By Bohumil Hrabal

Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 98 pp. $16.95

"THERE'S this tradition in Czech literature,"said Czech emigre novelist Josef Skvorecky, "that books are sacred." Sadly, the political systems that have dominated Czechoslovakia for most of its history -- Nazism from 1939-1945 and Communism from 1948-1989 -- showed little respect for that tradition. Books considered antithetical to the authorities were burned, banned and censored. If they survived intact, it was only underground, where they circulated in samizdat form. Kafka wasn't even published until the late 1950s, and Jaroslav Seifert's Nobel Prize acceptance speech couldn't appear at all in his native land. Authors were harassed if not imprisoned, and many -- like Vaclav Havel, who worked in a brewery -- were relegated to the most menial of jobs. As Bohumil Hrabal, author of the novel I Served the King of England and the short story "Ostre sledovane vlaky" which inspired the film "Closely Watched Trains" put it: It was a world in which "the unbelievable became true."

In many ways the hero of Hrabal's comic yet affecting novella, Too Loud a Solitude, embodies the conflicts waged between the official state culture and the alternative, or "second culture" as the underground was called in Czechoslovakia.

Hanta is a man who loves books, but whose job for the past 35 years as a paper-compactor has been to destroy them. No ordinary garbage man, he's an articulate, beer-swilling bibliophile who salvages classics from the trash-heap of history. "I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit-drop," he confesses, saving for himself those rare tomes that catch his eye: Homer, Erasmus, Kant, Hegel, Schiller and Goethe. Indeed, his house groans under the weight of thousands of books, "weighing down on me," Hrabal writes as if parodying Harold Bloom and The Anxiety of Influence, "like a two-ton nightmare."

Hanta may be alone and on the last rung of the social ladder (he imagines sewer-rat wars being fought in a kind of dialectical frenzy just beneath his feet) but he's far from lonely. He has his bottle, which induces visions of the future; the company of hundreds of cellar-mice, for whom old paper is "like a well-aged cheese"; and occasional visitations from Lao-tze and Jesus. One of Prague's "fallen angels," he reads books "in the blissful hope of making a change" in his life.

It was World War II that turned Hanta's head, made him understand, like his forerunner Ditie in I Served the King of England, "the beauty of destruction." Under Nazism lives were discarded as casually as Hanta tosses a copy of Nietzsche's Ecce Homo into his basement bellows. "Not until we are totally crushed," he says with morbid prescience, "do we show what we are made of."

Inevitably Hanta, who shares Kant's wonder at "the starry firmament above me and the moral law within," becomes an anachronism in a society run by the new socialist machine. Just five years from retirement, he's superseded by a giant compactor operated by the Brigade of Socialist Labor, which "piled books to the brim before a single page could be sullied by the human eye, brain or heart . . . It was inhuman, this work they were doing."

The author of his own solitude, Hanta refuses to lose his paper-strewn paradise to the soulless efficiency of the State, and chooses, like Socrates and Seneca before, to close the book, so to speak, on his own life.

Written in 1975, Too Loud a Solitude was immediately seen as a thinly veiled critique of the current regime. In fact, the character of Hanta is based partly on Hrabal's own experiences as a trash compactor in the mid-1950s. While Hrabal's prognosis for Czechoslovakia is understandably grim, it's a measure of his talent that Too Loud a Solitude transcends its historical context to assume universal significance. Not until Czechoslovakia's "velvet revolution" of 1989, when, to borrow Hrabal's phrase, "the unbelievable" again "became true," was Too Loud a Solitude finally published in unexpurgated form.

Ultimately, Too Loud a Solitude is concerned with literature as a humanizing influence and the role of both tradition and individual talent in upholding the freedom of discourse that forms the foundation of every democracy. With the playful imagination of Chagall and a delight in the absurd that recalls Gunther Grass, Hrabal has fashioned a wise, witty and wistful tale that lives up to Hanta's own dictum: "Any book worth its salt points up and out of itself."

John A. Glusman is a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee.