Irene Vallejo

from Papyrus

in our times, we have organized the destruction of books with great efficiency. As Alberto Olmos says, our decent societies exterminate in one year as much printed matter as the Nazis, the Inquisition, and Shihuangdi put together. Stealthily, without the epic of the public bonfire, each year in Spain alone we get rid of millions of books. Publishers’ warehouses have become funeral homes sheltering titles in their first death—in other words, when they are sent back from the bookstores. The deficit is immense: in 2016, 224 million books were printed in Spain, of which almost 90 million ended up in purgatory. Of the titles with best-selling pretensions, many more copies than readers can consume are knowingly printed, since in the publishing industry, gigantic piles of books are thought to sell books. The miscalculations and frustrated hopes of publishers also send hundreds of thousands of books straight to the funeral home. Due to the high cost of storage, those millions of evicted books end up in warehouses in suburbs, where they are shredded, compressed, and turned into an amorphous mass of paper pulp. They are then quietly transformed into other books born at the price of cannibalizing their failed predecessors, or recycled into other new products and supplies, like Tetra Pak cartons, napkins, tissues, coasters, shoeboxes, food packaging—the contemporary version of Martial’s togas for tuna—or even rolls of toilet paper, which make us all into imitators of the guests at that Brighton boardinghouse.

The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal worked as a paper packer in a recycling mill. Based on this experience, his novel Too Loud a Solitude transcribes the monologue of a worker shut away in a basement—with the mice and his musings—as he compacts bales of paper one by one, to be handed over to the carriers. His cave stinks to high heaven since the piles of paper aren’t dry but damp and rotting and beginning to ferment, “in a way that makes manure seem sweet.” Three times a week, the trucks take their bales to the station, load them into train cars, and haul them off to the paper factories, where workers plunge them into cloudy tanks of acid and alkali that dissolve them. The protagonist, in love with books, knows that wonderful works expire in his hydraulic press, but is powerless to stop the flow of destruction. “I am nothing but a refined butcher,” he writes. His consolation consists of being these books’ final reader and of carefully preparing their tombs, the bales he makes:

I have a need to garnish my bales, give them my stamp, my signature…Last month they delivered nearly fifteen hundred pounds of ‘Old Masters’ reproductions, dropped nearly fifteen hundred pounds of sopping-wet Rembrandts, Halses, Monets, Manets, Klimts, Cézannes, and other big guns of European art into my cellar, so now I frame each of my bales with reproductions, and when evening comes and the bales stand one next to the other waiting in all their splendor for the service elevator, I can’t take my eyes off them: now The Night Watch, now Saskia, here Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, there the House of the Hanged Man at Anvers or Guernica. Besides, I’m the only one on earth who knows that deep in the heart of each bale there’s a wide-open Faust or Don Carlos, that here, buried beneath a mound of blood-soaked cardboard, lies a Hyperion, there, cushioned on piles of cement bags rests a Thus Spake Zarathustra…I am both artist and audience.

Hrabal wrote this novel when his work had been banned by the communist regime. In that period when writing was taken prisoner, he was obsessed with the dynamic of creation and destruction, with literature’s raison d’être and the question of what leads to solitude. The old worker’s monologue is a fable about the cruelty of time. It also indirectly bears informed witness to the fantastic and unlikely adventure required for a book to survive for millennia.

translated by Charlotte Whittle