As Hanta narrates, he deals with his stifling occupation in a handful of different ways—the first is by drinking obscene amounts of beer, which he surprisingly consumes not as a means of escape. Rather, the beer fuels his true passions: saving rare literature from destruction in his hydraulic press, and constantly consuming the words and ideas found therein. Consequently, the bales of wastepaper that Hanta produces are a synthesis and vivid expression of the effects the books have had on his mind and life. One of the novel’s most compelling sequences follows Hanta’s thoughts as he fashions an artistic bale from books and pictures of Jesus Christ and Lao Tzu, plastering their pictures on the outer edges of the bale and imagining to himself how the two religious figures compare to each other and how they might appear in modern times. His love for eclectic knowledge knows no limits, and yet it seems his voracious appetite for it is slightly touched with a madcap’s uneven keel.
Similarly eloquent is Hrabal’s depiction of Hanta’s apartment, which is jammed with shelves and shelves of rare books and a dangerous infestation of mice—Hanta is sure that one day the rodents will have eaten through the shelving and he will be ironically crushed beneath his beloved books. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Hanta is nearly alone in his love of waste literature not only because of the time and attention required to appreciate it but also because of the Czech socialist order’s desire to censor and expunge the country of literature deemed unsatisfactory for its political aims. In turn, Hanta’s visit to a new government-operated hydraulic trash plant results in a John Henry-esque realization that propels the novel to its potent climax.
Hrabal’s novel, though short, speaks powerfully to the value of literature and the indestructibility and immortality of ideas. Though the symbolism is at times heavy-handed, the author’s style furthers his ideas with wit and creativity not unlike the considerably more famous English language works to come from magical realist authors like Salman Rushdie. Also noteworthy are the translation efforts of Michael Henry Heim, who manages to bring the novel to English without sacrificing Hrabal’s skillful tone and impressively managing to convey the novel’s original ideas with borderline poetic language and a flow that would imply that the novel’s original language was English.