The story is set in the year 1922 and has its main character, Mr Engelbert, moving to Prague from the countryside to live out his retirement years and struggling to cope with the aggressive modernity of the city. The horror is not the power of money or the arrogance of the people, but the noise; not the age-old noise of a thunderstorm or a hammer, but the new noise of engines, especially of automobiles and motor-cycles, the explosive “internal combustion monsters”.
Poor Mr Engelbert first settles in a house in a residential area; there cars are his first introduction to the evil that will turn his life into a never-ending flight. He moves to another street where cars are forbidden entry, only to hear the monsters roaring in the night, as the prohibition applies only to day time. From then on, he never goes to bed without cotton in his ears, realizing that sleeping is the most basic human desire and death caused by the impossibility of sleep must be the worst death there is. He goes to seek silence in country inns (in vain) and ends up spending his nights in trains, which, with their gentle archaic noise, provide him with a slumber that is relatively peaceful in his life as a beleagured man.
When this novel was written, Prague had probably one car to every hundred inhabitants, or perhaps to every thousand. It was precisely when it was still rare that the phenomenon of noise (motor noise) stood out in all its astonishing newness.
In 1920s, Engelbert was astonished by the noise of the ‘internal-combustion monster’; the generations that followed found it natural; after initially horrifying man, sickening him, noise gradually reshaped him; through its omnipresence and permanence it ultimately instilled in him the need for noise and with that, a whole different relation to nature, to repose, to joy, to beauty, to music and even speech. In the history of existence this was a change so profound, so enduring, that no war or revolution can produce its like, a change whose beginnings Jaromir John modestly noted and described.
I recently experienced Mr Engelbert’s plight, but in a reverse situation. I woke up early one morning, unable to bear the noise of a solitary bird outside my bedroom window. The incessant chirping or whatever it is that such birds do, drove me nuts.
On cooler reflection, I realized that on normal nights, the drone of traffic, the blaring of horns, the screeching of tyres, the din of garbage collection dumpers, the racket that water tankers make, the roar of earthmovers in the construction sites nearby, the chatter of pedestrians, all created a soothing, comforting noise to which I had got accustomed and which usually drowned out the chirping made by the occasional bird. During a rare break in the traffic, the cheeping and tweeting of the bird had stood out and shattered my sleep.
Engelbert may have been deeply disturbed by the newness of noise, but I require it with all its oldness.
Silence is something alien to our culture now and must be suppressed by noise, at all costs.