16) Too Loud a Solitude: Hrabal’s masterpiece with autobiographical elements

Bohumil Hrabal

Translated into more than 30 languages, Too Loud a Solitude is perhaps the most famous of Bohumil Hrabal’s novels. It revolves around a single character, Haňťa , who works in a trash compactor facility, but maintains a deep love for the books that he is destroying. The book was written during a particularly hard time in the author’s life and is often seen as one of his greatest, but also most biographical works.

“For thirty-three years now I’ve been a wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopaedias – and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years.”
(Too Loud a Solitude)

Only around 100 pages long, depending on the version, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude is narrated from the perspective of its main character - Haňťa- who services a compactor on Prague’s Spálená street.

A man who likes to have a drink and has not benefited from a high level education, Haňťa is nevertheless in many ways a walking repository of knowledge, something that he has gathered from reading the multitude of discarded books encountered while carrying out his profession.

Haňťa is supposed to dispose of the trash he receives, but, instead, he finds himself hoarding the books he finds. His home is filled with great works of literature ranging from Socrates to Lao-Tse, Kant to Sartre, their wisdom spewing from the pages as it is interlaced with the main characters' direct, surreal and poetic narrative.

“But just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the water of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth, and if for a moment I turn away, dazzled, I always turn back in time to rescue it, and after wiping it off on my apron, opening it wide, and breathing in its print, I glue my eyes to the text and read the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy…”
(Too Loud a Solitude)

As Hanta secretly pursues his goal to rescue the great works his job requires him to obliterate, he is invited by his boss to visit a new, more efficient compactor facility, where he sees the workers throwing books into the machine with little care. His world collapses and he revolts.

Hrabal's characters and pábení

As in many of his other books, the story of Too Loud a Solitude contains autobiographical features relating to its author, Bohumil Hrabal. In fact, Hrabal himself worked at the same paper disposal station as the story’s protagonist, says Charles University Professor Jiří Pelán, who is a literary historian and the author of the book Bohumil Hrabal: pokus o portrét (Bohumil Hraba: An Attempt at a Portrait).

Jiří Pelán,  photo: archive of Radio Prague International

“Haňťa is actually a figure that appears in one of Hrabal’s early stories. It is called Baron Prášil (Baron Munchausen) and Haňťa is the main character there.

“The name of this character is also based to a degree on a real person Hrabal knew when he was working at the compactor in the 1950s. This man was called Jindřich Pojkrt, but he was nicknamed Heinrich Hajný, or also Haňťa for short. This is at least where the name seems to come from.

“However, when one reads Too Loud a Solitude, it becomes clear quite soon that the book’s character is not just based on the real Haňťa, but is to a degree also an auto projection of the author himself.”

Hrabal referred to himself as a “pábitel”, a person who likes to add to reality, distort it and thus find beauty in the common and most basic of human experiences. Hrabal was a flexible author and poet, but the style of writing he became known for is often referred to as “pabení” and it echoes Hrabal’s description of himself. The main characters in Hrabal’s books usually play the role of a pábitel and the writing itself tends to take on a flowing, conversational tone, as if the reader is being told a story by someone they met in a pub, or street.

Esther Peters, Associate Director of the Center for East European and Russian Studies at the University of Chicago, says that Haňťa of Too Loud a Solitude fits this mold of general characters in Hrabal’s books, but is at the same time unique.

“Haňťa is the closest character you get to Hrabal and what he means when he talks about himself as a pábitel. It is not a biographical closeness, but it is the closest to that mode. That is why it is so interesting.

“When Hrabal talked about Too Loud a Solitude he talked about having written the final version in nervous check, that there is an anxiety in the language. Haňťa, I think, is that anxiety made into a character.”

A book of three versions

Photo: Abacus

Hrabal wrote three versions of Too Loud a Solitude. All of them, it seems, in bursts during the summer of 1976.

This was a difficult period in his life. Hrabal was ostracised from public life after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed the Prague spring and “normalisation” took grip in the country.

The author had to resort to underground publishing and retreated into himself. In an attempt to get published again, he wrote a self-critical article in the Communist literary magazine Tvorba, but this resulted only in a partial lifting of the publishing ban.

Too Loud a Solitude had to be published five times through samizdat (underground publishing), before it could finally be published officially in 1989.

Nevertheless, as is often the case with artists, this period was also among the most fruitful as far as his writing was concerned. Hrabal wrote several poems and stories based around his experiences as a young man, as well as one of his most famous novels - Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England).

He experimented extensively while writing Too Loud a Solitude, says professor Pelán.

“Hrabal always looked for new forms of expression that would suit the story he was writing. Too Loud a Solitude is a sort of unique document, because it depicts this search. Readers do not have the chance to see this process in his other work.

“He wrote three versions of Too Loud a Solitude and all of them are very interesting. The first was actually written in the style of long, rhyme-less verse, the kind used by Guillaume Apollinaire. In this sense, it is a text similar to Hrabal’s early poems, such as Bambini di Praga.

“However, he then had a change of mind and felt that it would be better to write the story in prose, so he rewrote it in colloquial Czech. But, again he wasn’t satisfied. He felt that the narrative and the message of the story would have a stronger effect if its language has a stricter, more formal aspect, so he rewrote it once again.”

Bohumil Hrabal in front of his favourite pub U Zlatého tygra,  photo: Dániel Kertész,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.5

Aside from linguistic flexibility, the book also manages to grip the reader through a complex mix of themes. Those most commonly highlighted include the destruction of knowledge in a totalitarian state and the more contemporary issue of the negative effects of society’s drive for greater efficiency and speed.

However, these impressions can be highly subjective. For Esther Peters the book offers something new every time she re-reads it.

“I think Hrabal also aged with this novel in a way, but yes, I have certainly gotten different things out of it. I was first drawn to it as a lover of reading, as someone who loves reading and books, the touch and the feel of the books, their smell. All of those things are in this novel and that was something that I had not encountered before I read this novel, reading about someone who engaged with the physical feeling of reading a book in the same way that I felt I had been doing all my life.

“But as I go on, I pick up on other things. He talks about being educated against his will. It is a repeated phrase throughout the novel. He talks about how he loves being a trash compactor, that he loves working with old paper, but that he did not choose it. That notion of seeing things that were placed on you not as a bad thing, but perhaps one of the best things that happened to you in your life is something I think I would not have appreciated at 20 as much as I did aged 30 or 35.”

Bohumil Hrabal was already an old man when the Velvet Revolution came in 1989. He would die less than eight years later, aged 82, after falling out of a window while feeding pigeons on the fifth floor of Prague’s Na Bulovce hospital. It remains unclear to this day whether the author chose to end his life this way. His doctor had no doubts about his death being a suicide.

While he is known at home as one of the great Czech authors of the twentieth century, Hrabal is much less known abroad than Jiří Menzel’s film adaptations of his work, or other important Czech writers such as Jaroslav Hašek.

A tough cookie for translators

'Too Loud a Solitude',  photo: Maťa publishing

Too Loud a Solitude is perhaps his most famous book among foreign readers. According to the Czech Literary Centre, it has been translated into 37 languages and has sold over 70,000 copies worldwide in the English translation.

One of the reasons why Hrabal is less studied abroad than several other Czech authors could be his unique writing style, which makes translating his work very difficult. Esther Peters, who translates from Czech into English, explained why it is so hard.

“He is very difficult to translate. I might disagree with the choices that some of his translators have made, but I would never denigrate anyone who has attempted to translate him. There is this conversational style, but it is paired with this very elevated style almost at the same time.

“In one sense there seems to be an internal logic for Hrabal, but I have gone down the rabbit hole several times trying to grapple with some of his text. However, if there is a logic in his decision between what Czech expression to use and which not to use, it is not something you can easily decipher. Every time you find a logic for it you will soon be proved wrong again as you keep on reading. There is this mixture [in the language style]. There is not the same clear distinction in English between the written and spoken language as there is in Czech.

“I have seen people try to use a Scottish brogue accent to translate Pepin [one of Hrabal’s characters]. That is an interesting choice, it works. However, the real issue in something like Too Loud a Solitude is for example when Hrabal starts a sentence with standard Czech and ends in a Prague dialect. How do you translate that and can you maintain it? That, I think, is at the core of the translation issues - how much of the difficulties do you try to maintain in your translation?”

Despite this issue Ms Peters says that Too Loud a Solitude is one of her favourite books and even goes as far as to say that it is one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.

'Too Loud a Solitude'

“The world would be a better place if more people read this book. It is an incredibly engaging read. It is so much fun and yet it is incredibly intellectual. It makes you think. Every time I read it there are new things to think about and it is one of the few books that I think combines these aspects so perfectly that you can delve into it, love reading it and just enjoy the process of reading.

“It is about knowledge, language, process and ritual, but it is also just a good story. That combination of things is quite rare I think. It challenges you to think, but keeps you entertained at the same time.

“Every time I read it something new pops out. I think that is another thing. It changes with the reader. I think that it probably changed with Hrabal as he wrote it. It is something you can take with you. It is a companion.”

Too Loud a Solitude has also been adopted by other artists. In 2007, it was made into a short animated film by Genevive Anderson and the same movie later got Paul Giamatti to narrate Haňťa in a revised version. Aside from film, Too Loud a Solitude has also seen theatre adaptations.