Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Too Loud a Solitude gallery

The 'Hrabal Wall' in Prague. Photo by Miaow Miaow. Image credit.

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’m 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 tears. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck 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 pasty thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, and 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. (pp. 1-2)

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 whether I’ve made a bale distinctive enough. (p. 5)

For thirty-five years now I've been compacting old paper in my hydraulic press. I've got five years to retirement and my press is going with me, I won't abandon it, I'm saving up, I've got my own bankbook and press and me, we'll retire together, because I'm going to buy it from the firm, I'm going to take it home and stash it somewhere among the trees in my uncle's garden, and then, when the time is right, I'll make only one bale a day, but what a bale, a bale to end all bales, a statue, an artifact, I'll pour all my youthful illusions into it, everything I know, everything I've learned during my thirty-five years of work; at last I'll work only when the spirit moves me, when I feel inspired, one bale a day from the three tons of books I have waiting at home, a bale I'll never need to be ashamed of, a bale I'll have time to think out, dream out, in advance. (p. 8)

A quotation from Too Loud a Solitude on a New York City wall.
Photo by mAo.
Image credit. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

For thirty-five years I've been compacting old paper, and in that time I've had so many
beautiful books thrown into my cellar that if I had three barns they'd all be full. Just after the war the second one - was over, somebody dumped a basket of the most exquisitely made books in my hydraulic press, and when I'd calmed down enough to open one of them, what did I see but the stamp of the Royal Prussian Library, and when next day I found the whole cellar overflowing with more of the same - leather-bound volumes, their gilt edges and titles flooding the air with light - I raced upstairs to see two fellows standing there, and what I managed to squeeze out of them was that somewhere in the vicinity of Nové Straseci there was a barn with so many books in the straw it made your eyes pop out of your head. So I went to see the army librarian, and the two of us took off for Nové Straseci, and there in the fields we found not one but three barns chock full of the Royal Prussian Library, and once we'd done oohing and ahing, we had a good talk, as a result of which a column of military vehicles spent a week transporting the books to a wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague, where they were to wait until things had simmered down and they could be sent back to their place of origin. But somebody leaked the hiding place and the Royal Prussian Library was declared official booty, so the column of military vehicles started transporting all the leatherbound volumes with their gilt edges and titles over to the railroad station, where they were loaded on flat-cars in the rain, and since it poured the whole week, what I saw when the last load of books pulled up was a constant stream of gold water cum pitch and printer's ink flowing down from the train. Well, I just stood there, leaning against a lamppost, flabbergasted, and as the last car disappeared into the mist, I felt the rain in my face merging with tears, so when on my way out of the station I saw a policeman in uniform, I crossed my wrists and begged him with the utmost sincerity to take out his handcuffs, his bracelets, as we used to call them, and take me in–I’d committed a crime, a crime against humanity–and when he did take me in, all they did was laugh at me and threaten to lock me up. (pp. 10-11)

For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting old paper, and if I had it all to do over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years. Even so, three or four times a year my job turns from plus to minus: the cellar suddenly goes bad, the nags and niggles and whines of my boss pound in my ears and head and make the room into an inferno; the wastepaper, piled to the ceiling, wet and moldy, ferments in a way that makes manure seem sweet, a swamp decomposing in the depths of my cellar, with bubbles rising to the surface like will-o’-the-wisps from a stump rotting in the mire. (p. 21)

And all the while I was loading armfuls of wet, red paper and my face was smeared with blood. Then I pushed the green button, and the press started compacting the flies along with the disgusting paper, the flesh flies that couldn’t tear themselves away from what was left of the meat and were mad for its odor and started rutting and mating, and as their passion drove them into wilder and wilder pirouettes, they formed thick orbits of dementia around the drum full of paper, like neutrons and protons swirling around their atoms. (p. 34)

Yesterday we buried my uncle, who had a stroke on the job, in his signal tower. It's the height of summer and his friends are all off in the woods and streams; he lay there on the signal-tower floor for two hot weeks before one of the engineers found him coated with flies and worms, his body running over the linoleum like an overripe Camembert. The undertakers picked up what had stuck to his clothes, then came and told me what had happened, and I went and got a shovel and trowel and scooped him bit by bit off the floor, fortified by a bottle of rum the undertakers had given me. Humbly and quietly I scraped up the remains of his remains, the toughest part being the red hair in the linoleum—it was like the spines of a porcupine run over by a truck; I had to use a chisel on it—and when I finished, I stuffed the leftovers under the clothes he had on in the coffin, covered his head with the cap I'd found hanging in the signal tower, and placed a volume of Immanuel Kant in his hands, opening it to a beautiful text that has never failed to move me: "Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing wonder—the starry firmament above me and the moral law within me," but, changing my mind, I leafed through the younger Kant and found an even more beautiful passage: "When the tremulous radiance of a summer night fills with twinkling stars and the moon itself is full, I am slowly drawn into a state of enhanced sensitivity made of friendship and disdain for the world and eternity." And when I opened his closet, there it was—the scrap-metal collection my uncle used to show me all the time, not that I'd ever appreciated it, a collection of metal of every possible color, boxes full, odds and ends of copper and brass and tin and iron and other colored metal he would lay out on the tracks when he was on duty, and every evening, after the train passed, he picked up and sorted them according to the wild shapes they had assumed, giving each piece a name by association with its shape and each box a motif, like Asian butterflies or chocolate-nougat foil wrappers. It wasn't until I'd taken one box after another and emptied them into my uncle's coffin, inundating him with his precious scrap-metal collection, that I let the undertakers put the lid on. There he lay, covered with medals, medallions, and orders, decked out like a dignitary, like a prize bale I had composed and compacted. (pp. 49-50)

Well into the fifties my cellar was piled high with Nazi literature, and there was nothing I enjoyed more than compacting tons of Nazi pamphlets and booklets, hundreds of thousands of pages with pictures of cheering men, women, and children, cheering graybeards, cheering workers, cheering peasants, cheering SS men, cheering soldiers. I got a specially big kick out of loading my drum with Hitler and his entourage entering liberated Danzig, Hitler entering liberated Warsaw, Hitler entering liberated Prague, Hitler entering liberated Vienna, Hitler entering liberated Paris, Hitler at home, Hitler at harvest festivals, Hitler with his faithful sheepdog, Hitler visiting his troops at the front, Hitler inspecting the Atlantic Wall, Hitler en route to the conquered towns of East and West, Hitler leaning over military maps. And the more I compacted the cheering men, women, and children, the more I thought of my Gypsy girl, who had never cheered, who had wanted nothing more than to feed the fire, make her potato goulash, and fill my large pitcher with beer, nothing more than to break her bread like the wafer at Communion and look into the stove door, transfixed by the flames and heat and noise of the fire, the song of the fire, which she had known since childhood and which held sacred ties to her people. It left all pain behind and coaxed a melancholy smile to her face, a reflection of perfect happiness. (pp. 60-61)

Only now did I see the workers at the foot of the conveyor belt tearing open the boxes, taking the virgin books out of them, pulling the covers off, and tossing the naked insides on the belt, and it didn't matter what page they fell open to: nobody ever looked into them, nobody even dreamed of looking into them, because whereas I stopped my press all the time, they had to keep the belt full and moving. It was inhuman, the work they were doing in Bubny; it was like work on a trawler, when the nets are hauled in and the crew sort big fish from small, tossing them on belts that go directly to canning machines in the bowels of the ship: one fish after another, one book after another. (p. 65)

Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking. Even if each of the workers took home one book from each printing as payment in kind, it wouldn't be the same, it would still be the end of us, the old guard, because we were all educated unwittingly. (p. 66)

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