Though the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal holds a degree in law, for many years, for political reasons, he was forced to make his living baling wastepaper. Out of this experience he has fashioned a compact novel about the fine art of compaction, a novel about Hant’a, who for thirty-five years has worked a one-man hydraulic press, baling books and paper in a dank, dim-lit cellar in Prague. Hant’a smuggles home what books he can from those the State employs him to destroy; there he pieces together the classical education that, once upon a time, was the pride of the State but now is forbidden the citizenry. His is a fitting profession for an amateur scholar living in “a onetime kingdom where it was and still is a custom, an obsession, to compact thoughts and images patiently in the heads of the population, thereby bringing them ineffable joy and even greater woe; living among people who will lay down their lives for a bale...


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