This charming and moving novella first appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1976, and in that bleak time between failed and successful revolutions it must have seemed a political parable. Its hero, Hanta, a solitary old "idiot" who has compacted waste paper in a hydraulic press in a cellar for 35 years, is the most civilized person in Prague, self-educated from the thousands of censored and discarded books he has smuggled home to read.
Bohumil Hrabal (best known in the West for "Closely Watched Trains," which was made into a movie) spins long sentences leafy with similes, which, like Hanta's mind, like ivy climbing over statues and cathedrals, knit together the lost fragments of humanistic culture. Hanta stays drunk on words and beer to forget the mechanization of life outside, the mindless wars fought by rats in the Prague sewers, and the Gypsy girl he once loved, a victim of Hitler's camps. When doom comes, he has the philosophy to meet it, just as Hrabal's tale, so finely balanced between pathos and comedy, loses none of its power now that Czechoslovakia is free.