Sometime ago when I heard about Ann Morgan’s journey through the world through books, I was fascinated by the idea. Apart from the cost of the books, I can’t see another affordable and authentic way of seeing the world. Of course, it can be argued that one book or one author can’t possibly tell you all there is to tell about one country. But think of it like this: when you meet someone from a distant land on a train or bus, you’re grateful for that opportunity – at least I am – to have been able to peep into another world and other lives. You don’t think of complaining, “Hey, not fair that I only got to meet one person from xyz country?”
I have decided to follow in Morgan’s steps and for those countries that I have no idea where to look for books or authors, I will follow her even in the books she has read. I think there will be a lot of such countries.
So, Too Loud a Solitude is my first step in this world tour. It’s written by Bohumil Hrabal in Czech and translated by Michael Henry Heim. Coincidentally, there’s a thread of commonality between my choice of the book and my renewed interest in waste management: the protagonist Hanta’s job is to compact waste paper. (There are accent marks missing from his name that I know not how to reproduce.)
Of course, the last thing that Hanta wants to do is to send fine books to their death. He’s been saving books from the paper compacter throughout his career of 35 years and has ended up with a stash of nearly two tons of books at his place.
Quaint things happen in Hanta’s life. Like for instance, the misfortune of his girlfriend who always seems to get faeces on her dress at the most public of moments. Or, how the kind, absent-minded philosophy professor routinely mistakes Hanta for his employer, an older man, when he has his hat on.
I keep looking for clues to the politics and culture of a place when I’m reading fiction. In Hrabal’s book, it comes in the form of the new-age paper compacting machine and its eager attendants – the Brigade of Socialist Labor – that Hanta feels threatened by, what with its inhumane vigour and its un-reading, uncaring staff.
Hanta is scandalized to see them drinking milk at work: “But the biggest shock came when I saw the young workers shamelessly guzzling milk and soft drinks – legs spread wide, hand on hip – straight from the bottle… think of drinking milk at work when everyone knows that even a cow would rather die of thirst than touch a drop of the stuff!” But his heart breaks when he sees them put in bales and bales of books without stopping for a moment to think about the thoughts and words they crush with their machine.
Soon, he finds himself replaced with these men from the Socialist Labour group. He has nowhere to go and roams around the city, guzzling down beer after beer. Finally, he decides to compact himself in his machine with his beloved wastepaper.
I loved what he has done here by showing capitalism under the guise of socialism. The doing away of any appreciation of art is, of course, given here, but it also shows a disconnect between even man and the machine.
To Hanta, there’s no way you can travel to Greece without having read about Aristotle or Plato or even Goethe. So relevant in our times of consumerist culture where we flit about from land to land, ticking off places from our bucket list.
There never was a greater lover of books than Hanta, for he chose to be a wastepaper handler just so he could lay his hands on books. “…just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters 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…”
As I read the book, I become very conscious of the fact that I too am holding a book in my hand and hope that I will never be callous enough to toss it in amidst waste paper. Hrabal renews my gratitude to authors who enable time travel, who pack their thoughts into words and share them with us, who lay bare before us beauty as well as misery. For, “real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.”