On a lazy summer day, at the age of 5, I made my first true friend. As I stared deeper into its face, I begged, pleaded my mother to let me be friends with this elegant thing. Even with a stubborn promise of practicing my cursive writing for an hour daily, it took my mother more than a week to be able to allow me to bring this new friendship in my life. Over the years, I have made several friends and have been at the receiving end of the love-hate relationship for decades. Some have chosen me and some I have chosen. We do not get to choose our families, so I take a bit of an extra effort in choosing my friends. Along the way, some of them have being embraced, some thrown amid a fit of rage, some ignored, some misplaced and then there have been those who have cured my reclusiveness. And, now all my dear ones, old and new, live together with great camaraderie behind the wooden door waiting to be picked up for some friendly banter. My parents gave me a loving heart, the school and streets taught me discipline, but it were the books that made me human; they bestowed me the gift of a liberated soul that harbors no prejudices and appreciates other people irrespective to their stations in life for they have innumerable stories that are yet to be heard and written. Hantá too had a story yet to be told and when those precious sentences flowed from his mouth emitting the fragrance of a freshly sucked fruit drop, copious tears ferociously rushed down my cheeks ignoring my gentle pleas as they rested on my fingertips; the green and red buttons flashing in the background.
“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.”
As the door of the cellar opened, through the beaming sunlight descended the prized words of Goethe, Sartre, Hegel, Lao-Tze and many more; a steady shower of erudite sentences that peeked through the crumpled sheets of paper, verses that may never see daylight again, it was as if the inhumane heavens gifted Hantá the gems of mankind for the final time as a tribute to the admirable artist. For thirty-five years, the mulish sounds of the cold metal obeying the marching orders of the green and red lights , shuddered through the dark interiors of the cellar as the radiance of education dispersed steadily in the beer-laden core of Hantá’s physicality. Hantá was a connoisseur of books for he knew to identify a Goethe from a Schiller and scout a Nietzsche reading like a Homeric prophecy. Hantá called himself a “refined butcher”. What a tragedy! A man who crushes paper for a living perceives his work as a slaughtering fest, while those who massacre guiltless lives bestow themselves with honorary badges of “humane leaders”. Those who slay libertarian expressions revel in their wreckage while those like Hantá bear the burden of the putrefying corpses. In the dense solitude following the peripheral mayhem, Hantá was a passionate audience who knew the merit of fighting for free speech, but inopportune circumstances made him experience the pleasure of wreckage, for obliteration is all he saw as his youthful illusion drowned in the Olympic beer pool.
“And while the sewers of Prague provide the scene for a senseless war between two armies of rats, the cellars are headquarters for Prague’s fallen angels, university-educated men who have lost a battle they never fought, yet continue to work toward a clearer image of the world.”
The white mice annihilated the brown ones and then the triumphant white ones indulged in a war of their own, humiliating their own mates. The sewers of Prague were plagued by a battle that went on years to come. A city, a country, in the midst of turmoil butchering their own kin for egotistical prejudices, squalor contaminated the blissful lives smothering it with faeces of brutality and discomfiture splashing everywhere, just like those that had soiled the ribbons of Manca bringing ignominy and relinquishing her glory. Through Hantá’s empathetic words, Hrabal paints the distorted reality of his homeland (Czech Republic) that saw democracy decaying in the graves dug by the tyrannical elements of Communism. Hrabal’s country saw a melee of wars that rose through decades of inhumane treatment, bloody revolutions and ultimately liberation. For decades, Hantá regularly dug literary graves beneath the sturdy hydraulic press and his country massacred free speech and social equality. During the onset of a political spring (Prague Spring, 1968), the country exhaled in the air of emancipation as bans on travel, speech and media were lifted. Nonetheless this heaven was a temporary respite and once again the country crumbled into depths of obscurity. Heaven is far from being humane, isn’t it? While the livid rats were combating for the supremacy over the sewers, Hantá was haunted by the ghosts of the deceased books, every trampled mice making Hantá lose an ounce of compassion from his soul.
Why do we read books? What do we achieve from these books? Do books make us heartless or is it that we are blind to the humanity that resides within the pages of the book? Are books really that cruel? Is free speech demonic? The world is filled with idiots and these very idiots carry the traits of idiocy into the core of the tomes that are brutally ripped apart as if confiscating a disagreeable existence of life. The notion of Hrabal’s cherished words being ripped apart by political callousness and his books being treated far worse than a leper, brings excruciating pain.
“I put a Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant, and the flesh flies went berserk, attacking the last bits of dried and drying blood with such gluttony that they failed to notice the drum wall crushing and compacting them, separating them into membranes and cells.”
In a land, at a time when guns were favored over pens, agonizing screams were audible than free speech, morality was a festering corpse and Hrabal’s books were sinners of human race. In the former sovereign Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Gypsies were once privileged citizens of country that took pride in their ethnic culture. Only if, Hegel and Schopenhauer had not waged a confrontation, only if the words of Sartre and Plato had not crossed the wrong street corner, only if numerous pages were not crushed under the gigantic hydraulic press after every war; then the gorgeous gypsy girl would have been able to cook warm food for Hantá and lie down beside him in a loving embrace as Hantá happily sucked on to the fruity aromatic sentences from his books. In the mournful shower of wrinkled paper, the inhumane heavens had washed away the last lingering traces of kindness and love.
“…until suddenly one day I felt beautiful and holy for having had the courage to hold on to my sanity after all I’d seen and been through, body and soul, in too loud a solitude, and slowly I came to the realization that my work was hurtling me headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence.”
The cat is a coward when it does not let the mice squeak. The narcissistic mind is atrocious when it exterminates words from other minds. The voices of solitude burned, its ashes flowing through Hantá’s body and soul and from Hantá’s solitary wisdom came the courage to find beauty among the crackling noises of human bones. The age of industrialization brought with it an eccentric world alienating the old loyalists. With each new compacter established, the fears of the collector becoming the collection burgeoned among heaps of wastepaper whilst mocking Sisyphus as Camus was shredded into white confetti. Paper was being recycled, so were the books and inked words, all of them recycled ushering a new era; sadly lives cannot be recycled and are forever jammed in a claustrophobic time-zone praying for a miracle like those discarded pages of a book, hoping to be saved .
The man who guards the cemetery somehow values life much more than those who walk past it, for he is surrounded by the stillness of death. To me, Hantá was a not a refined butcher. Hantá was clandestine priest who eulogized the books wishing that they would bestow the gift of humanity to the merciless heavens. After all it is a love story. Yet, in love and war, commonsense is not a commonplace. Lao-tze says,“to be born is to exit and to die is to enter?” Does he mean to exit and enter the realms of humanity through commonsense and compassion?
Hantá, the man who made me cry the entire night, only to befriend me the very next day, marking the beginning of a life-long friendship. Are you listening Hrabal?
**[The above picture is taken from the namesake movie]