Wednesday, September 5, 2007


OK, another 'cheat' here. I am badly bogged down in my current read, A Game with Sharpened Knives, and beginning to despair of ever finishing (I am only in possession of it in the first place because the doctor friend I was staying with last month had likewise given up on it). So, here's another little review of something I read a while back.

Hrabal is a Czech satirist (aren't all Czechs satirists??), perhaps best known for 'Closely Observed Trains' (which was adapted into a very highly acclaimed film 40-odd years ago, one of the classics of Eastern European cinema).

This is a very short novel - I think, from rather later in his life.

Great title! Intriguing concept, too: it's a Kafka-ish fable about a man who has spent his entire working life in a damp windowless basement compacting waste paper and books in a hydraulic press. There are rather too many books, of course, what with government censors withdrawing titles from circulation on a whim and anti-bourgeois sentiments condemning countless private libraries to destruction. The discarded books become his life. He hands on selected titles to various collectors - underground academics - that he's met. He smuggles thousands of them home for himself (the huge weight of them on a precarious platform above his bed nightly threatens him with obliteration - a sword of Damocles). He makes his bricks of compressed paper into art works, with specially chosen books hidden like pearls in the middle of them, and reproductions of Old Master paintings wrapped around the outside. He even saves up his money to buy the press for himself, so that he can continue this work after his retirement. You might say the man has an unhealthy obsession with crushing and being crushed, and it's not too difficult to guess how it ends. It's a slight thing, very short, and with no real 'story' to speak of, but it does linger powerfully in the memory.

And the sheer richness of the language is a constant delight. I particularly liked this summation of the joy of reading: "I do not so much read as savour the words. I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck on it like a fruit drop."

I have just learned from IMDB that there was a French film version made of this about 10 years ago. Oddly, the entry includes almost no detail other than the cast (the wonderful Philippe Noiret played the protagonist, Hanta), and IMDB's predominantly philistine readership give it a dismal rating, but I think it would be worth checking out. It seems that there is also an animated version currently in production.

So, of course, you must all read it now.

I found a website with an interesting series of B & W art photographs inspired by this book. Unfortunately, bloody Blogger won't let me add a couple of them to the end of this post (only at the beginning, which takes up too much space, and detracts from the book jacket). Do go and take a look at the site.

Aha! I finally worked out how to do it.


moonrat said...

philistine readership. teehee.

Froog said...

Yes, I only visit IMDB because it is such a useful information repository, but the ratings/reviews..... SUCK!

It pisses me off that any vaguely good film that's just opened gets into the Top 250 straight away. It pisses me off that any popcorn-guzzler-pleaser gets into the Top 250 straight away. It pisses me off that such a punch-all-the-right-buttons crapfest as 'Shawshank Redemption' is No. 2. Un-fucking-believable!!!

And do you see any non-English language films in that 'Top' list? Apart from the 40-year-old ones that are 'canon' - NO.

Two thirds of them are Wayne & Garth watching late-night cable.

Froog said...

I just found these great pictures from an art exhibition inspired by the novel.

Unfortunately, Blogger won't let me display the photos in here directly, but do go check them out.

Or I suppose I could add them to the post....

sj_seo said...

Hydraulic Press