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Too Loud a Solitude

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. In an average month I compact two tons of books, but to muster the strength for my godly labors I’ve drunk so much beer over the past thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery. Such wisdom as I have has come to me unwittingly, and I look on my brain as a mass of hydraulically compacted thoughts, a bale of ideas, and my head as a smooth, shiny Aladdin’s lamp. How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped, because 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. I’ve just bought one of those minuscule adder-subtractor-square-rooters, a tiny little contraption no bigger than a wallet, and after screwing up my courage I pried open the back with a screwdriver, and was I shocked and tickled to find nothing but an even tinier contraption--smaller than a postage stamp and thinner than ten pages of a book--that and air, air charged with mathematical variations. When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through air, gliding on air, living off air, returning to air, because in the end everything is air, just as the host is and is not the blood of Christ.

For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting old paper and books, living as I do in a land that has known how to read and write for fifteen generations; living in a onetime kingdom where it was and still is a custom, an obsession, to compact thoughts and images patiently in the heads of the population, thereby bringing them ineffable joy and even greater woe; living among people who will lay down their lives for a bale of compacted thoughts. And now it is all recurring in me. Along with thirty-five years of pushing the red and green buttons on my hydraulic press, I’ve had thirty-five years of drinking beer--not that I enjoy it, no, I loathe drunkards, I drink to make me think better, to go to the heart of what I read, because what I read I read not for the fun of it or to kill time or fall asleep; I, who live in a land that has known how to read and write for fifteen generations, drink so that what I read will prevent me from falling into everlasting sleep, will give me the DTs, because I share with Hegel the view that a noble-hearted man is not yet a nobleman, nor a criminal a murderer. If I knew how to write, I’d write a book about the greatest of man’s joys and sorrows. It is by and from books that I’ve learned that the heavens are not humane, neither the heavens nor any man with a head on his shoulders--it’s not that men don’t wish to be humane, it just goes against common sense. Rare books perish in my press, under my hands, yet I am unable to stop their flow: I am nothing but a refined butcher. Books have taught me the joy of devastation: I love cloudbursts and demolition crews, I can stand for hours watching the carefully coordinated pumping motions of detonation experts as they blast entire houses, entire streets, into the air while seeming only to fill tires. I can’t get enough of that first moment, the one that lifts all the bricks and stones and beams only to cave them in quietly, like clothes dropping, like a steamer sinking swiftly to the ocean floor when its boilers have burst. There I stand in the cloud of dust, in the music of fulmination, thinking of my work deep down in the cellar where I have my press, the one where I’ve been working for thirty-five years by the light of a few electric bulbs and where above me I hear steps moving across the courtyard, and, through an opening in the ceiling, which is also a hole in the middle of the courtyard, I see heaven-sent horns of plenty in the form of bags, crates, and boxes raining down their old paper, withered flower-shop stalks, wholesalers’ wrappings, out-of-date theater programs, ice-cream wrappers, sheets of paint-spattered wallpaper, piles of moist, bloody paper from the butchers’, razor-sharp rejects from photographers’ studios, insides of office wastepaper baskets, typewriter ribbons included, bouquets from birthdays and namedays long past. Sometimes I find a cobblestone buried in a bundle of newspapers to make it weigh more or a penknife and a pair of scissors disposed of by mistake, or claw hammers or cleavers or cups with dried black coffee still in them or faded wedding nosegays wound round with fresh artificial funeral wreaths.

For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting it all in my hydraulic press, and three times a week it is transported by truck to train and then on to the paper mill, where they snap the wires and dump my work into alkalis and acids strong enough to dissolve the razor blades I keep gouging my hands with. But 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, 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 out the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy; then I place it carefully among my other splendid finds in a small crate lined with the holy cards someone once dropped into my cellar by mistake with a load of prayer books, and then comes my ritual, my mass: not only do I read every one of those books, I take each and put it in a bale, because I have a need to garnish my bales, give them my stamp, my signature, and I always worry about whether I’ve made a bale distinctive enough: I have to spend two hours overtime in the cellar every working day, I have to get to work an hour early, I sometimes have to come in on Saturdays if I want to work my way through the never-ending mountain of old paper. Last month they delivered nearly fifteen hundred pounds of “Old Masters” reproductions, dropped nearly fifteen hundred pounds of sopping-wet Rembrandts, Halses, Monets, Manets, Klimts, Cezannes, and other big guns of European art into my cellar, so now I frame each of my bales with reproductions, and when evening comes and the bales stand one next to the other waiting in all their splendor for the service elevator, I can’t take my eyes off them: now The Night Watch, now Saskia, here Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, there the House of the Hanged Man at Anvers or Guernica. Besides, I’m the only one on earth who knows that deep in the heart of each bale there’s a wide-open Faust or Don Carlos, that here, buried beneath a mound of blood-soaked cardboard, lies a Hyperion, there, cushioned on piles of cement bags rests a Thus Spake Zarathustra; I’m the only one on earth who knows which bale has Goethe, which Schiller, which Holderlin, which Nietzsche. In a sense, I am both artist and audience, but the daily pressure does me in, tires me out, racks me, sears me, and to reduce and restrict my enormous self-output I drink beer after beer, and on my way to Husensky’s for refills I have time to meditate and dream about what my next bale is going to look like. The only reason I down so much beer is to see into the future, because in every bale I bury a precious relic, a child’s open coffin strewn with withered flowers, tinsel, and angel’s hair, and I make a nice little bed for the books that turn up unexpectedly in the cellar, much as I myself turned up there one day. That’s why I’m always behind in my work, why the courtyard is piled to the rooftops with old paper that can’t go down the opening in the ceiling of my cellar for the mountain of old paper blocking it from below; that’s why my boss, his face scarlet with rage, will sometimes stick his hook through the opening and clear away enough paper to shout down to me, “Hanta! Where are you? For Christ’s sake, will you stop ogling those books and get to work? The courtyard’s piled high with paper and you sit there dreaming!” And I huddle in the lee of my paper mountain like Adam in the bushes and pick up a book, and my eyes open panic-stricken on a world other than my own, because when I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing, I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been in the very heart of truth. Ten times a day, every day, I wonder at having wandered so far, and then, alienated from myself, a stranger to myself, I go home, walking the streets silently and in deep meditation, passing trams and cars and pedestrians in a cloud of books, the books I found that day and am carrying home in my briefcase. Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, never bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don’t know. On I go through the noisy streets, never crossing at the red; I walk subconsciously unconscious, half-asleep, subliminally inspired, with every bale I’ve compacted that day fading softly and quietly inside me. I have a physical sense of myself as a bale of compacted books, the seat of a tiny pilot light of karma, like the flame in a gas refrigerator, an eternal flame I feed daily with the oil of my thoughts, which come from what I unwittingly read during work in the books I am now taking home in my briefcase. So I walk home like a burning house, like a burning stable, the light of life pouring out of the fire, fire pouring out of the dying wood, hostile sorrow lingering under the ashes.

From Chapter One of “Too Loud a Solitude” (A Harvest Book/Harcourt Brace) by Bohumil Hrabal. Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. Used by kind permission of the publisher.

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