This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.
I have felt a compulsion to write for most of my life, or at least since I was in Junior school. I remember being eight and starting my first novel; I would add a chapter a day, with some help from Paul Williams, a classmate. I call it a compulsion because I don’t appear to be able to stop, regardless of where I am or what I have to hand. I have drawers full of scraps of paper, bus tickets, and post-it notes on which I have scribbled lines or ideas; my mobile phone has more notes stored on it than numbers; the space on my computer is almost entirely taken up with word documents. I don’t like to delete or throw any of this stuff away because, in a way, it is the story of my life, they document, albeit indirectly, who I was at the time of writing. Part of my reason for wanting to review was to be able to bear witness, to keep a record of my experiences. All of these things, if you compiled them, would, I guess, make up a bildungsroman for the modern age.
It was a running joke when I was on Goodreads that my reviews would begin with a lengthy personal anecdote, which I would, eventually, in a wildly tenuous fashion, eventually link to the book at hand. I guess this review is no different. I Served the King of England is also a bildungsroman of sorts. According to the narrator, Ditie, it was written for the same reasons that I write: as a document of his experiences, so that he can have a record of them. Like my writings it is a fragmented narrative, it is a life told in moments, or episodes; it is not a complex, detailed story. I Served the King of England is, in fact, what we call a shaggy-dog story. This is something Hrabal excelled at, at creating faux-naïve, simple-hearted characters that hop, skip, and occasionally stumble from one adventure to the next.
At the beginning of the narrative Ditie is a busboy at a hotel; by the end he is a road-mender. In between he becomes rich and a Nazi-sympathiser. Really, though, none of that is particularly important or engaging. What is great about I Served the King of England is Hrabal’s prose, Ditie’s voice, and, in particular, the often beautiful flights of fancy. Despite some darker moments the tone of the novel is mostly lighthearted, chatty and colloquial, like a more worldly-wise [i.e. base] Walser or less acerbic Celine. However, while Hrabal’s prose is easy to read, is seemingly straightforward, it is quietly, unassumingly sophisticated and sometimes poetic. It’s a really neat trick. Hrabal is what I would call a first-rate prose stylist. His novels are not always engrossing, plot-wise, but they are always brilliantly written, are enjoyable to read if you value craft and wit and insight and memorable lines over an exciting, fast-paced story.
I’ve seen numerous times, in reviews all over the internet, that people often prefer the second half of I Served the King of England, which deals with Ditie’s marriage to a German girl and subsequent involvement with the SS. However, for me, it’s the least successful part of the book. This is not because it is less stylish or less amusing than what came before, but because it is when Hrabal’s weaknesses as a writer are most apparent. Transitions are a problem; they are clunky and too random. Somehow the author has to make us believe that Ditie can go from being a wide-eyed hotel worker to a Nazi sympathiser, and yet Hrabal cannot pull it off. Our narrator just kind of does, without any real, or psychologically sound, justification.
These are, however, minor quibbles; and it is more satisfying to focus on the positive, which is why I will return to those flights of fancy. It is not oft mentioned by others but to my mind Hrabal was a surrealist or, if you prefer, a kind of magical realist. His work is, indeed, closer to Garcia Marquez than to his compatriot Kundera. Early in the novel there is a fight between some gypsies at one of the hotels where Ditie works; it is a random fight, without prelude, in which a great amount of blood is spilled and flesh lopped off. Hrabal describes the glinting of the knives used in the flight as like golden flies flying around the Golden Prague, which is oddly beautiful. There is, too, Ditie’s fetish for adorning the laps and genitals of his lovers with flowers, one of whom, while visiting him at work, pours grenadine over herself and walks out to an accompaniment of sugar-thirsty bees. I loved all of that stuff, and there is a lot more of it, but I won’t ruin the surprises for first-time readers by revealing more of them.
To conclude, then, although I Served the King of England does engage with serious issues, with politics and death, and the meaning of life, its greatest accomplishment is to be itself full of life, to be charming and funny. That is, for me, a more significant statement, is more important than anything Hrabal could have said about Czech life during the war, etc. There’s a character in the novel that has an uncanny ability to know things, to intuit things. Whenever he is asked how he, for example, knows that someone will order a soup just by looking at them, his reply is: because I once served the king of England. Hrabal, too, just seemed to know, to get it, to understand what life is about, what is important, what makes it beautiful or worthwhile; he must have served some pretty high-ranking people himself.