, is his most challenging and haunting work, a novella which stays with me, despite having only read it once more than four years ago.
Written in 1976 and published in 1989, the story follows Hanta, a reclusive man who lives in an unnamed police state. His job is to pulp books which the authorities regard as unsuitable. Although not an intellectual by any means, Hanta saves books from the pulper and takes them home and as a result, has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge. The book is filled with the surreal and obscure, and the plot, though straight-forward, can often seem incomprehensible. On the surface, the novel tackles the conflict between old ways and new, ambitious ideas, but it also is a story about the assumed permanence of human knowledge, the value of our ideas and the ultimate intangibility of the information we place on paper and hold in such high regard.
Hrabal’s’ style is unique. The book is made up of long, long sentences, some of which take up a whole page or more. His work was often the victim of censorship and his writing style reflects his refusal to be silenced, to stop saying things which his government found uncomfortable. In saying that, while Too Loud a Solitude has political elements, it is not, at heart, a political book. Themes and ideas are revisited over and over, creating the sense of whirling around in the mind of one man. Hrabal combines pathos and slapstick, at times seeming absurd, and at others, unbearably tragic, just like real life.
The atmosphere is dirty, grimy and grey, representative of life in a country which was alluding to the state of Eastern Europe at the time. As befits a story about the implied horror of destroying books, the ending is devastating, but there is humour to be found along the way. With a book as carefully constructed as this, I can’t help but feel that maybe something has been lost in the translation of it, but it remains beautifully melancholy and, love it or hate it, it will definitely linger.
Do you have a little known gem you think more people should read? Leave a comment and let me know.