Ivan Klíma Critical Essays

Introduction

Ivan Klíma 1931-

(Also rendered as Ivan Klima) Czech novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, critic, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Klíma's career through 2002. For more information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 56.

Klíma belongs to the generation of Czech writers who lived through two totalitarian regimes—Nazism and communism. In his creative work, Klíma focuses heavily on autobiographical material, invoking images of the past with keenly observed realistic details. He frequently returns to his own experiences living under the two regimes and the overall moral questions they posed for humanity. Outspoken in his criticism of Czechoslovakia's communist government, Klíma was expelled from the Communist Party and his works were banned from publication following the suppression in 1968 of the Prague Spring reform movement. As a result, many of his works first appeared in typewritten volumes with homemade bindings—the so-called samizdat editions—or in German translation before being published in Czech. After the fall of communism in the late 1990s, the ban on Klíma's work was lifted and he has since enjoyed a resurgence of critical and popular attention within the Czech Republic and abroad.

Biographical Information

Klíma was born in Prague on September 14, 1931, to Ing Vilém and Marta Klíma. Although Klíma was baptized as a Catholic, his mother was Jewish, causing Klíma to be sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Bohemia by the Nazis in December 1941. Klíma spent three and a half years in the camp before he was released. After World War II, he attended secondary school in Prague, later studying Czech language and literature at Charles University. Klíma worked as an editor at the Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel publishing house from 1956 to 1963. On September 24, 1958, he married Helena Malá, a sociologist, with whom he has two children. From 1969 to 1970, Klíma served as deputy and editor-in-chief for Literarni noviny, the weekly publication of Czechoslovakia's Union of Writers. Klíma was in London en route to the University of Michigan for a one-year teaching appointment when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1969. Klíma had the opportunity to live in exile like many other Czechoslovakian intellectuals but decided to return to his home country in the spring of 1970 to resist the Communist regime. His work was immediately banned by the government and he was placed under surveillance by the police. Klíma and a group of fellow writers, including Vaclav Havel, Ludvik Vaculik, Milan Uhde, and Pavel Kohout, began publishing their work in samizdat editions, privately copied works that were secretly distributed in small quantities. During this period, Klíma earned his living writing articles and essays for foreign publications. He also worked temporarily as a street cleaner in Prague in order to escape the confinement of his home and as a means to conduct research for his novel Láska a smetí (1987; Love and Garbage).

Major Works

Klíma's earliest fiction is collected in the short story volumes Bezvadný den (1960) and Milenci na jednu noc (1964; Lovers for a Day). His first novel, Hodina ticha (1963), concerns the futile attempts at organization by a group of Czech farmers upon discovering the government's plan to seize their land for collectivization. Klíma's first book to be translated into English, Lod' jménem Nadeje (1969; A Ship Named Hope), consists of two novellas that develop allegorical condemnations of communism and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In the title piece, the passengers of a cruise ship find themselves at the mercy of a malevolent crew member after the vessel strays off-course. The second novella, The Jury, depicts twelve jurors of a murder trial who are forced to render a verdict despite their discovery that the defendant has already been sentenced and executed. The stories in Má veselá jitra (1978; My Merry Mornings: Stories from Prague) revolve around characters who attempt to manipulate Czech bureaucracy. For example, in “A Christmas Conspiracy,” Klíma relates the misadventures of an ostracized literary scholar who decides to sell fish on the black market but lacks the shrewdness necessary to make the venture profitable. Moje první lásky (1981; My First Loves) collects stories that describe the experiences of an unnamed youth during and immediately following World War II. The story “Miriam,” which is set in German-occupied Prague, follows the narrator's attraction to a girl who works in a soup kitchen. The girl abruptly ends their friendship after the deportation of local Jews to Nazi death camps.

In Cekání na tmu, cekání na svetlo (1982; Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light), the protagonist, Pavel, tries to escape to the West when the Russians invade Czechoslovakia, but his attempt is unsuccessful and he is sent to prison. Fantasy interweaves with real events from Pavel's life as he dreams of the day when freedom will return to his country and he will be able to write again and direct his own film. Eventually, Pavel submits to the system and goes to work as a cameraman for the state-run television station. Unfortunately, he becomes alienated from both his friends—because of his capitulation—and from his employers—who are suspicious of his dissident past. The 1993 revised edition of Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light explores Pavel's continuing feelings of isolation and confusion after the fall of communism in 1989. The novel Soudce z milosti (1986; Judge on Trial) recounts the story of a man named Adam Kindl. Told through third-person narration interspersed with the narrator's reminiscences, the novel follows Kindl's early life in a Nazi concentration camp. Kindl is later released from the camp and goes on to become a federal judge. He faces a professional crisis when he must preside over the trial of a lodger accused of gassing his landlady and her granddaughter. A steadfast opponent of the death penalty, Kindl must either abide by the wishes of the communist government or hold to his own principles and jeopardize his career.

Klíma's partly autobiographical novel Love and Garbage features a Czech writer whose work has been banned by the government. Although he has a dutiful wife and two children at home, the narrator cannot resist having an affair with a passionate sculptress named Daria. When Daria pressures the narrator to leave his wife, he abandons Daria and begins to work as a Prague street cleaner in order to forget her. His work as a street cleaner is never described, but instead acts as a symbol of degradation through menial labor and of the pervasiveness of human waste. Poslední stupen duvernosti (1996; The Ultimate Intimacy) relates the story of Daniel Vedra, a Protestant pastor who has just become married for the second time. Vedra recognizes that something is lacking from his marriage when a beautiful stranger attends his church to hear him preach. After Vedra begins a passionate relationship with the woman, his life begins to unravel, causing him to question all of his political and religious beliefs. Klíma employs a new prose technique in The Ultimate Intimacy, interspersing letters and diary entries throughout the action of the novel, which is set amid the social and economic upheaval of post-Communist Prague. Ani svatí ani andelé (1999; No Saints or Angels) follows a Czech dentist named Kristýna who has become obsessed with the shame of her father's communist past and has convinced herself that her life is a failure. Her daughter, Jana, is a teenage drug addict, who eventually frees herself from her addictions and tries to salvage her relationship with her mother.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Klíma has also written several plays and essay collections. His first play, Zámek (1964; The Castle), is a reinterpretation of Franz Kafka's novel Das Schloss. Zámek is a comedy that satirizes the Czech community of state-supported artists. The play Mistr (1967; The Master) constructs a mystery around a carpenter who delivers a coffin to a family despite their insistence that they did not order it. The essay collection The Spirit of Prague and Other Essays (1994) chronicles Klíma's experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and his later life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime. Klíma has additionally published O chlapci, ktery se nestal císlem (2000; This Is Not a Fairy Tale—It's Real), a children's book, and Velký vek chce mít tez velké mordy: zivot a dílo Karla Čapka (2001; Karel Čapek: Life and Work), a critical examination of the Czech author.

Critical Reception

Klíma's work was not widely known outside of Czechoslovakia during the 1960s. Since he became a dissident writer in the 1970s, Klíma's writings have received increased critical attention, particularly in Western Europe. Most reviews of Klíma's fiction have included a discussion of his role as a dissident and his decision to remain in Czechoslovakia under censorship rather than writing from exile. Several reviewers have noted that while the act of writing and publishing secretly during communism may have been political, Klíma's work does not have overtly political content. Instead, critics have commended Klíma for his continuing focus on individual lives and struggles. However, Scott Bradfield has commented that Klíma's preoccupation with personal issues can be a liability, stating that, “At his best, [Klíma] articulates how philosophical arguments are exemplified by human lives. And at his worst, his narratives tend to get mired in introspection; his characters tend to be swallowed up by their own rampant subjectivity.” Many critics have continually lauded Klíma for his skillful use of black humor and satire to portray the effects of political and economic oppression on ordinary individuals. Peter Kemp has asserted that, “As an unbudgeably honest indicter of fraud and corruption, Klíma is exemplary. Where he starts to strike false notes is when he turns to what have before proved his fictional weak spots, mistresses and mysticism.” Many commentators have noted the influence of Franz Kafka on Klíma's work, with some even arguing that his prose often includes deliberate homages to Kafka. While assessing Klíma's overall significance as a Czech writer, Mark Schapiro has stated that, “The very human nature of Klíma's work is precisely what makes it accessible, if not always lofty. His writing does not belong on the highest rungs of literary masterworks but in the realm of the vivid storyteller, the prober into human foibles.”