Bohumil Hrabal, Czech poet and writer, was born in 1914, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the eve of war. He died in 1997, about eight years after the Czech Republic cast off Communism and then split from Slovakia. Even if he'd never moved from his hometown, he would have lived in about six different countries, I should think--or at any rate under about 8 governments. What he must have seen in his lifetime is a bit boggling to contemplate. He wrote Too Loud a Solitude near the end of his life, in the early 1990s, and saw it made into a movie shortly before his death in a fall from his apartment window. Hrabal is one of the major 20th-century Czech writers.
Hanta is a little man with a great inner life. His daily work, and his artistry, are bound together--Hanta works in a basement where he is continually inundated with waste paper and trash. His job is to run the compacting machine that packs the paper into bales, but he is always behind, because Hanta is an artist in rubbish. Each bale is lovingly designed and packed to be just right, with a secret treasure in its heart that no one will ever see. He also rescues many of the thousands of old books that are thrown away, and he reads great literature, storing words away in his mind and his home. The new order of Socialism is creeping up on him and his odd little life, though, and soon he will be swept away on a tide of industrialization, forced order, and inhumanity.
Hanta's life is a continual meeting of beauty and ugliness. He sees cruelty and blood, and also beautiful moments in the lives of the downtrodden. He thinks amazing and wonderful thoughts even as he works in garbage.
For thirty-five years now I've been in 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 encyclopedias-and a good three tons of them I've compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that's how I've stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
I was glad the Bonjour, M. Gauguin sides showed above the slats, and I hoped that everyone the truck passed would enjoy it. As the truck drove off, the flesh flies came alive in the Saplena Street sun, swarms of blue, green, and gold flesh slies that were certainly entitled to be locked up with Paul Gauguin's Bonjour, M. Gauguin, in large crates and doused with acids and alkalis in paper mills, because those wild flies refuse to give up the idea that life is at its most beautiful in gloriously rancid, decomposing blood.
I've been compacting wastepaper for thirty-five years, a job that ought to require not only a good classical education, preferably on the university level, but also a divinity degree, because in my profession spiral and circle come together and progressus ad futurum meets regressus ad originem, and I experience it all firsthand...Hrabal likes long sentences and longer paragraphs, with repetition of certain phrases (nearly every chapter begins with the "thirty-five years" line). A couple of his earlier books are just one novel-length sentence.
I liked this book a lot and I'll be planning on reading more Hrabal in the future.