SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Czech Mates.” New York Review of Books 36, no. 8 (18 May 1989): 37-9.
[In the following excerpt, Enright asserts that readers are likely to empathize with the narrator of My First Loves, though notes that some readers may be irritated by him at the same time.]
Ivan Klíma's My First Loves relates to much the same time-span as I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, and the second of its four linked stories features a wise old violinist, formerly a waiter and a major-domo who once served the Austrian Emperor with a glass of wine at a banquet in Vienna. He tells the young narrator that people shouldn't look down on those who are not ashamed to serve others, for which of them doesn't serve? “I've always maintained that a man can do anything so long as he does it lovingly.” The remark is a gentle corrective to the boy's egalitarian notions, but sentiments very similar could have come from Ditie.
The narrator—we have some authority for calling him Ivan—is given to speculating on the meaning of life, on God, and the soul, and immortality, but otherwise the stories are very different: sad, introspective, inconclusive, and above all steeped in uncertainty. In the first story, set during the German occupation, the keynote is sounded when the youthful narrator, who hopes for a future as a witness-bearer, a painter or a poet, asks the ghetto painter Maestro Speero, originally from Holland, why his drawings—of lines of tiny people wearing the Jewish star—are so very small. “Um sie besser zu verschlucken,” the painter seems to say: all the better to swallow them; or it could have been “verschicken,” to send, or “verschenken,” to give.
In the second story, “My Country,” set in the early postwar years, and portraying a “strange intermingling of different periods” in the behavior of the residents in a country inn, Ivan's father, an engineer, voices the idealistic Communist vision of a future in which poverty and exploitation will be no more, heavy labor will be done by marvelous machines, the people will govern, and, since there is no reason for war, an age of universal peace and trust will dawn. A doctor contends that the only result of revolution will be that a different group of people become poor and a different group rich, and the promised paradise will turn out to be a fairy tale. The boy falls in puppy love with the doctor's inviting wife, but only in the great writers he is reading at the time—Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant—are love affairs actually consummated. Showing people and events through the eyes of youth, inquiring, half-understanding, sometimes mystified, this is the most engaging of the stories.
The war had dragged on through Ivan's childhood “like some poisonous snake.” And no sooner has the adolescent narrator entered the promised land foreseen by his father than his father is arrested and charged with unbelievable crimes against the new social order in which he believes. “The Truth Game,” as its title suggests, is a sourer tale, although Ivan does at last get to make love. Vlasta, the girl in the case, claims a family history which even for that time and place seems extravagant in its woes: her father was executed by the Nazis for possessing an illegal transmitter; the new regime sent her stepfather to jail for some obscure reason; her mother drowned herself; Vlasta herself married a drunken saxophone player who used to beat her up. The family has had one hero, but he...
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was on the wrong side: an uncle who emigrated to America, joined the navy, and was blown up by a mine in Korea. “I visualized my father lying in a cell somewhere while I was drifting about wine bars with a strange dolled-up divorcée,” a woman whose copious revelations didn't add up, who was “covered in words like fish-scales.”
The long-awaited satisfactions of sexual liberation are promptly marred by Vlasta's confession that she was sent to work on a farm in the Sudetenland toward the end of the war and she had a baby there, which she smothered. What was one little corpse among so many?
In addition, she now lives in terror of someone called Karel, a murderer, ex-SS, who wants her to draw a plan of the factory where she works. Ivan takes her to the police station; what happens there is left untold; she disappears; her landlady doesn't recognize her name and has no address for her. A few years later Ivan sees her in a wine bar with an elderly man. She greets him cheerfully and gives him her new address, which proves to be false, like the various names she has used. Was she an agent provocateur, a spy, a prostitute, a victim, or simply a compulsive liar? A British critic has attributed the vacillations, deceit, and faithlessness of the women in these tales, and the fact that the tales are uncompleted, to the corrupting poison of communism. Such may have been the author's intention, or part of it, but the explanation seems a little glib: Ivan brings much of his wretchedness on himself, and his sex-starved hopes and conscientious misgivings are not peculiar to any particular social or political system.
The final story shows the narrator at his least endearing. For one reason or another—wartime experience or the self-pity typical of his age—he has “never quite been able to surrender to pleasure or joy, or to relax.” Faced with reciprocated love, he loses his nerve; to be taken seriously is harder to handle than being rejected or deceived or toyed with. Admittedly, the girl is weird (her parents were both executed during the war), and extremely sick, recovering from meningitis, perhaps not recovering. For her part, she proposes a life spent together in love. Ivan doesn't want to lose Dana; he is sure he would “manage” to be fond of her, “but I just wasn't ready for anything of the sort.” When he mentions how receptive a listener she is—“I watched my words dropping into her like some instantly sprouting seeds”—it looks as though roles have been reversed since the preceding experience, and it is he now who is covered in words like fish-scales. But then, he is already a writer, with “grand goings-on” inside his mind, as is proved by a touching (and germane) story of his, about a bedridden girl released from her sufferings by a luminous angel, which he gives to Dana.
Toward the close, Ivan watches some tightrope walkers, whose exploits prompt the thought that life is “one continual performance above the abyss,” and a man must go forward without looking behind or down. “I must begin my own performance, my grand unrepeatable performance.” The next day, as he waits for Dana to arrive at their meeting place, the tightrope walkers have departed, and so has his resolution. The reader is left hanging.
Besides other things, My First Loves (which has not been published in Czechoslovakia) is a portrait of the artist as a would-be dog. We feel sympathy for Ivan, who has grown up in a time difficult for a writer (though potentially fruitful, too), but we also feel irritated by his doggedly solipsistic distresses. We must await the promised translation of Klíma's first full-length novel, Judge on Trial, concerning a good man and just magistrate in an evil and unjust world.
SOURCE: Klíma, Ivan, and Philip Roth. “A Conversation in Prague.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 6 (12 April 1990): 14-22.
[In the following interview, Klíma discusses the political situation in Czechoslovakia and its effects on the literature of the country.]
Born in Prague in 1931, Ivan Klíma has undergone what Jan Kott calls a “European education”: during his adult years as a novelist, critic, and playwright his work was suppressed in Czechoslovakia by the Communist authorities (and his family members harried and punished right along with him), while during his early years, as a Jewish child, he was transported, with his parents, to the Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis. In 1969, when the Russians moved into Czechoslovakia, he was out of the country, in London, on the way to the University of Michigan to see a production of one of his plays and to teach literature. When his teaching duties ended in Ann Arbor in the spring of 1970, he returned to Czechoslovakia with his wife and two children to become one of the “admirable handful”—as a professor, recently reinstated at Charles University, described Klíma and his circle to me at lunch one day—whose persistent opposition to the regime made their daily lives extremely hard.
Of his fifteen or so novels and collections of stories, those written after 1970 were published openly only abroad, in Europe primarily; only two books—neither of them among his best—have appeared in America, where his work is virtually unknown. Coincidentally, Ivan Klíma's novel Love and Garbage, inspired in part by his months during the Seventies as a Prague street cleaner, was published in Czechoslovakia on the very day that I flew there to see him. He arrived at the airport to pick me up on February 22, after spending the morning in a Prague bookstore where readers who had just bought his book waited for him to sign their copies in a line that stretched from the shop into the street. (During my week in Prague, the longest lines I saw were for ice cream and for books.) The initial printing of Love and Garbage, his first Czech publication in twenty years, was 100,000 copies. Later in the afternoon, he learned that a second book of his, My Merry Mornings, a collection of stories, had been published that day as well, also in an edition of 100,000. In the three months since censorship has been abolished, a stage play of his has been produced and a TV play has been broadcast. Five more of his books are to appear this year.
Love and Garbage is the story of a well-known, banned Czech writer “hemmed in by prohibition” and at work as a street cleaner, who, for a number of years, finds some freedom from the claustrophobic refuge of his home—from the trusting wife who wants to make people happy and is writing a study on self-sacrifice; from the two dearly loved growing children—with a moody, spooky, demanding sculptress, a married mother herself, who comes eventually to curse him and to slander the wife he can't leave. To this woman he is erotically addicted.
There was a lot of snow that winter. She'd take her little girl to her piano lessons. I'd walk behind them, without the child being aware of me. I'd sink into the freshly fallen snow because I wasn't looking where I was going, I was watching her walking. …
It is the story of a responsible man who guiltily yearns to turn his back on all the bitter injustices and to escape into a “private region of bliss.” “My ceaseless escapes” is how he reproachfully describes the figure in his carpet.
At the same time, the book is a patchwork rumination on Kafka's spirit (the writer mentally works up an essay about Kafka while he's out cleaning streets), on the meaning of soot, smoke, filth, and garbage in a world which can turn even people into garbage, on death, on hope, on fathers and sons (a dark, tender leitmotif is the final illness of the writer's father), and, among other things, on the decline of Czech into “jerkish.” Jerkish is the name of the language developed in the US some years back for the communication between people and chimpanzees; it consisted of 225 words and Klíma's hero predicts that, after what has happened to his own language under the Communists, it can't be long before jerkish is spoken by all of mankind. “Over breakfast,” says this writer whom the state will not allow to be published, “I'd read a poem in the paper by the leading author writing in jerkish.” The four banal little quatrains are quoted. “For this poem of 69 words,” he says, “including the title, the author needed a mere 37 jerkish terms and no idea at all. … Anyone strong enough to read the poem attentively will realize that for a jerkish poet even a vocabulary of 225 words is needlessly large.”
Love and Garbage is a wonderful book, marred only by some distressing lapses into philosophical banality that crop up particularly as the central story winds down and—in the English version just published by Chatto and Windus in London—by the translator's inability to imagine a pungent, credible demotic idiom appropriate to the argot of the social misfits in Klíma's street-cleaning detail. It is an inventive book that—aside from its absurdist title—is wholly unexhibitionistic. Klíma juggles a dozen motifs and undertakes the boldest transitions without hocus-pocus, as unshowily as Chekhov telling the story “Gooseberries”—he provides a nice antidote to all that magic in magic realism. The simplicity with which he creates his elaborate collage—harrowing concentration camp memories, ecological reflections, imaginary spats between the estranged lovers, and down-to-earth Kafkean analysis all juxtaposed and glued to the ordeal of the exhilarating, exhausting adultery—is continuous with the disarming directness, verging on adolescent ingenuousness, with which the patently autobiographical hero confesses his emotional turmoil.
The book is permeated by an intelligence whose tenderness colors everything and is unchecked and unguarded by irony. Klíma is, in this regard, Milan Kundera's antithesis—an observation that might seem superfluous were it not for an astounding correspondence of preoccupations. The temperamental divide between the two is considerable, their origins diverge as sharply as the paths they've taken as men, and yet their affinity for the erotically vulnerable, their struggle against political despair, their brooding over the social excreta, whether garbage or kitsch, a shared inclination for extended commentary and for mixing modes—not to mention their fixation on the fate of outcasts—create an odd, tense kinship, one not as unlikely as it might seem to both writers. I sometimes had the feeling while reading Love and Garbage that I was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being turned inside out. The rhetorical contrast between the two titles indicates just how discordant, even adversarial, the perspectives can be of imaginations engaged similarly with similar themes—in this case, with what Klíma's hero calls “the most important of all themes, … suffering resulting from a life deprived of freedom.”
During the early Seventies, when I began to make a trip to Prague each spring, Ivan Klíma was my principal reality instructor. In his car he drove me around to the street-corner kiosks where writers sold cigarettes, to the public buildings where they mopped the floors, to the construction sites where they were laying bricks, and out of the city to the municipal waterworks where they slogged about in overalls and boots, a wrench in one pocket and a book in the other. When I got to talk at length with these writers, it was often over dinner at Ivan's house.
After 1976 I was no longer able to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia and we corresponded through the West German or Dutch couriers who discreetly carried mail, manuscripts, and books in and out of the country for the people who were under close surveillance. By the summer of 1978, ten years after the Russian invasion, even Ivan, who had always seemed to me the most effervescent of those I'd met in the opposition, was sufficiently exhausted to admit, in a letter written in somewhat uneven English, “Sometime I hesitate if it is reasonable to remain in this misery for the rest of our life.” He went on:
Our life here is not very encouraging—the abnormality lasts too long and is depressing. We are persecuted the whole time, it is not enough that we are not allowed to publish a single word in this country—we are asked for interrogations, many of my friends were arrested for the short time. I was not imprisoned, but I am deprived of my driving license (without any reason of course) and my telephone is disconnected. But what is the worst: one of our colleagues. …
Not uncharacteristically, he then described at much greater length a writer he considered to be in straits more dire than his own.
Fourteen years after I last saw him, Ivan Klíma's engaging blend of sprightliness and stolidness struck me as amazingly intact and his strength undiminished. Even though his Beatle haircut has been clipped back a bit since the Seventies, his big facial features and mouthful of large, carnivore teeth still make me sometimes think (particularly when he's having a good time) that I'm in the presence of a highly intellectually evolved Ringo Starr. Ivan had been at the center of the activities known now in Czechoslovakia as “the revolution,” and yet he showed not the least sign of the exhaustion which even the young students reading English literature, whose Shakespeare class I sat in on at the university, told me had left them numb with fatigue and relieved to be back quietly studying even something as abstruse to them as the opening scenes of Macbeth.
I got a momentary reminder of the stubborn force in Klíma's temperament during dinner at his house one evening, while he was advising a writer friend of his and mine how to go about getting back the tiny two-room apartment that had been confiscated by the authorities in the late Seventies, when the friend had been hounded by the secret police into an impoverished exile. “Take your wife,” Ivan told him, “take your four children, and go down to the office of Jaroslav Kořán.” Jaroslav Kořán is the brand-new mayor of Prague, formerly a translator of poetry from English; as the week passed and I either met or heard about Havel's appointees, it began to seem to me as though a primary qualification for joining the new administration was having translated into Czech the poems of John Berryman. Have there ever before been so many translators, novelists, and poets at the head of anything other than the PEN club?
“In Kořán's office,” Ivan continued, “lie down on the floor, all of you, and refuse to move. Tell them, ‘I'm a writer, they took my apartment, and I want it back.’ Don't beg, don't complain—just lie there and refuse to move. You'll have an apartment in twenty-four hours.” The writer without an apartment—a very spiritual and mild person who, since I'd seen him last selling cigarettes in Prague, had aged in all the ways that Ivan had not—responded only with a forlorn smile suggesting, gently, that Ivan was out of his mind. Ivan turned to me and said, matter-of-factly, “Some people don't have the stomach for this.”
Helena Klimová, Ivan's wife, is a psychotherapist who received her training in the underground university that the dissidents conducted in various living rooms during the Russian occupation. When I asked how her patients were responding to the revolution and the new society it had ushered in, she told me, in her precise, affable, serious way, “The psychotics are getting better and the neurotics are getting worse.” “How do you explain that?” I asked. “With all this new freedom,” she said, “the neurotics are terribly uncertain. What will happen now? Nobody knows. The old rigidity was detestable, even to them, of course, but also reassuring, dependable. There was a structure. You knew what to expect and what not to expect. You knew whom to trust and whom to hate. To the neurotics the change is very unsettling. They are suddenly in a world of choices,” “And the psychotics? Is it really possible that they're getting better?” “I think so, yes. The psychotics suck up the prevailing mood. Now it's exhilaration. Everybody is happy, so the psychotics are even happier. They are euphoric. It's all very strange. Everybody is suffering from adaptation shock.”
I asked Helena what she was herself having most difficulty adapting to. Without any hesitation she answered that it was all the people who were suddenly nice to her who never had been before—it wasn't that long ago that she and Ivan had been treated most warily by neighbors and associates looking to avoid trouble. Helena's expression of anger over the rapidity with which those once so meticulously cautious—or outright censorious—people were now adapting to the Klímas was a surprise to me, since when I had known her during their hardest years she had always impressed me as a marvel of tolerance and equilibrium. The psychotics were getting better, the neurotics were getting worse, and, despite the prevailing mood of exhilaration, among the bravely decent, the admirable handful, some were now beginning openly to seethe a little with those poisoned emotions whose prudent management fortitude and sanity had demanded during the decades of resistance.
On my first full day in Prague, before Ivan came to meet me to begin our talks, I went off for a morning walk on the shopping streets just of Václavské náměsti, the big open boulevard where the crowds that helped to chant the revolution through to success first assembled last November. In only a few minutes, outside a storefront, I encountered a loose gathering of some seventy or eighty people, laughing at a voice coming over a loudspeaker. From the posters and inscriptions on the building I saw that, unwittingly, I had found the headquarters of Civic Forum.
This crowd of shoppers, strollers, and office workers was standing around together listening—as best I could figure out—to a comedian who must have been performing in an auditorium inside. I don't understand Czech but I guessed that it was a comedian—and a very funny one—because the staccato rhythm of his monologue, the starts, stops, and shifts of tone, seemed consciously designed to provoke the crowd into spasms of laughter that ripened into a rich roar and culminated, at the height of their hilarity, with outbursts of applause. It sounded like the response you hear from the audience at a Chaplin movie. Just when I was ready to move on, I saw through a passageway that there was yet another laughing crowd of about the same size on the other side of the Civic Forum building. It was only when I crossed over to them that I understood what I was witnessing. On two television sets situated above the front window of Civic Forum was the comedian himself: viewed in close-up, seated alone at a conference table, was the former first secretary of the Czech Communist party, Miloš Jakeš. Jakeš, who'd been driven from office early in December, was addressing a closed meeting of Party apparatchiks in the industrial city of Pilsen in October 1989.
I knew that it was Jakeš at the Pilsen meeting because the evening before, at dinner, Ivan and his son, Michal, had told me all about this videotape, which had been made secretly by the staff of Czech TV. Now it played continuously outside the Prague headquarters of Civic Forum, where passers-by stopped throughout the day to have a good laugh. What they were laughing at was Jakeš's dogmatic, humorless Party rhetoric and his primitive, awkward Czech—the deplorably entangled sentences, the ludicrous malapropisms, the euphemisms and evasions and lies, the pure jerkish, that, only months earlier, had filled so many people with shame and loathing. Michal had told me that on New Year's Eve Radio Free Europe had played Jakeš's Pilsen videotape as “the funniest performance of the year.”
Watching people walk back out into the street grinning, I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter, its sacramental reason-for-being—to bury wickedness in ridicule. It seemed a very hopeful sign that so many ordinary men and women (and teenagers, and even children, who were in the crowd) should be able to recognize that the offense against their language had been as humiliating and atrocious as anything else. Ivan told me later that at one point during the revolution, a vast crowd had been addressed for a few minutes by a sympathetic young emissary from the Hungarian democratic movement, who concluded his remarks by apologizing to them for his imperfect Czech. Instantaneously, as one voice, a half million people roared back, “You speak better than Jakeš.”
Pasted to the window beneath the TV sets were two of the ubiquitous posters of the face of Havel, whose Czech is everything that Jakeš's is not.
Ivan Klíma and I spent our first two days together talking; then, in writing, we compressed the heart of our discussion into the exchange that follows.
[Roth]: What has it been like, all these years, publishing in your own country in samizdat editions? The surreptitious publication of serious literary works in small quantities must find an audience that is, generally speaking, more enlightened and intellectually more sophisticated than the wider Czech readership. Samizdat publication presumably fosters an unspoken and unique solidarity between writer and reader, and that could be exhilarating. Yet because samizdat is a limited and artificial response to the evil of censorship, it remains unfulfilling for everyone. Tell me about the literary culture that was spawned here by samizdat publication.
[Klíma]: Your observation that samizdat literature fosters a special type of reader seems right. The Czech samizdat originated in a situation that is in its way unique. The Power, supported by foreign armies—the Power installed by the occupier and aware that it could exist only by the will of the occupier—was afraid of criticism. It also realized that any kind of spiritual life at all is directed in the end toward freedom. That's why it did not hesitate to forbid practically all Czech culture, to make it impossible for writers to write, painters to exhibit, scientists—especially in the social sciences—to carry out independent research; it destroyed the universities, appointing as professors for the most part docile clerks. The nation, caught unawares in this catastrophe, accepted it passively, at least for a time, looking on helplessly at the disappearance, one after another, of people whom it had so recently respected and to whom it had looked with hope.
Samizdat originated slowly. At the beginning of the Seventies, my friends and fellow writers who were forbidden to publish used to meet at my house once a month. They included the leading creators of Czech literature: Václav Havel, Jiří Gruša, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Alexander Kliment, Jan Trefulka, Milan Uhde, and several dozen others. At these meetings we read our new work aloud to one another; some, like Bohumil Hrabal and Jaroslav Seifert, did not come personally, but sent their work for us to read. The police got interested in these meetings; on their instructions television produced a short film that hinted darkly that dangerous conspiratorial conclaves were going on in my flat. I was told to cancel the meetings, but we all agreed that we would type out our manuscripts and sell them for the price of the copy. The “business” was taken on by one of the best Czech writers, Ludvík Vaculík. That's how we began: one typist and one ordinary typewriter.
The works were printed in editions of ten to twenty copies; the cost of one copy was about three times the price of a normal book. Soon what we were doing got about. People began to look out for these books, new “workshops” sprang up, which often copied the unauthorized copies. At the same time the standard of the layout improved. Somewhat deviously, we managed to have the books bound at the state bookbinders; they were often accompanied by drawings by leading artists, also banned. Many of these books will be, or already are, the pride of bibliophile collections. As time went on the numbers of copies increased—as did the titles and readers. Almost everyone “lucky” enough to own a samizdat was surrounded by a circle interested in borrowing it. The writers were soon followed by others: philosophers, historians, sociologists, nonconforming Catholics, as well as supporters of jazz, pop, and folk music, and young writers who refused to publish officially, even though they were allowed to. Dozens of books in translation began to come out in this way: political books, religious books, often lyrical poetry or meditative prose. Whole editions came into being and remarkable feats of editing—for instance the collected writings, with commentary, of our greatest contemporary philosopher, Jan Patočka.
At first the police tried to prevent samizdats, confiscating individual copies during house searches. A couple of times they arrested the typists who copied them, and some were even sentenced to imprisonment by the “free” courts, but the samizdat started to resemble, from the point of view of the authorities, the many-headed dragon in the fairy tale, or a plague—samizdat was unconquerable.
There are no precise statistics yet, but I know there were roughly two hundred samizdat periodicals alone and several thousand books. Of course when we speak of thousands of book titles we can't always expect high quality—but one thing completely separated samizdat from the rest of Czech culture: it was independent both of the market and of the censor. This independent Czech culture strongly attracted the younger generation, in part because it had the aura of the forbidden. How widespread it really was will perhaps soon be answered by scientific research; we've estimated that some books had tens of thousands of readers, and we mustn't forget that a lot of these books were published by Czech publishing houses in exile and then returned to Czechoslovakia by the most devious routes.
Nor should we pass over the great part played in propagating what was called “uncensored literature” by the foreign broadcasting stations Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. Radio Free Europe broadcast the most important of the samizdat books in serial form, and its listeners numbered in the hundreds of thousands. (One of the last books that I heard read on this station was Havel's remarkable Long-Distance Interrogation,1 which is an account not only of his life but also of his political ideas.) I'm convinced that this “underground culture” had an important influence on the revolutionary events of the autumn of 1989.
It always seemed to me that there was a certain amount of loose, romantic talk in the West about “the muse of censorship” behind the iron curtain. I would venture that there were even writers in the West who sometimes envied the terrible pressure under which you people wrote and the clarity of the mission this burden fostered: in your society you were virtually the only monitors of truth. In a censorship culture, where everybody lives a double life—of lies and truth—literature becomes a life preserver, the remnant of truth people cling to. I think it's also true that in a culture like mine, where nothing is censored but where the mass media inundates us with the most inane falsifications of human affairs, serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious to it.
When I returned to the US from Prague after my first visit in the early Seventies, I compared the Czech writers' situation to ours in America by saying, “There nothing goes and everything matters—here everything goes and nothing matters.” But at what cost did everything you wrote matter so much? How would you estimate the toll that repression, which put such a high premium on literature, has taken on the writers you know?
Your comparison of the situation of Czech writers and writers in a free country is one that I have often repeated. I'm not able to judge the paradox of the second half, but the first catches the paradox of our situation wonderfully. Writers had to pay a high price for these words that take on importance because of the bans and persecution—the ban on publishing was connected not only to a ban on all social activity, but also in most cases to a ban on doing any work writers were qualified for. Almost all my banned colleagues had to earn their living as laborers. Window cleaners, as we know them from Kundera's novel, were not really typical among doctors, but there were many writers, critics, and translators who earned their living in this way. Others worked on the building sites of the underground, as crane operators, or digging on geological research sites. Now it might seem that such work could provide an interesting experience for a writer. And that's true, so long as the work lasts for a limited time and there is some prospect of escape from blunting and exhausting drudgery. Fifteen or even twenty years of work like that, exclusion like that, affects one's whole personality. The cruelty and injustice completely broke some of those subjected to it, others were so exhausted that they were simply unable to undertake any creative work. If they did somehow manage to persevere, it was by sacrificing to this work everything: any claim to rest and often to any chance of a personal life.
Milan Kundera, I discover, is something of an obsession here among the writers and journalists I talk to. There appears to be a controversy over what might be called his “internationalism.” Some people have suggested to me that, in his two books written in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he is writing “for” the French, “for” the Americans, etc., and that this constitutes some sort of cultural misdemeanor or even betrayal. To me he seems rather to be a writer who, once he found himself living abroad, decided, quite realistically, that it was best not to pretend that he was a writer living at home, and who had then to devise for himself a literary strategy, one congruent not with his old but with his new complexities. Leaving aside the matter of quality, the marked difference of approach between the books written in Czechoslovakia, like The Joke and Laughable Loves, and those written in France does not represent to me a lapse of integrity, let alone a falsification of his experience, but a strong, innovative response to an inescapable challenge. Would you explain what problems Kundera presents to those Czech intellectuals who are so obsessed with his writing in exile?
Their relation to Kundera is indeed complicated and I would stress beforehand that only a minority of Czechs have any opinion about Kundera's writing for one simple reason: his books have not been published in Czechoslovakia for more than twenty years. The reproach that he is writing for foreigners rather than for Czechs is only one of the many reproaches addressed to Kundera and only a part of the more substantial rebuke—that he has lost his ties to his native country. We can really leave aside the matter of quality because largely the allergy to him is not produced by the quality of his writing but by something else.
The defenders of Kundera—and there are many here—explain the animosity toward him among Czech intellectuals by what is not so rare an attitude toward our famous Czech compatriots: envy. But I don't see this problem so simply. I can mention many famous compatriots, even among the writers (Havel at home, Skvorecký abroad) who are very popular and even beloved by intellectuals here.
I have used the word allergy. Various irritants produce the allergy and it's rather difficult to find the crucial ones. In my opinion the allergy is caused, in part, by what people take to be the simplified and spectacular way in which Kundera presents his Czech experience. What's more, the experience he presents is, they would say, at odds with the fact that he himself had been an indulged and rewarded child of the Communist regime until 1968.
The totalitarian system is terribly hard on people, as Kundera recognizes, but the hardness of life has a much more complicated shape than we find in his presentation of it. Kundera's picture, his critics would tell you, is the sort of picture which you would see from a very capable foreign newspaperman who'd spent a few days in our country. Such a picture is acceptable to the Western reader because it confirms his expectations; it reinforces the fairy tale about good and evil, which a good boy likes to hear again and again. But for these Czech readers our reality is no fairy tale. They expect a much more comprehensive and complex picture, a deeper insight into our lives from a writer of Kundera's stature. Kundera certainly has other aspirations for his writing than only to give a picture of Czech reality, but those attributes of his work may not be so relevant for the Czech audience I'm talking about.
Another reason for the allergy probably has to do with the prudery of some Czech readers. Although in their personal lives they may not behave puritanically, they are rather more strict about an author's morality.
Last, but not least, is an extraliterary reason, which may, however, be at the very core of the charge against him. At the time when Kundera was achieving his greatest world popularity, Czech culture was in a bitter struggle with the totalitarian system. Intellectuals at home as well as those in exile shared in this struggle. They underwent all sorts of hardships: they sacrificed their personal freedom, their professional position, their time, their comfortable lives. For example, Josef Skvorecký and his wife virtually abandoned their personal lives to work from abroad on behalf of suppressed Czech literature. Kundera seems to many people to have stood apart from this kind of effort. Surely it was Kundera's right (why should every writer have to become a fighter?), and it certainly can be argued that he has done more than enough for the Czech cause by his writing itself. Anyway, I have tried to explain to you, quite candidly, why Kundera has been accepted in his own country with considerably more hesitation than in the rest of the world.
In his defense, let me say that there is a kind of xenophobia here with respect to the suffering of the last half century. The Czechs are by now rather possessive of their suffering, and though this is perhaps understandable and a natural enough deformation, it has resulted, in my opinion, in an unjust denigration of Kundera, who is, without a doubt, one of the great Czech writers of this century.
The official, or officialized, writers are a bit of a mystery to me. Were they all bad writers? Were there any interesting opportunistic writers? I say opportunistic writers rather than believing writers because though there may well have been believers among the writers in the first decade or so after the war, I assume that during the last decade the official writers were opportunists and nothing more. Correct me, of course, if I'm wrong about that. And then tell me—was it possible to remain a good writer and accept the official rulers and their rules? Or was the work automatically weakened and, compromised by this acceptance?
It's quite true that there is a basic difference between authors who supported the regime in the Fifties and those who supported it after the occupation in 1968. Before the war what was called leftist literature played a relatively important role. The fact that the Soviet army liberated the greater part of the Republic—and the memory of Munich and the Western powers' desertion of Czechoslovakia, despite all their treaties and promises—further strengthened this leftist tendency. The younger generation especially succumbed to illusions of a new and more just society that the Communists were going to build. It was precisely this generation that soon saw through the regime and contributed enormously to setting off the Prague Spring movement and to demystifying the Stalinist dictatorship.
After 1968 there was no longer any reason for anyone, except perhaps a few frenzied fanatics, to share those postwar illusions. The Soviet army had changed in the eyes of the nation from a liberating army to an army of occupation, and the regime that supported this occupation had changed into a band of collaborators. If a writer didn't notice these changes, his blindness deprived him of the right to count himself among creative spirits; if he noticed them but pretended he knew nothing about them, we may rightfully call him an opportunist—it is probably the kindest word we can use.
Of course the problem lay in the fact that the regime did not last just a few months or years, but two decades. This meant that, exceptions apart—and the regime persecuted these exceptions harshly—virtually a generation of protesters, from the end of the Seventies on, was hounded into emigration. Everyone else had to accept it in some way or even support it. Television and the radio had to function somehow, the publishing houses had to cover paper with print. Even quite decent people thought: if I don't hold this job, someone worse will. If I do not write—and I shall try to smuggle at least a bit of truth through to the reader—the only people left will be those who are willing to serve the regime devotedly and uncritically.
I want to avoid saying that everyone who published anything over the past twenty years is necessarily a bad writer. It's true too that the regime gradually tried to make some important Czech writers their own and so began to publish some of their works. In this way it published at least a few works by Bohumil Hrabal and the poet Miroslav Holub (both of them made public self-criticisms) and also poems by the Nobel prize winner Jaroslav Seifert, who had signed Charter 77. But it can be stated categorically that the effort of publication, getting past all the traps laid by the censor, was a severe burden on the works of many of those who were published. I have carefully compared the works of Hrabal—who, to my mind, is one of the greatest living European prose writers—that came out in samizdat form and were published abroad and those that were published officially in Czechoslovakia. The changes he was evidently forced by the censor to make are, from the point of view of the work, monstrous in the true sense of the word. But much worse than this was the fact that many writers reckoned with censorship beforehand, and deformed their own work and so, of course, deformed themselves.
Only in the Eighties did “angry young men” begin to appear, especially among young writers, theater people, and the authors of protest songs. They said exactly what they meant and risked their works not coming out, or even having their livelihoods threatened. They contributed to our having a free literature today—and not only literature.
Since the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia a sizable sampling of contemporary Czech writers have been published in America: from among those living in exile, Kundera, Pavel Kohout, Skvorecký, Jiří Gruša, and Arnošt Lustig; from among those in Czechoslovakia, you, Vaculík, Hrabal, Holub, and Havel. This is an astonishing representation from a small European country—I for one can't think of ten Norwegian or ten Dutch writers who have been published in America since 1968. To be sure, the place that produced Kafka has special significance but I don't think either of us believes that this accounts for the attention that your nation's literature has been able to command in the West. You have had the ear of many foreign writers. They have been incredibly deferential to your literature. You have been given a special hearing and your lives and works have absorbed a lot of their thinking. Has it occurred to you that this has now all changed and that in the future you're perhaps going to be talking not quite so much to us but to each other again?
Certainly the harsh fate of the nation, as we have said, suggested many compelling themes. A writer was himself often forced by circumstances to have experiences that would otherwise have remained foreign to him and that, when he wrote about them, may have appeared to readers almost exotic. It's also true that writing—or work in the arts altogether—was the last place where one could still set up shop as an individual. Many creative people actually became writers just for this reason. All this will pass to some extent, even though I think there is an aversion to the cult of the elite in Czech society, and that Czech writers will always be concerned with the everyday problems of ordinary people. This applies to the great writers of the past as well as to contemporary ones: Kafka never ceased to be an office worker, Čapek a journalist, Hašek and Hrabal spent a lot of their time in smoky pubs with beer-drinking buddies, Holub never left his job as a scientist and Vaculík stubbornly avoided everything that might drag him away from leading the life of the most ordinary of citizens. Of course as changes come in social life, so will changes in themes. But I'm not sure this will mean our literature will necessarily become uninteresting to outsiders. I believe that our literature has pushed open the gate to Europe and even to the world just a crack, not only because of its subjects but because of its quality too.
And inside Czechoslovakia? Right now I know people are wildly hungry for books, but after the revolutionary fervor subsides, with the sense of unity in struggle dissipating, might you not come to mean far less to readers here than you did when you were fighting to keep alive for them a language other than the language of the official newspapers, the official speeches, and the official government-sanctioned books?
I agree that our literature will lose some of its extraliterary appeal. But many think that these secondary appeals were distracting both writers and readers with questions that should really have been answered by journalists, by sociologists, by political analysts. Let's go back to what I call the intriguing plots offered by the totalitarian system. Stupidity triumphant, the arrogance of power, violence against the innocent, police brutality, the ruthlessness that permeates life and produces labor camps and prisons, the humiliation of man, life based on lies and pretenses: these stories will lose their topicality, I hope, even though writers will probably return to consider them again after a while. But the new situation must bring new subjects—in the first place forty years of the totalitarian system have left behind a material and spiritual emptiness, and filling this emptiness will be full of difficulties, tension, disappointment, and tragedy.
It is also true that in Czechoslovakia a feeling for books has a deep tradition, reaching back to the Middle Ages, and even with television sets everywhere, it's hard to find a family that does not own a library of good books. Even though I don't like prophesying, I believe that at least for now the fall of the totalitarian system will not turn literature into an occasional subject with which to ward off boredom at parties.
The late Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski said that the only way to write about the Holocaust was as the guilty, as the complicit and implicated: that is what he did in his first-person fictional memoir, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. There Borowski may even have pretended to a dramatically more chilling degree of moral numbness than he felt as an Auschwitz prisoner, precisely to reveal the Auschwitz horror as the wholly innocent victims could not. I think that under the domination of Soviet communism, some of the most original Eastern European writers I have read in English have positioned themselves similarly—Tadeusz Konwicki, Danilo Kiš, and Kundera, say, to name only three “K”s who have crawled out from under Kafka's cockroach to tell us that there are no uncontaminated angels, that the evil is inside as well as outside. Still, this sort of self-flagellation, despite its ironies and nuances, cannot be free from the element of blame, from the moral habit of situating the source of the evil in the system even when examining how the system contaminates you and me. You are used to being on the side of truth, with all the risks entailed in becoming righteous, pious, didactic, dutifully counter-propagandistic. You are not used to living without that well-defined, recognizable, objective sort of evil. I wonder what will happen to your writing—and to the moral habits embedded in it—and to the removal of the system: without them, with just you and me.
That question makes me think back over everything I have said until now. I have found that I often do describe a conflict in which I am defending myself against an aggressive world, embodied by the system. But I have often written about the conflict between myself and the system without necessarily supposing that the world is worse than I am. I should say that the dichotomy, I on the one side and the world on the other, is the way in which not only writers, but all of us are tempted to perceive things.
Whether the world appears as a bad system or as bad individuals, bad laws or bad luck, is not really the point. We could both name dozens of works created in free societies in which the hero is flung here and there by a bad, hostile, misunderstanding society, and so assure each other that it is not only in our part of the world that writers succumb to the temptation to see the conflict between themselves—or their heroes—and the world around them as the dualism of good and evil.
I would imagine that those here in the habit of seeing the world dualistically will certainly be able to find some other form of external evil. On the other hand, the changed situation could help others to step out of the cycle of merely reacting to the cruelty or stupidity of the system and lead them to reflect anew on man in the world. And what will happen to my writing now? Over the past three months I have been swamped with so many other duties that the idea that someday I'll write a story in peace and quiet seems to me fantastic. But not to evade the question—for my writing, the fact that I shall no longer have to worry about the unhappy social system I regard as a relief.
Kafka. Last November, while the demonstrations that resulted in the new Czechoslovakia were being addressed by the outcast ex-convict Havel here in Prague, I was teaching a course in Kafka at a college in New York City. The students, of course, read The Castle, about K.'s tedious, fruitless struggle to gain recognition as a land surveyor from that mighty and inaccessible sleepyhead who controls the castle bureaucracy, Mr. Klamm. When a photograph appeared in The New York Times showing Havel reaching across a conference table to shake the hand of the old regime's prime minister, I showed it to my class. “Well,” I said, “K. finally meets Klamm.” You should know that the students were pleased when Havel decided to run for president—that would put K. in the castle, and as successor, no less, to Klamm's boss.
Kafka's prescient irony may not be the most remarkable attribute of his work but it's always stunning to think about it. He is anything but a fantasist creating a dream or a nightmare world as opposed to a realistic one. His fiction keeps insisting that what seems to be unimaginable hallucination and hopeless paradox is precisely what constitutes one's reality. In works like “The Metamorphosis,” The Trial, and The Castle, he chronicles the education of someone who comes to accept—rather too late, in the case of the accused Joseph K.—that what looks to be outlandish and ludicrous and unbelievable, beneath your dignity and concern, is nothing less than what is happening to you; that thing beneath your dignity turns out to be your destiny.
“It was no dream,” Kafka writes only moments after Gregor Samsa awakens to discover that he is no longer a good son supporting his family but a repellent insect. The dream, according to Kafka, is of a world of probability, of proportion, of stability and order, of cause and effect—a dependable world of dignity and justice is what is absurdly fantastic to him. How amused Kafka would have been by the indignation of those dreamers who tell us daily, “I didn't come here to be insulted!” In Kafka's world—and not just in Kafka's world—life only begins to make sense when we realize that that is exactly why we are here.
I'd like to know what role Kafka may have played in your imagination during your years of being here to be insulted. Kafka was, of course, banned by the Communist authorities from the bookstores, libraries, and universities in his own city and throughout Czechoslovakia. Why? What frightened them? What enraged them? What did he mean to the rest of you who know his work intimately and may even feel a strong affinity with his origins?
Like you, I have studied Kafka's works—not too long ago I wrote an extensive essay about him and a play about his love affair with Felice Bauer. I would formulate my opinion on the conflict between the dream world and the real one in his work just a little bit differently. You say: “The dream, according to Kafka, is of a world of probability, of proportion, of stability and order, of cause and effect—a dependable world of dignity and justice is what is fantastic to him.” I would rather replace the world “fantastic” with the world “unattainable.” What you call the dream world was rather for Kafka the real world—the world in which order reigned, in which people, at least as he saw it, were able to grow fond of each other, make love, have a family, be orderly in all their duties—but this world was for him, with his almost sick truthfulness, unattainable. His heroes suffered not because they were unable to realize their dream, but because they were not strong enough to enter properly into the real world, to properly fulfill their duty.
The question why Kafka was banned under Communist regimes is answered in a single sentence by the hero of my novel Love and Garbage: “What matters most about Kafka's personality is his honesty.” A regime that is built on deception, that asks people to pretend, that demands external agreement without caring about the inner conviction of those to whom it turns for consent, a regime afraid of anyone who asks about the sense of his actions, cannot allow anyone whose veracity attained such fascinating or even terrifying completeness to speak to the people.
If you ask what Kafka meant for me, we get back to the question we somehow keep circling. On the whole Kafka was an unpolitical writer. I like to quote the entry in his diary for August 2, 1914. It is very short. “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming in the afternoon.” Here the historic, world-shaking plane and the personal one are exactly level. I am sure that Kafka wrote only from his innermost need to confess his personal crises, and so solve what was for him insoluble in his personal life—in the first place his relationship to his father and his inability to pass beyond a certain limit in his relationships with women. In my essay on Kafka I show that, for instance, his murderous machine in the short story “In the Penal Colony” is a wonderful, passionate, and desperate image of the state of being married or engaged. Several years after writing this story he confided to Milena Jesenská his feelings on thinking about their living together:
You know, when I try to write down something [about our engagement] the swords whose points surround me in a circle begin slowly to approach the body, it's the most complete torture; when they begin to graze me it's already so terrible that I immediately at the first scream betray you, myself, everything.
Kafka's metaphors were so powerful that they far exceeded his original intentions. I know that The Trial as well as “In the Penal Colony” have been explained as ingenious prophesies of the terrible fate that befell the Jewish nation during the war, which broke out fifteen years after Kafka's death. But it was no prophecy of genius; these works merely prove that a creator who knows how to reflect his most personal experiences deeply and truthfully also touches the suprapersonal or social spheres. Again I am answering the question about political content in literature. Literature doesn't have to scratch around for political realities, or even worry about systems that come and go; it can transcend them and still answer questions that the system evokes in people. This is the most important lesson that I extracted for myself from Kafka.
Ivan, you were born a Jew and, because you were a Jew, you spent part of your childhood in a concentration camp. Do you feel that this background distinguishes your work—or that, under the Communists, it altered your predicament as a writer—in ways worth talking about? In the decade before the war, Central Europe without Jews as a pervasive cultural presence—without Jewish readers or Jewish writers, without Jewish journalists, playwrights, publishers, critics—was unthinkable. Now that the literary life in this part of Europe is about to be conducted once again in an intellectual atmosphere that harks back to prewar days, I wonder if—perhaps even for the first time—the absence of Jews will register with any impact on the society. Is there a remnant left in Czech literature of the prewar Jewish culture, or have the mentality and sensibility of Jews, which were once so strong in Prague, left Czech literature for good?
Anyone who has been through a concentration camp as a child—who has been completely dependent on an external power which can at any moment come in and beat or kill him and everyone around him—probably moves through life at least a bit differently from people who have been spared such an education. That life can be snapped like a piece of string—that was my daily lesson as a child. And the effect of this on my writing? An obsession with the problem of justice, with the feelings of people who have been condemned and cast out, the lonely and the helpless. The themes issuing from this, thanks to the fate of my country, have lost nothing of their topicality. And the effect on my life? Among friends I have always been known as an optimist. Anyone who survives being repeatedly condemned to death may either suffer from paranoia all his life, or from a confidence not justified by reason that everything can be survived and everything will turn out all right in the end.
As for the influence of Jewish culture on our present culture—if we look back, we are apt to idealize the cultural reality in rather the same way that we idealize our own childhoods. If I look back at my native Prague, say at the beginning of this century, I am amazed by the marvelous mix of cultures and customs, by the city's so many great men. Kafka, Rilke, Hašek, Werfel, Einstein, Dvořák, Max Brod. … But of course the past of Prague, which I name here only as a symbol of Central Europe, consisted not only of a dazzling number of the greatly gifted, not only of a cultural surge; it was also a time of hatred, of furious and petty and often bloody clashes.
If we speak of the magnificent surge of Jewish culture that Prague witnessed more than almost anywhere else, we must recognize also that there has never been a long period here without some sort of anti-Semitic explosion. To most people the Jews represented a foreign element, which they tried at the very least to isolate. There is no doubt that Jewish culture enriched Czech culture by the very fact that, like German culture, which also had an important presence in Bohemia—and Jewish literature in Bohemia was largely written in German—it became for the developing Czech culture, whose evolution had been stifled for two hundred years, a bridge to Western Europe.
What has survived from that past? Seemingly nothing. But I'm convinced this is not the whole story. The present longing to overcome the nihilist past with tolerance, the longing to return to untainted sources, is this not a response to the almost forgotten warning call of the dead and indeed the murdered, to us, the living?
Havel. A complicated man of mischievous irony and solid intellect like Havel, a man of letters, a student of philosophy, an idealist with strong spiritual inclinations, a playful thinker who speaks his native language with precision and directness, who reasons with logic and nuance, who laughs with gusto, who is enchanted with theatricality, who knows intimately and understands his country's history and culture—such a person would have even less chance of being elected president in America than Jesse Jackson or Geraldine Ferraro.
Just this morning I went to the Castle, to a press conference he held about his trips to the US and Russia, and I listened with pleasure—and some astonishment—to a president composing, on the spot, sentences that were punchy, fluent, and rich with human observation, sentences of a kind that probably haven't been formulated so abundantly—and off the cuff—at our White House since Lincoln was shot.
When a German journalist asked whose company Havel had most preferred, the Dalai Lama's, George Bush's, or Mikhail Gorbachev's—all three of whom he'd recently met—he began, “Well, it wouldn't be wise to make a hierarchy of sympathy. …” When asked to describe Gorbachev, he said that one of his most attractive qualities is that “he is a man who doesn't hesitate to confess his embarrassment when he feels it.” When he announced that he had scheduled the arrival of the West German president for March 15—the same day Hitler had entered Prague in 1939—one of the reporters noted that Havel “liked anniversaries,” whereupon Havel immediately corrected him. “No,” he told him, “I did not say that I ‘liked anniversaries.’ I spoke about symbols, metaphors, and a sense of dramatic structures in politics.”
How did this happen here? And why did it happen here to Havel? As he would probably be the first to recognize, he was not the only stubborn, outspoken person among you, nor was he alone imprisoned for his ideas. I'd like you to tell me why he has emerged as the embodiment of this nation's new idea of itself. I wonder if he was quite such a hero to large segments of the nation when, altogether quixotically—the very epitome of the foolish, high-minded intellectual who doesn't understand real life—he was writing long, seemingly futile letters of protest to his predecessor, President Husák. Didn't a lot of people think of him then as either a nuisance or a nut? For the hundreds of thousands who never really raised an objection to the Communist regime, isn't worshipping Havel a convenient means by which, virtually overnight, to jettison their own complicity with what you call the nihilist past?
Before I try to explain that remarkable phenomenon “Havel,” I'll try to give my opinion on the personality named Havel. (I hope I won't be breaking the law, still extant, that virtually forbids criticism of the president.) I agree with your characterization of Havel. Only as someone who has met him innumerable times over the past twenty-five years, I would supplement it. Havel is mainly known to the world as an important dramatist, then as an interesting essayist, and lastly as a dissident, an opponent of the regime so firm in his principles that he did not hesitate to undergo anything for his convictions, including a Czech prison—more exactly, a Communist prison. But in this list of Havel's skills or professions there is one thing missing, and in my opinion it's the fundamental one.
As a dramatist Havel is placed by world critics in the stream of the theater of the absurd. But back when it was still permissible to present Havel's plays in our theaters, the Czech public understood them primarily as political plays. I used to say, half jokingly, that Havel became a dramatist simply because at that time the theater was the only platform from which political opinions could be expressed. Right from the beginning, when I got to know him, Havel was, for me, in the first place a politician, in the second place an essayist of genius, and only lastly a dramatist. I am not ordering the value of his achievements but rather the priority of interests, personal inclination, and enthusiasm.
In the Czech political desert, where former representatives of the democratic regime had either emigrated, been locked up, or completely disappeared from the political scene, Havel was for a long time really the only active representative of the line of thoroughly democratic Czech politics represented by Tomáš Masaryk. Today Masaryk lives in the national consciousness rather as an idol, or as the author of the principles on which the First Republic was built. Few people know that he was an outstanding politician, a master of compromises and surprising political moves, of risky, ethically motivated acts. (One of these was the passionate defense of a poor, wandering, young Jew from a well-to-do family, Leopold Hossner, who was accused and sentenced for the ritual murder of a young dressmaker. This act of Masaryk's enraged the Czech nationalist public so much that it looked for a while as if the experienced politician had committed political suicide—he must then have seemed to his contemporaries to be “a nuisance or nuts.”) Havel brilliantly continued in Masaryk's line of “suicidal,” ethical behavior, though of course he carried on his political activity under much more formidable conditions than those of old Austro-Hungary. His letter to Husák in 1975 was indeed an ethically motivated but expressly political—even suicidal—act, just like the signature campaigns which he instigated over and over again for which he was always persecuted.
Like Masaryk, Havel was a master of compromises and alliances, without ever losing sight of the basic aim: to remove the totalitarian system and replace it by a renewed system of pluralist democracy. For that aim he did not hesitate in 1977 to join together all the anti-totalitarian forces, whether they were reform communists—all of them long since expelled from the Party—members of the arts underground, or believing Christians. The greatest significance of Charter 77 lay precisely in this unifying act, and I haven't the slightest doubt that it was Václav Havel himself who was the author of this conception and that his was the personality that was able to link such absolutely heterogeneous political forces.
Havel's candidacy for president and his later election were, in the first place, an expression of the precipitate, truly revolutionary course of events in this country. When I was returning from a meeting of one of the committees of Civic Forum one day toward the end of November, my friends and I were saying to each other that the time was near when we should nominate our candidate for the office of president. We agreed then that the only candidate to consider, for he enjoyed the relatively wide support of the public, was Alexander Dubček. But it became clear a few days later that the revolution had gone beyond the point where any candidate who was connected, if only by his past, with the Communist party, was acceptable to the younger generation of Czechs. At that moment the only suitable candidate emerged—Václav Havel. Again it was an example of Havel's political instincts—and Dubček certainly remained the only suitable candidate for Slovakia—that he linked his candidacy with the condition that Dubček should be given the second highest function in the state.
I explain the change of attitude toward him by the Czech public—because for a certain sector here Havel was, indeed, more or less unknown, or known as the son of a rich capitalist, and even as a convict—by the revolutionary ethos that seized the nation. In a certain atmosphere, in the midst of a crowd, however civil and restrained the crowd may be, an individual suddenly identifies himself with the prevailing mood and state of mind, and captures the crowd's enthusiasm. It's true that the majority of the country shared in the doings of the former system, but it's also true that the majority hated it at the same time just because it had made them complicit in its awfulness, and hardly anyone identified himself any longer with that regime which had so often humiliated, deceived, and cheated them. Within a few days Havel became the symbol of revolutionary change, the man who would lead society out of its crisis—nobody had any exact idea how—lead it out of evil to good. Whether the motivation for supporting him was basically metaphysical, whether this support will be maintained or eventually come to be based more on reason and practical concerns, time will tell.
Earlier we spoke about the future. May I close with a prophecy of my own? What I say may strike you as arrogantly patronizing—the freedom-rich man warning the freedom-poor man about the dangers of becoming rich. You have fought for something for so many years now, something that you needed like air, and what I am going to say is that the air you fought for is poisoned a little, too. I assure you that I am not a sacred artist putting down the profane nor am I a poor little rich boy whining about his luxuries. I am not complaining. I am only making a report to the academy.
There is still a pre-World War II varnish on the societies that, since the Forties, have been under Soviet domination. The countries of the satellite world have been caught in a time warp, with the result, for instance, that the McLuhanite revolution has barely touched your lives. Prague is still very much Prague and not a part of the global village. Czechoslovakia is still Czechoslovakia, and yet the Europe you are rejoining is a rapidly homogenizing Europe, a Europe whose very distinct nations are, on the brink of being radically transformed. You live here in a society of prelapsarian racial innocence, knowing nothing of the great postcolonial migrations—your society, to my eyes, is astonishingly white. And then there is money and the culture of money that takes over in a market economy.
What are you going to do about money, you writers, about coming out from under the wing of a subsidized writers' union, a subsidized publishing industry, and competing in the marketplace and publishing profitable books? And what of this market economy that your new government is talking about—five, ten years from now, what are you going to make of the commercialized culture that it breeds?
As Czechoslovakia becomes a free, democratic consumer society, you writers are going to find yourselves bedeviled by a number of new adversaries from which, strangely enough, repressive, sterile totalitarianism protected you. Particularly unsettling will be the one adversary that is the pervasive, all-powerful archenemy of literature, literacy, and language. I can guarantee you that no defiant crowds will ever rally in Wenceslas Square to overthrow its tyranny nor will any playwright-intellectual be elevated by the outraged masses to redeem the national soul from the fatuity into which this adversary reduces virtually all of human discourse. I am speaking about that trivializer of everything, commercial television—not a handful of channels of boring clichéd television that nobody wants to watch because it is controlled by an oafish state censor, but a dozen or two channels of boring, clichéd television that most everybody watches all the time because it is entertaining. At long last you and your writer colleagues have broken out of the intellectual prison of Communist totalitarianism. Welcome to the World of Total Entertainment. You don't know what you've been missing. Or do you?
As a man who has, after all, lived for some time in the US, and who for twenty years has been published only in the West, I am aware of the “danger” that a free society and especially a market mechanism brings to culture. Of course I know that most people prefer virtually any sort of kitsch to Cortázar or Hrabal. I know that the period will probably pass when even books of poetry in our country reached editions of tens of thousands. I suppose that a wave of literary and television garbage will break over our market—we can hardly prevent it. Nor am I alone in realizing that, in its newly won freedom, culture not only gains something important but also loses something. At the beginning of January one of our best Czech film directors was interviewed on television, and he gave a warning against the commercialization of culture. When he said that the censorship had protected us not only from the best works of our own and foreign culture, but also from the worst of mass culture, he annoyed many people, but I understood him. A memorandum on the position of television recently appeared which states that
television, owing to its widespread influence, is directly able to contribute to the greatest extent towards a moral revival. This of course presupposes … setting up a new structure, and not only in an organizational sense, but in the sense of the moral and creative responsibility of the institution as a whole and every single one of its staff, especially is leading members. The times we are living through offer our television a unique chance to try for something that does not exist elsewhere in the world. …
The memorandum does not of course ask for the introduction of censorship, but of a supra-Party arts council, a group of independent authorities of the highest spiritual and moral standards. I signed this memorandum as the president of the Czech PEN club, although personally, for myself, I thought that the desire to structure the TV of a free society in this way was rather utopian. The language of the memorandum struck me as the kind of unrealistic and moralistic language that can emerge from the euphoria of revolution.
I have mentioned that, among intellectuals especially, utopian ideas have begun to surface about how this country will link the good points of both systems—something from the state-controlled system, something from the new market system. And these ideas are probably strongest in the realm of culture. The future will show to what extent they are purely utopian. Will there be commercial television in our country, or will we continue only with subsidized, centrally directed broadcasting? And if this last does remain will it manage to resist the demands of mass taste? We'll know only in time.
I have already told you that in Czechoslovakia literature has always enjoyed not only popularity but esteem. This is borne out by the fact that in a country with fewer than twelve million inhabitants, books by good writers, both Czech and translated, were published in editions of hundreds of thousands. What's more, the system is changing in our country at a time when ecological thinking is growing tremendously (the environment in Czechoslovakia is one of the worst in Europe) and it surely makes no sense for us to strive to purify the environment and at the same time to pollute our culture. So it is not really such a utopian idea to try to influence the mass media to maintain standards and even educate the nation. If at least some part of that idea could be realized it would certainly be, as the authors of the memorandum say, a unique event in the history of mass communications. And after all, impulses of a spiritual character really have, from time to time, come from this little country of ours in the center of Europe.
To be published this summer by Knopf as Disturbing the Peace.
SOURCE: Schubert, Peter Z. Review of Love and Garbage, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 325.
[In the following review, Schubert discusses the publishing history of Love and Garbage and argues that the book's enthusiastic critical reception was well deserved.]
In countries other than Czecho-Slovakia, writers who have not achieved popularity with the reading public rely on other jobs to make a living. In Czecho-Slovakia, however, the most popular authors work in other occupations. The president, ministers, and ambassadors, for instance, can hardly find time to continue with their literary careers, which they pursued for decades while working at various forms of manual labor forced upon them by the former regime. Only time will show whether we will ever read about their experiences in the highest offices, but their work as stokers, street sweepers, or brewery laborers has become an inseparable part of Czech and Slovak literature. The series of Vanek plays, for example, begun by today's president, inspired several other playwrights and may also have provided the inspiration for Ivan Klíma's novel Laska a smeti.
The renowned dissident author wrote the book between 1983 and 1986 and circulated it through the Prague samizdat Padlock Edition (Edice Petlice) in 1987; in 1988 it was published for the first time in Czech by Rozmluvy (Conversations) of the United Kingdom, then in 1990 was issued almost concurrently in Czech by Prague's Československý Spisovatel and in English as Love and Garbage by London's Chatto & Windus. Of course, the possibility of simultaneous official publication in Czecho-Slovakia could not have been foreseen by the English publisher.
The story, cast in the first-person form, opens as the narrator is just beginning employment as a street sweeper, a job traditionally considered the lowest of the low, and it ends shortly after he leaves this line of work. The significance of the city-sanitation work lies in the symbolic as well as the real removal of filth on the one hand and the degradation of the writer on the other, not in the depiction of the actual labor. Thus the narrator hardly has time to introduce his fellow workers before he begins reminiscing about his childhood, spent in a Jewish ghetto; about his father; about his sojourn in the United States as a visiting professor, which ended with the Prague Spring in 1968; and about a recently concluded love affair. These separate streams of narrative are intertwined in the manner of a film montage rather than recounted in a consistent fashion. We feel an almost Kafkaesque estrangement on the part of the narrator, who feels unable to get close to the people around him: wife, children, mistress, co-workers.
Ewald Osers's translation is quite excellent and almost flawless, if we disregard his toning down of some stronger expressions. A comparison of the English text with the original shows several changes. Among the major ones is the omission of almost the entire last page, but the nature of these changes indicates that they were authorized. The publication of Love and Garbage was received with great eagerness in postrevolutionary Czecho-Slovakia, although some readers were disappointed with the book. Perhaps expectations were too high, however, for both Klíma's presentation and the feeling his novel evokes in the reader justify its initial enthusiastic reception.
SOURCE: Shapiro, Anna. “Garbage to Garbage, Dust to Dust.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 May 1991): 3, 10.
[In the following review, Shapiro notes a definite American influence in Klíma's Love and Garbage and in Felix Roziner's A Certain Finkelmeyer.]
It is odd enough that two novels about Jewish writers living under the thumb of Soviet censorship, each with a wife and two children and a beloved mistress, should appear in this country at the same time, but a more surprising similarity is that both are so strikingly removed in tone from what one thinks of as characteristically Eastern European.
The chilling humor of a Milan Kundera or Josef Skvorecky or the didactic blasts of Solzhenitsyn barely echo. Instead, the Czechoslovakian Ivan Klima's style in Love and Garbage is dreamy and almost submarine, while Felix Roziner in A Certain Finkelmeyer, writing in Russian, is more straightforwardly naturalistic. Each novel, in its earnestness, in its desire to be friendly, open, nice and liked, and in a recalcitrant preoccupation with private life, could easily, apart from its subject matter, be American.
But that's a large “apart from.” Aaron Finkelmeyer is the Jew of questionable jokes, from his “big schnoz” and skinny, noodly physique to his name, in a country—Khrushchev's Russia—where being a Jew is no joke. It is, rather, a ticket to hardship: On the papers that citizens must at all times bear with them, “Jew” is a nationality, like Lithuanian, Tongor—or Russian. A Jew, however many centuries in Russia his family may have put in, is not Russian.
Finkelmeyer has grown up in the Jewish ghetto of Moscow, where indoor plumbing is rare and lone survivors of exterminations to the west not uncommon. After flings with the sexy wife of an apparatchik and a platonic one with a poetic librarian, he marries such a survivor, one his family has taken in, and settles down to a life of more or less drudgery, having been excluded from the better universities by virtue of incorrect ethnic origin.
He remains, we are told, a gifted poet, and the lover of a Lithuanian beauty he rescues while on a business trip in his unlikely work, for the Ministry of Fisheries in Siberia. It is in his literary career that one recognizes the ironies typically associated with the subversive art of totalitarian regimes.
His talent has gotten him off some of the more onerous duties when doing his obligatory army service, writing patriotic verse he abhors. It becomes a popular, ever-in-print volume under the Russian pseudonym A. Yefimov.
As a way of publishing his real poems, he presents them as translations by “Aion Neprigen” from the Tongor. The Tongor people, somewhere between Eskimos and Lapps in their way of life, are very much ethnically correct, and topics that would be forbidden others are allowed them. Aaron chooses the clownish and illiterate Danil Menakin to be his beard, naming him as the original Tongor poet. But Menakin finds he likes his fame so much that he wants to eliminate the goose that lays the golden literary eggs. In the end, Finkelmeyer's life pretty much depends on proving not only that he is “A Certain Finkelmeyer,” as a denunciatory headline has him, but A. Yefimov and Aion Neprigen, poet.
Roziner's samizdat novel was written between 1971 and 1975 (he later emigrated to Israel and is now a fellow at Harvard). Klima, who has previously published two collections of stories here, at the time of this novel's completion in 1986 also could not publish at home, in Czechoslovakia. This is likewise the situation of his narrator who, contrary to the book's publicity copy, is not compelled to work as a street sweeper (garbage collector, that is—the translation is British). He seems to have adequate income from foreign royalties, and from his wife's work as a psychotherapist.
His temporary choice of occupation therefore is regarded as mildly perverse if anything, as indeed it is, but it does provide the most colorful material of the book, its motivating metaphors, the eye-catching title, and many opportunities for him to loll about in his lover's studio or picturesque rented room where she hides out from her husband and young daughter.
“Rubbish is immortal,” the narrator expounds, “Rubbish is like death. What else is there that is so indestructible?” And what is more, “There is little that comes so close to death as fulfilled love.” These sentences from the early part of the novel might be called the premises of what amounts to a long achronological meditation in which the narrator sorts through the accumulated rubbish of his life.
He writes about the Nazis—who impounded him as a boy and killed off all of his family but his now-dying father—as monumental garbage men disposing of human lives; about industrial technology as a way of turning the world into garbage; about scavengers of the garbage he gathers who turn their findings into sales, and of the way garbage ultimately is turned only into other kinds of garbage.
Following the crew as it cleans the streets of Prague has a kind of technical, documentary interest, but it is in the crew's members' drinking and talking that the book is most alive, especially in a wonderful creation the narrator dubs “Mrs. Venus.” Skinny Mrs. Venus has had innumerable lovers, cured a racehorse's broken leg and raced the horse, bakes cakes for her neighbor “so he shouldn't be left alone like an abandoned dog” and out-toughs the men. Next to her, the narrator's wife floats serenely indistinct and unformed as a character, while his mistress, vibrating with mystical sureties and formulaic declarations, remains abstract and mushy.
What there is of plot revolves around which of the two women he'll choose, but he lives so entirely in his head that such choice as he might make hardly seems to matter. (Familiarly East European in both novels is infidelity as a way of life—the opportunities!)
Neither novel is, I'm sorry to say, much to write home about. Klima's garbage is finally very soggy. The Roziner is sprightly, but ungainly in its narrative line, as noodly as its hero, and marred by a representation of the Tongor Menakin that comes across with a sour tang of racism particularly inappropriate in the context (his accent and unsophistication are mocked by the author and disdained by the characters).
As to that Americanness of timbre: On second thought, I wonder if what I am hearing as American is what I first encountered in writers whose parents and grandparents came here from Russia and Hungary, and who in Russia would be regarded as Jewish nationals—Malamud, Bellow and Roth. If only Klima and Roziner were as good.
SOURCE: Baranczak, Stanislaw. “Life Is Elsewhere.” New Republic 205, no. 5 (29 July 1991): 36-9.
[In the following review, Baranczak compares and contrasts Love and Garbage with Milan Kundera's Immortality.]
There must be something wrong with me or with the fiction of Central Europe, if these two very different books by two very different authors, each one of them hailed as the crowning achievement of a leading representative of the cutting-edge section of that cutting-edge area of contemporary literature that Central European fiction supposedly is, leave me each with the feeling that there is no edge to do any cutting.
Love and Garbage and Immortality landed at the same time on my lap by a coincidence of American publishing. The only two things that these novels seem to have in common is that they were both originally written in Czech, and that both represent the latest stages in two important writers' careers. Self-correction: there is a third analogy. Both books aspire to tackle problems as ungraspably immense as the abstract notions used in their titles (in Love and Garbage, I have in mind, of course, Love, although the author never lets us forget that Garbage has a universal, global, timeless, profound, and all-encompassing meaning, too).
Each does it, however, in an almost programmatically different way. I suspect that Klima, a resident of Prague for the last two decades, writes very much against Kundera, the émigré who for all these years has had Paris for his observation point. Symbolically enough, the plot of Love and Garbage starts on the level of a refuse-strewn Czech street, while Immortality's first scene takes place in a sterile health club located on the top of a Paris high rise. Klima does his thing with utmost seriousness, with heavy-handed directness; even his symbols seem to have a sign that reads ATTENTION: SYMBOL attached to them, lest we overlook their exfoliating, larger-than-life implications. Kundera, by contrast, charms us with his usual witty, willful, and wily self. The lightness—the paraphrase is, I fear, unavoidable—the lightness of his writing would be unbearable, if not for the fact that underneath this glitzy surface there await us, as usual, profound observations and reflections; but these are, as usual, really unbearable.
At first glance, then, the difference between these two novels seems to come down to matters of tone and touch, as deadened, flat, and solemn in one case as they are debonair, flippant, and sleightish-of-hand in the other. But at second and third glances, the difference still does not seem to amount to anything else, and stays where we have first located it: in the realm of style. For all their contrasts in this regard, and notwithstanding the obvious fact that Kundera's novel offers, in the technical sense, much more literary finesse than Klima's, these books have a similar effect: they fill even the reader well-disposed to Central European fiction with a sense of surfeit and a sense of deficiency. They are both too much and too little.
The excess has to do with the overbearing role that the first-person narrator plays in both novels. His physical presence may seem different in them: in Klima, the narrator sits squarely in the center of events, combining the duties of the participant and the commentator, a character among the cast of other characters as well as an outside oracle; in Kundera, as in all his novels written in exile, the narrator is more of an outer demiurge who sets the represented world in motion, who creates it ex nihilo—and then mostly presides over its course while maintaining a considerable distance. (To be sure, he also inserts himself, the writer Milan Kundera, as a character into the plot that the writer Milan Kundera invented, but he does so in the demonstratively playful manner of a cameo shot, almost like Alfred Hitchcock boarding the train with a double-bass.)
The issue of the narrator's physical presence in the plot, though, does not have any bearing on the fact that both narrators are similarly omniscient and omnipotent. The narrator in Love and Garbage is a dissident writer in pre-1989 Prague, barred from publishing and forced to make his living by joining an orange-clad team of street sweepers and trash pickers, and so he seems to be a passive victim of circumstances beyond his control, an object of manipulation behind his back by anonymous and arbitrary forces of history, the political system, society, and so on. Or so he seems at the novel's very outset. A few pages later he emerges as something of a manipulator himself. He manipulates specific characters among the supporting cast (such as his fellow sanitary workers, whose confessions, reminiscences, and tall tales he provokes; and even more his wife and his lover, whose mutually conflicting demands he satisfies with an almost superhuman sexual prowess and a knack for balancing busy schedules), and he manipulates the reader. Manhandles the reader, in fact: for the reader of Klima's novel is pushed around with lots of heavy-handed gusto. Almost as if he were a trash picker himself, Klima's reader is forced time and again, page after page, to stoop and to pick up the hefty pieces of gratuitous comment, explanation, instruction, or generalized reflection that the novel's narrator never fails to leave in his trail.
The thing that makes this labor an experience one would rather forget is not the lack of proportion between the narrator's extensive outside comments on the one hand and the wilted and sketchy plot on the other. It is, rather, the arbitrariness, the sententiousness, and the priggishness of Klima's observations, which leave no room for the reader's own interpretation of the matters under discussion. The hallmark of Central European fiction over the past three decades or so has always been its steering toward the essay, the memoir, the writer's diary, the feuilleton, and other forms of nonfictional discourse. This generic oddity does not raise anybody's eyebrows anymore: every reader of Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik, Josef Skvorecky, Tadeusz Konwicki, or Kazimierz Brandys is pretty well acquainted with their poetics. Still, we have the right to expect that the writer will make up for the intrusion of nonfictional assertiveness into his prose by trying to avoid random judgments, obnoxiously sweeping generalizations, or self-aggrandizing airs of authority, and leaving at least some of the interpretation of his narrative to the reader instead.
In Klima's novel, the reader expecting such subtle and patient and respectful treatment will be sorely disappointed. At the very beginning, on page eight exactly, there is a foretaste of Klima's method. An episode recalled and described (in this instance, the reminiscence of a freak accident, in which some hospital refuse about to be burned in a furnace exploded through the chimney-stack) is immediately generalized and supplied with a condign conclusion:
It occurred to me that what had just happened was no more than an instructive demonstration of an everyday occurrence. No matter ever vanishes. It can, at most, change its form. Rubbish is immortal, it pervades the air, swells up in water, dissolves, rots, disintegrates, changes into gas, into smoke, into soot, it travels across the world and gradually engulfs it.
The haste with which the narrator comes up here with an explanation of what exactly he had in mind a paragraph before is telling: it looks as if he had serious doubts even as to the reader's attention span, not to mention his intellectual abilities. Here, as everywhere in Love and Garbage, we find ourselves carefully safeguarded against any silly speculation of our own. Like an overprotective husband who buys for his wife all her dresses, her shoes, and her underwear so that she wouldn't have to trouble her pretty little head, Klima bustles about to make life easier for us, his pretty-little-headed readers. To dispel any lingering uncertainty as to what the symbol of garbage might “stand for,” he reiterates his explanation a couple of times more at other occasions. And the other notion of his title, I mean Love, being obviously more complex than Garbage, receives even more intense treatment of the same sort. Even though the description of the narrator's marital and extramarital feats is, as a rule, dispatched by means of brief we-made-love-like-people-possessed-type descriptions, Klima spares no pains in telling us, directly or through the extended exchanges between him and either of the two women he is involved with (both, by the way, are madly in love with him and supernaturally forgiving of his faithlessness), what love actually is.
But that's not all. There are so many other things about which we might, knock on wood, form an opinion or two on our own while reading Love and Garbage. To fend off this danger, Klima's narrator never misses a chance to provide us with an appropriate maxim, definition, or general truth. Are you uncertain as to what to think of lying, an important moral problem after all? Well, “There is nothing by which a person can justify a lie. It corrodes the soul just as much as indifference or hate.”
Perhaps you are in need of something more specific about what actually Kafka's problem was, Kafka having been, after all, “certainly one of the most remarkable writers who ever lived and worked in Bohemia,” as the novel helpfully informs us? No sweat:
What Kafka was longing for most in his life was probably a human encounter. At the same time it represented for him a mysterious abyss whose bottom seemed to him unfathomable. … He was unable to sever himself from his father, nor did he bring himself to complete adult love—that was his abyss.
Oh, and aren't we under the wrong impression that hatred, violence, and self-interest may sometimes be good things? Here's the correct opinion:
… I am more and more convinced that an action can be free only if it is inspired by humanity, only if it is aware of a higher judge. It cannot be linked to acts of arbitrariness, hatred, or violence, nor indeed to personal selfish interest.
It cannot indeed. There is no denying that Klima's narrator is a thoroughly decent individual. The trouble is, he is a terrible bore. As is usually the case with overprotective husbands, he makes life much easier for us, but life made easy brings ennui and emptiness. Not to mention the fact that our pretty little heads, relieved of intellectual responsibilities, may start getting ideas.
One such idea that this critic's head has got as a result of reading Love and Garbage may shock both writers as well as surprise anybody familiar with present-day Czech literature—I mean my notion that these two novels, Klima's and Kundera's, despite their huge differences in style and literary quality, share a kind of narrative approach and are, in the final analysis, much closer to one another than a superficial reading would suggest. The feature that the two narrators share is, first and foremost, their manipulative omnipotence. Klima's narrator makes use of this quality in a fairly simplistic fashion: he maneuvers his characters, his plot, and his ruminations in such a way that they are ultimately reduced to a child's set of building blocks—easy to pile atop one another, easy to demolish, and easy to sweep aside whenever the narrator needs more room to embark on another longer reminiscence or philosophical meditation. The narrator's self-declared authority manifests itself in this book not really in the degree of efficiency with which he controls his novelistic material; toddlers are free to put their building blocks on one another in whatever manner they wish, but their clumsiness hardly deserves to be called efficient. No, his authority manifests itself rather in the degree of nonchalance with which he elbows his material aside to make room for himself and his pompous enunciations.
But can we seriously impute authority to someone who is doing nothing except pushing and shoving others? In this respect, literature is not unlike basketball: the use of your elbows only covers up your sense of helplessness before a quicker opponent—in literature's case, before the reality that evades definition. (Characteristically, the only thing that Love and Garbage manages to say about pre-1989 Czechoslovakia is that everything in it is “jerkish,” and this not-too-subtle epithet is used throughout the book as an all-purpose offensive weapon, very much like the elbows of Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons.) It is not very surprising that Klima's ostensibly omniscient narrator does not, in fact, know very much, and that he has not very much to tell us. Despite all his diverse experiences and his fine vantage point (it's not hard to imagine a good novel written from the perspective of a garbage collector), he is able only to turn out a few cries of indignation mixed with a few noble-sounding commonplaces.
Kundera's novel is incomparably more sophisticated and more pleasing. The strategy of its narrator is also incomparably more complex, just as the narrator himself is a much more engaging and entertaining individual. And yet this reader's frustration with Immortality, the combined sense of being overstuffed with words and undernourished with food for thought, was even greater than with Love and Garbage, perhaps because from Kundera one expects much more. I guess I am not the only reader who still considers The Joke his best novel to date, and the yardstick by which to measure the books that followed it.
This time, however, it is not the comparison with The Joke, but the comparison with Klima's novel, that helps me understand, at last, what has always bothered me in Kundera's recent work. Just as meeting the consumptive-looking twin brother of her apparently healthy and attractive fiancé could make a nineteenth-century bride cancel the wedding, Immortality's brilliant narrator seems to me infected with the same bacillus that brought down his less appealing counterpart. The disease's name is Usurpation of Authority. A manipulative attitude toward both the world represented and the reader; making oneself a constant center of attention; an unconstrained inclination to lecturing, sermonizing, and speaking mostly in well-rounded maxims—these are the chief symptoms of the disease. And in acute cases, the affected narrator assumes the identity of a demiurge or some other divine being with unlimited creative possibilities.
The narrator of Kundera's new novel is such an acute case. He spins his story, ostentatiously enough, from a deliberately insignificant episode: in the health club that we have already mentioned, he is inexplicably moved by the gesture of an older woman who waves goodbye to her swimming instructor. Immediately (though for the last time, I promise) one is reminded of The Joke. The plot of Kundera's early novel also started with a deliberately insignificant episode, the mailing of a humorous postcard. The difference, however, is significant: The Joke's action takes place in a reality—Stalinist Czechoslovakia—in which an apparently insignificant gesture could have significant, even tragic consequences, whereas Immortality is based in a world—modern Paris—where nothing matters anymore anyway, where what seems to be insignificant is insignificant, and would perish in the sea of General Insignificance if not for the narrator's watchful gaze and his demiurgic penchant for creating something out of nothing.
This particular gesture starts a chain reaction of associations that lead the narrator to the creation of a fully-fledged novelistic character called Agnes. Around Agnes, in turn, a small fictitious reality begins to build up, including her husband, Paul, who is a lawyer; their grown-up daughter, Brigitte; Agnes's sister, Laura; Laura's lover, Bertrand (a radio journalist); Agnes's own lover, Rubens; and one Professor Avenarius. What happens among this cast of characters could be easily trivialized by saying that, basically, it is the only sort of human interaction that Kundera has ever been genuinely interested in, namely, men and women sleeping with one another.
But mockery would be wrong: sex is by no means all that Kundera has always been writing about. Sex has always served him as a vehicle for more complex explorations or, better, as a particularly revealing model of the human self-contradiction that fascinates him most, which is our permanent suspension between the extremes of Appearance and Reality. For it is sex that provides access to the most undisputably genuine component of reality that our senses may experience, while at the same time it is nowhere but in sexual behavior that authentic experience takes on as many illusory and artificial disguises.
I can buy all this in principle. After so many years of reading Kundera, however, I still don't quite understand why it is necessary for his male protagonists to be such Warren Beatty-like studs in order to be Jean-Paul Sartre-like thinkers. Has Kundera secretly remained a believer in the Marxist idea of quantity (say, of fucking) turning into quality (say, of philosophizing)? One central image in Immortality, a double-portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernest Hemingway walking arm in arm and exchanging pleasantries, seems to confirm that suspicion. It may well be that what we face here, I mean in Kundera, is the case of a Hemingway who wishes he was a Goethe. Or, more precisely: a Hemingway who wishes he was a Goethe who was a Hemingway, too.
Appearance and Reality, therefore, give one more performance as the chief protagonists in Kundera's new novel. Which means that, for all intents and purposes, Immortality winds up not really as a novel at all, but as another one of his philosophical parables. In Kundera's modern versions of this ultrarationalistic genre, human characters are conceived, very much in the eighteenth-century spirit, largely as examples of typical attitudes and ideas, and their interrelations are similarly supposed to illustrate possible kinds of tensions resulting from such characters and ideas coming into contact.
This is certainly the purpose for which this set of contemporary Parisian characters is needed in Immortality. Kundera manipulates them into performing numerous varieties of erotic liaisons—Agnes's love for Paul grows cold while she maintains her long-standing relationship with Rubens, while Laura is dumped by Bertrand and falls in love (or so she thinks) with Paul, and Agnes is killed in an accident so Laura can now marry Paul, but she begins an affair with Professor Avenarius, and so on. It seems as if all of them are artificially created cells under the microscope of some genetic engineer; and as far as their viability outside the laboratory is concerned, they are not much more than that.
Oddly enough, this is also true of the cast of performers brought on stage in the other layer of the novel's plot, the one that undertakes to illustrate the paradox of Appearance and Reality by recounting the love story of, for a change, real-life historic personages: Goethe and Bettina von Arnim. Bettina can be most aptly described as the early nineteenth-century, early Romantic prototype of a groupie. She intrudes herself into the lives of celebrities to gain significance herself, to become immortal by borrowing the radiance of Immortality from the truly great. Presented as being in love not so much with Goethe or Beethoven as with immortality itself, she serves Kundera as another clear-cut example of Appearance alienating itself from Reality, overshadowing it, and ultimately triumphing over it. As a result, even Kundera's real-life characters—Bettina, Goethe, Beethoven, and others—wind up similarly reduced to their unicellular incarnations as objects of experiments in Kundera's laboratory.
Is the laboratory's owner some sort of Doctor Frankenstein? I wish that he were. What bothers me most about Kundera is that he is anything but. In spite of his demiurgic air, he is simply unable to pour life into any of his people. Ultimately his hollow novel becomes itself an example of the triumph of Appearance over Reality that it so deplores. The Usurpation of Authority by his narrator is annoying because it is so unearned. Underneath the surface of wit, which adds some luster and makes the novel, as opposed to Klima's, at least pleasurable reading, the narrator's generalizing and sermonizing actually come down to a few shallow and banal complaints about the modern world's ills (the chief among them being, predictably, vulgarity):
… Nowadays God's eye has been replaced by a camera. The eye of one has been replaced by the eyes of all. Life has changed into one vast revel in which everyone takes part.
That is precisely the kind of pronouncement nowadays called a “sound bite.” … The whole art of politics these days does not lie in running the polis (which runs itself by the logic of its own dark and uncontrollable mechanism), but in thinking up “sound bites” by which the politician is seen and understood, measured in opinion polls, and elected or rejected in elections.
Nowadays … the imagologue not only does not try to hide his activity, but often even speaks for his politician clients. … We needn't be surprised by this self-confidence; in the last few decades, imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology.
In our world, where there are more and more faces more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness.
Europe has the reputation of a civilization based on reason. But one can say equally well that it is a civilization of sentiment; it created a human type that I call sentimental man: Homo sentimentalis.
If our era, against the spirit of the great painters, has made laughter the privileged aspect of the human face, it means that an absence of will and reason has become the ideal human state.
Imagine that, but for Immortality's timely appearance, mankind would have had to wait, who knows, perhaps even a couple of weeks more, for someone else to open its eyes to these unknown truths! And note the lavish use of “nowadays,” “these days,” “in our world,” “Europe,” “everyone,” and so forth, not to mention the thunderous “our era”—more unmistakable symptoms of the Usurpation of Authority.
This narrator/oracle spewing out these smooth maxims, ponderous statements, and while-u-wait diagnoses of “civilization's” or “our era's” infirmities reveals the fundamental self-contradiction of Kundera's recent writing. In his attempt to turn back the clock and to retrieve for the genre of the novel some of the authority it enjoyed two centuries ago, Kundera pretends to have forgotten that such authority could have only been assumed by literature in a world that still seemed to be governable by reason. Such a world, he himself claims, ceased to exist long ago. In our times, as Professor Avenarius succinctly puts it, “Reality no longer means anything to anyone.”
If the professor is right, then there is not much sense in taking Diderot as one's model. There is not much sense in reviving the rationalistic genres and stylistic clarité of the Age of Enlightenment, either. And perhaps there is not much sense in writing at all, since in a Reality that “no longer means anything to anyone” no convincing human story can be told and no convincing human character can be created. Quod erat demonstrandum: in the laboratory of the book ironically called Immortality, no creature of Doctor Frankenstein's making is able to rise up from the assembly table and provoke the familiar cry: “It's alive! It's alive!” No, not here. As somebody once said, life is elsewhere.
SOURCE: Kemp, Peter. “Evident Absurdity.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4621 (25 October 1991): 20.
[In the following review, Kemp evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Judge on Trial, noting that the novel “takes you into an atmosphere of choking oppressiveness.”]
An acrid smell wafts from the pages of Judge on Trial—that of gas. Two characters mentioned in the book gas themselves. A disturbed young man tries to do the same for himself and his mistress. Her husband, about to preside over the trial of someone accused of gassing an old woman and her granddaughter, is a Jew who spent his wartime years in the shadow of the gas chambers.
As might be expected from this, the novel's subject is suffocation. Like all of Ivan Klíma's fiction, it takes you into an atmosphere of choking oppressiveness. This is something Klíma himself was transported into at an early age: when a boy, he was imprisoned for three years in the Terezin concentration camp. As books and exhibitions have poignantly illustrated, children interned there drew pictures—usually bright-crayoned memories of their homes and pets or open country scenes with flowers and butterflies and beaming suns. The drawings Klíma did, he has recalled, were always of the walls shutting him in.
It is a procedure he has subsequently transferred to prose. His works so far translated into English—collections of short stories like My First Loves and My Merry Mornings, novels such as A Summer Affair and Love and Garbage—chronicle what it has been like to pass most of a life in stifling circumstances. Now, Judge on Trial—circulated in samizdat in the late-1970s and re-worked in 1986—unrolls his most extensive fictional record of what he and his nation underwent through fifty years of differing political suppression.
The novel interweaves two narratives. One shifts around the grey, bitterly exhausted Czechoslovakia in the Communist regime's final phase. The other—a first-person memoir by the book's central figure, Adam Kindl—autobiographically unwinds from his concentration-camp boyhood through various stages in his and the country's political evolution to a culminating crisis in his career. At the centre of a novel that often reads like a massive dossier of monstrous, unpunished crimes, Klíma sets the prospect of a trial. In one of Prague's working-class districts, a landlady and her granddaughter have been found gassed. Their lodger, a pathetic unfortunate with a record of petty felonies and psychiatric disorders, has been arrested and has made a statement confessing to the murder. The death penalty is to be invoked. Adam has been nominated as the judge who will conduct the proceedings.
Rapidly, it becomes clear that what will be taking place is to be Adam's trial, in more senses than one. For, in his earlier years, he published an article calling for the repeal of the death sentence. No longer a Party member, and uncomfortably aware that his commitment to the official line is increasingly under suspicion, he realizes that he himself has been forced into the dock. The imminent trial is one in which—as much defendant as judge—he will have to sentence himself to Party subservience or penalize his career.
The hero of Klíma's last book to be translated into English, Love and Garbage, was writing an appreciative study of Kafka. Judge on Trial offers homage to him too. His early twentieth-century phantasmagoria is seen as having become horribly actual in late twentieth-century Prague. “Evidence against us is amassed constantly, the only question being whether we'll live to see them complete the preliminary proceedings,” Adam wearily observes. “Absurdity hasn't exactly been in short supply recently,” his most sympathetic friend notes. Judge on Trial documents a nation in which the baleful bureaucracies, scary crazinesses and twisty suspicions of Kafka's private paranoia-parable are public property.
Cruel ironies stand out in the book's historical retrospects. Rescued from the death-camps by Russians, Adam and his father rapturously hail Marxism as liberation. Two decades later, on crossing the border into Austria, Adam experiences “the very feeling I had known twenty years earlier. I was free!.” But now “from below the window came the sound of German: the language which, twenty years before, had been associated with the unfreedom whose grip I had escaped; the paradoxical transformation gave me an uneasy feeling.”
Paradoxical transformations hallmark Judge on Trial from its title onwards. Adam's father—like Klíma's, an engineer and inventor—devotes his idealism and energies to the Communist cause, only to be gaoled during the most repressive years on a blatantly cobbled-up charge; disillusioned antagonism to his former guiding creed ensues. Other people's lives are also subject to extreme reversals. In the concentration camp, Adam recalls, the barber was a one-time professor of ancient languages; classical philologists laboured on the allotments, philosophers worked in the kitchens. In communist Prague, intellectuals are turned into navvies. A woman who can only find employment as a florist's assistant likes the way the flowers' Latin names put her in mind of passages from the poetry of Virgil, her speciality as a scholar. Adam's climb towards the upper reaches of the legal profession is presented as really a compromised descent into a realm of state-approved injustice.
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. Like previous novels, Judge on Trial places its hero not just in a political but a personal predicament; as is the wont of Klíma protagonists, he finds himself torn between his wife and a defiantly unconventional, vaguely artistic girlfriend. The hazy romanticism that tends to billow round such scenarios in Klíma's fiction here merges, as in earlier books, with nebulously visionary interludes. Adam is occasionally vouchsafed inspirational glimpses of a radiant light gleaming in darkness. His wife (“she felt a sudden, almost dizzy blissfulness and she knew that something celestial and undefiled was approaching”) has an encounter with an angel. Along with other extra-sensory episodes, these moments seem intended to illuminate the limitations of rationality (Adam's unqualified respect for the French Enlightenment is presented as an index of some shortcoming). This adds a further element to the novel's anthology of paradox. For Klíma's forte isn't soulful exaltation but hard detail A world of desperate privation and doggedly enduring decency is evoked, for instance, by a survivor's matter-of-fact account of how he shared a bowl of soup in a camp: “When we were halfway down the pot we exchanged spoons, since they weren't exactly the same size.” It's out of material like this that Klíma most sturdily constructs his epic, with its demonstration of how, even in a climate thickly polluted by cynicism, integrity can't be entirely asphyxiated.
SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “The Old Adam.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 181 (13 December 1991): 37.
[In the following review, Angier examines the bleakness of Klíma's world view in Judge on Trial.]
Ivan Klíma's superb stories, My First Loves, were published here in 1986. Since then we've had two knife-like novels, A Summer Affair and Love and Garbage, cutting deeply into his twin subjects of politics and love. And now Judge on Trial, which has been considered his masterpiece since it appeared in samizdat form in Czechoslovakia in 1978. It cuts still more deeply, and widely, into the same two diseases; it shows step by step, how a man becomes an ideologue and an adulterer, but cannot bear to go on living in either universe of lies.
Like the dissident hero of Love and Garbage, Adam Kindl has had a tragic wartime childhood in a ghetto-camp from which all his friends were deported and murdered. It is this appalling experience that makes him hunger for a perfect system to save mankind—and which thereby turns him into a perfect tool for its enslavement instead. From school to university to first job as judge, Klíma describes each step of Kindl's high-minded damnation with savage clarity: “I preached about what we must do to achieve a perfect order … that would confer well-being and happiness on the whole of mankind. Mankind! Including the African pygmies … and the homosexuals of Greenwich Village—mankind including half a billion Chinese, without my having yet set eyes on a single one of them in my life!”
His haunted childhood has also left him like David Krempa, the hero of A Summer Affair. empty, driven and workaholic, incapable of intimacy with his tired wife or tiring children. Then, like both the earlier heroes, he meets a vivid woman, and is plunged into immediacy. Now he can no longer live without passion, but neither can he abandon the order and decency of his marriage. Klíma is the specialist, the chief surgeon of infidelity and indecision, of jealousy, guilt and longing. Adulterers be warned: these novels are almost too painful to read.
The political and personal dilemmas echo each other, of course, and are parts of the same dilemma: the tension between an ideal order and a fallen freedom. That is why Klíma's twin subjects are really one, and why his books work so well. He has always interwoven public and private seamlessly, especially in Love and Garbage; and also past and present, philosophy and drama, realism and visionary image.
Here he does it all again, most fully and ambitiously. Each chapter is divided in two, present and past, so that each uncertain step Kindl takes into the future is followed by the uncancellable history that got him here. Each solid, squalid detail of public and private betrayal is lit by Kindl's/Klíma's unoppressible imagination; with images, especially of escape and transcendence, that obsess the other books too—light and flame, desert and tower, the flight of birds and the conquering of death through art: music, which is not open to the hero, and storytelling, which is (as it also is, to our immeasurable benefit, to Klíma).
A Summer Affair and Love and Garbage stay inside the hero; Judge on Trial also gives us other stories, other points of view. Opposite Kindl throughout are (especially) his client Karel Kozlík, his wife Alena, his brother Hanuš. Hanuš is a dissident from the start, who leaves home when Adam stays, but who finally and dangerously returns. Even more than the women, he stands for the power and value of irrational love.
Alena, too, is Adam's opposite: she waits for meaning and salvation to come to her from outside, from men and from God, while he grows more and more certain that the freedom he seeks can be found only in himself. But Kozlík, above all, is his opposite, and at the same time his semblable and frère: a man accused of murder, who has never had a chance since his inhuman childhood; who sees a chance of redemption, but who probably fails to seize it, and is condemned to death anyway.
Kozlík's glimpse of redemption comes to him, like Alena's, through a clergyman—but one who is called Pravda, Truth, and whose message may make a bridge to Kindl. It is that freedom will not come from fighting what you fear—enemies and obligations, loneliness, death—but from accepting them of your own accord, and so rising above them; making ideal demands not of the world, but of yourself. Alena waits, Kindl strives, Kozlík (probably) kills and dies; they may all fail, but this vision of freedom and nobility is, the novel suggests, their proper aim.
If I have made Judge on Trial sound very serious, it is; though it also has a mocking wit. But, more than the others, it is the hero's book: rational, willed, a bit ponderous, a bit over-systematic. It is also very black, full of people made hideous, or at least unhappy, by suffering they have not overcome. It is not quite hopeless, because of that proper aim and vision. But it's close. The hero of Love and Garbage doesn't like hopeless books, and says: “A writer who doesn't know anything else had better keep silent.” I'm not sure if Ivan Klíma does know anything else; but I am very glad he has not kept silent.
SOURCE: Ascherson, Neal. “Heartlessness.” London Review of Books 13, no. 24 (19 December 1991): 17.
[In the following review, Ascherson argues that Love and Garbage displays Klíma's literary talents more effectively than Judge on Trial.]
The war was finished—and so was the regime of occupation. Its most hated representatives had either fled or wound up in prison while their victims had been proclaimed martyrs. But all that concerned just a tiny section of the population: most of the people had not died, fled or gone to gaol, but merely gone on with their lives. Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday's laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday's crimes to be acts of heroism. They naturally regarded this change as a victory for historical truth and agreed that guilt must be assessed, wrongs put right and society purged.
But what was to be identified as guilt and what condoned, seeing that they had all lived under the former regime, however hated and imposed it was? Seeing that the existence and actions of the regimes had also depended on their own existence and behaviour. Who was to be the defendant, who the witness and who the judge? At the trials that were to take place, would not those who confronted each other in the courtroom be equally guilty and equally innocent? The very will to cleanse oneself of evil and to atone for guilt conceals within it the risk of new crimes and new wrongs.
Ivan Klima must have written that passage in about 1985. Judge on Trial was finished three years before the revolution of November 1989. But today the theme of those two paragraphs is at the centre of Czech and Slovak consciences. This is the moral crisis over lustrace—‘washing oneself ritually clean.’ There is a desire to make a reckoning with the Communist past by some process of punishment which spreads far wider than the criminal trials of those guilty of formal offences. As far as trials are concerned, it is already obvious that the big fish who were ultimately responsible for illegality and repression are getting away with it, while the small fry are being flung to the gulls by the bucketful. There are calls for the purging from public life of all ex-Party members. On the basis of Security Police files, there have been denunciations of public figures, including parliamentary deputies, as past informers (though it is clear that many of these people did not know that they were confiding in police agents).
Behind all the outcry is a people which—just as in 1945—feels guilty and dirty, and requires human sacrifice in order to purify itself. What Klima wrote about the Czech mood during and after the Nazi occupation is profoundly true again today. ‘The very will to cleanse oneself of evil … conceals within it the risk of new crimes and new wrongs.’ Ivan Klima obviously sensed that in a not too remote future these words would once more become the heart of the matter—to read the passage in its context is to feel the prophetic emphasis he lays on it—even though, when he wrote, Czechoslovakia's present leaders were in prison or disgrace and Gorbachev was no more than an interesting new Kremlin tenant.
Judge on Trial is concerned with this transmission of injustice from one generation to the next. As the English title suggests, it is about the failure of a judge who puts himself on trial before his conscience. But Klima's subject is less the guilt feelings of the unheroic average person, although that sort of bitterness is a continuous background element in the novel, than the psychic wound done to the real victim: the kind of lasting injury which destroys a part of the victim's humanity and, through the stunting of relationships, transmits the pain onwards down the years to more innocents.
Klima himself comes from an assimilated Jewish background, and as a child during the German occupation he was interned with his family in the fortress at Theresienstadt (Terezin). That place was sometimes used by the Nazis as a showplace, a Potemkin village in which Red Cross delegations could be deceived about the true fate of the Jews, but its real purpose was to serve as a holding-camp for Jews on their way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The Theresienstadt experience recurs again and again in Klima's fiction, most recently in the novel before this one, Love and Garbage. In Judge on Trial, it is made to represent a sort of emotional castration. The boy Adam Kindl survives Theresienstadt, and so do most of his family, but he has been exposed to the black radiation of the place: to the regular posting-up of lists of names which consign friends to the next transport for Auschwitz, to perpetual fear and physical misery, to complete abasement before the men in black uniforms with the death's-head badge.
The radiation burns something out of him. It is not precisely the capacity to love. It is rather the courage to risk relationships, and to accept other people as they are. Though his closest family survives, Adam behaves like an orphan. He takes refuge in the Communist movement, which provides him with a way of identifying and handling other human beings without having to face them individually and on their own terms. They are ‘victims of the bourgeois system’ or ‘comrades in the struggle’ or ‘objective enemies of the people's democracy.’ Adam Kindl becomes a schoolboy fanatic, setting up classroom tribunals whose verdicts the teachers are too frightened to reject, ruining the lives of some of the boys and girls around him. After that, he is admitted to the Party. He studies political science with the Party's most select young cadres—a band of psychopaths and cunning lackeys—and is trusted to go as an ‘agitator’ and explain to Prague factory workers why the trials of the ‘anti-Party traitors and imperialist agents around R. Slansky’ are so splendid. They listen, but have no questions. Soon afterwards, his own father—a passionate Communist—is arrested on charges of sabotage in the factory he manages.
At this point, Klima's novel departs from a conventional account of a Czech intellectual's formation in this period, from that well-known story of how the young Stalinist hot-head begins to acquire doubts, repents, gets into trouble with the regime, then emerges as a warrior for democracy in 1968 and a persecuted opposition hero in the Seventies. Something like this does in fact happen to Adam Kindl. The difference is in the author's treatment of his central character. Klima is interested in the persistence of heartlessness, and Adam Kindl does not become much more sympathetic as his political views migrate across the spectrum.
He is removed from the political science faculty, but becomes a law student and finally a judge in a backward, lawless town somewhere in eastern Slovakia. He knows now that the regime is evil at the top, but he still believes in its reformability: he gives in to local Party pressure and sends an entirely innocent ex-shopkeeper to prison as a ‘warning’ to other bourgeois elements. He achieves that subtle degree of distance from the authorities which allows him to become known as ‘decent’ and even ‘liberal’ without actually risking confrontation with the state. In his personal life, it is the same story. In Slovakia he meets Magdelena, the first of three women who will be important in his life, and becomes an affectionate, even passionate lover who never really takes the risk of finding out what she needs or of reading the emotional message she is sending. Magdalena's message is that she—and he—will suffocate in this little country unless they recognise the richness of the world outside its frontiers. Later, the message of his wretched, lonely wife Alena will be that a life which has no room for God, forgiveness or an open heart is a sort of death inflicted on others as well as on oneself. Near the end of the story (when Kindl has become a senior criminal judge in Prague, some time during the dead years after the Prague Spring), he begins a love affair with the tarty young wife of a friend. Alexandra, in turn, exhorts him to escape to ‘somewhere where you would know you were alive,’ to recognise the radiance and mystery of things and of human beings.
The mood of this novel is heavy—oppressed, rather than oppressive, but without much relief in its tone. This is Klima's longest novel, but also his most austere. Love and Garbage, its predecessor (whose narrative is founded on some of the same events and dilemmas), showed his talents off more vividly. It was also better translated. Did young women ever say, ‘Sling your hook!’ when they meant ‘Piss off!’?
It may be that the structure is too plain for the scale of the book. Flashbacks alternate steadily with chapters of ‘now’ narrative, climbing up from the wartime years until they merge with Kindl's present. The effect is of a crescendo inviting a climax, but Ivan Klima, a severe moralist, is not prepared to wow the readers with crashing final chords. At the end, the judge is cheated out of trying the murder case which has impaled his conscience for months, and which—for much of the novel—seems to promise a grand conclusion. Instead, he sees that his days as a judge are over, clears his desk and goes quietly. The difficulties which his wife and mistresses have with him remain unsolved. The supernatural, which has long intruded occasionally in the form of spinning lights which seem to be the eye of God, or as the spook of a long-dead clown from Theresienstadt who signifies the power of truth, refuses to decorate the bleak end. Poor Alena, a rather mawkish figure, prays on the last page for an apparition, a sign of mercy in the night sky. But nothing happens.
In the end, the heaviness comes from Klima's melancholy theme of irreversible emotional crippling. Here, all too clearly, he is alluding not only to the fictional Kindl but to contemporary Czech society. ‘Anyone who had accepted the morals of the mob invoked rights in vain …’ Kindl had supposed himself to be fighting for freedom, but he had done so in such a way as to deny himself righteousness, even though his choice of weapon was not his own but that forced upon him by the injustice he suffered as a child. Adam Kindl means ‘first man,’ ‘little child,’ and perhaps first victim of original sin. If even he is disqualified from judging, when liberty returns, then Klima's is the most merciless lustrace of all.
SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “Jobs' Worth.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 222 (2 October 1992): 42.
[In the following review, Angier lauds Klíma's use of humour, evocation of mystery, and examination of society in My Golden Trades, commenting on the influence of Franz Kafka on Klíma's writing.]
Over every Czech writer hangs the shade of Kafka: his voice and his greatness. In My Golden Trades, Ivan Klíma invokes Kafka for the first time (I think) in his writing. Like everything else in this collection, that is perfectly judged. For here Klíma joins Kafka, at least for me. He turns a similar grave and penetrating gaze on to a paranoid society; he wields a similar deadpan humour, evokes a similar mystery, and conducts a similar battle against despair.
Indeed, for me, Klíma is the greater, or anyway the richer. For Kafka's music is unvarying: reality and symbol, inner and outer, blend into one dark sound. Whereas Klíma gives us many melodies: a real and terrifying world, a caustic and philosophic commentary, and a transcendent imagination.
Each of the six stories here is based on a job that the narrator, a banned writer, is forced to do for economic or psychic survival. From “The Smuggler's Story” and “The Engine Driver's Story” you can learn how to survive in a police state (“speak as little as possible, mention no names, never get into an argument”); from “The Surveyor's Story” you can learn how to survey.
The narrator, who has also survived a wartime ghetto, is tragically profound (“there is a raging demon, a monstrous cloud of our own creation, wandering the earth. Its shadow falls on different parts of the world, sometimes darkening whole continents”); and tragically funny (a friend who has experienced all Europe's “cultural benefits, including a concentration camp,” is caught with an illicit letter and swallows it. “Could I,” the narrator of “The Smuggler's Story” wonders, “eat three bags of books?”)
But in his Afterword, Klíma says that what he has written here is not just about life under a repressive regime: “It is linked to our human existence, to our civilisation and its problems.” And this is true. “The Painter's Story” is also about art, “The Archaeologist's Story” also about the past. All the stories are also about art and the past, and about death, about women, about the human race and the danger it is in from its own reason and its own pride.
The narrator is a bad communist, but he would make a worse American. He dislikes cars, television, psychotherapy and technology; he loves trust, awareness of the past, and literature. He loves things that are even more under threat from freedom and security than from poverty and oppression: a sense of mystery and humility, and therefore of tolerance.
In one of the great visionary moments of these stories he sees in the moon's face the face of his father, who had utterly believed in science; and though he has spent his whole life, and the whole book, rebelling against this “world of engineering,” he now recognises that it too was miraculous in its aims and desires.
Each of the stories has a bass line echoing the melody and interweaved with it: tales of earlier resisters in “The Smuggler's Story” and “The Surveyor's Story,” for instance; of an earlier people in “The Archaeologist's Story”; of Antigone in several of the stories. Each job is also a metaphor, so that in “The Archaeologist's Story” religion is the archaeology of God, and in “The Surveyor's Story” writing a sentence is like fixing a surveyor's stone. Echoes and connections weave not only each story but the pattern of the whole. Thus the first image of the first story is of a woman taking risks; and each story echoes in its own key the need to take risks, to cross forbidden borders, open closed doors, leave narrow paths.
All the great themes connect as well: the importance of mystery, with the impossibility of expressing our immortal longings, with the impossibility of seizing and holding certainty or meaning. Ivan Klíma doesn't just say these things; the weaving, echoing style of his stories evokes and displays them. I should too: I shouldn't just say, absolutely and outright, that these are some of the best stories I've ever read. But I'll take the risk; I'll throw myself across the border.
SOURCE: Naughton, James. “Recycling the Stories.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4672 (16 October 1992): 24.
[In the following review, Naughton discusses the themes and sense of place in My Golden Trades.]
It is bold, even in a volume as pleasant to read as this [My Golden Trades], to cite, several times in one story, the eternal verities of Ecclesiastes and to assert that, as well as using up “most of our fuel, our non-ferrous metals, our drinking water, our clean air; we've used up our stories as well,” “there is nothing new to add.” Ivan Klíma is admirable in eschewing pseudo-literary violent sensation, and in advocating the values of spirituality, charity and respect. It is perhaps timely for Westerners to be reminded, in a brief afterword, that banned writers in Czechoslovakia did not simply write about “repression, the secret police, prison and the cruel and bizarre practices of the communist regime”; and that, even if “life sometimes put writers in situations writers in a free country almost never experience,” this can only “add colour to writing, nothing more.” I found myself, nevertheless, a little paradoxically, locating the value of My Golden Trades not so much in its gently improving lamentations on environmental decay and social disintegration in our “dehumanized” age, as in its specific blending of these themes with the psychological documenting of a particular time, place and regime—pre-1989 “Socialist” Czechoslovakia. The material is hardly novel, though this not to belittle its value for others.
Each story in My Golden Trades centres on one temporary “trade” of the Ich-protagonist (taken to be Klíma's own voice: as if direct reminiscence). This “I” plays the paid and unpaid parts of Smuggler, Painter, Archaeologist, Engine Driver, Courier and Surveyor. The roles acquire metaphorical meanings, reflecting on the modern condition of man (the purpose of life, etc), but also, and more interestingly, the daily round of the marginalized writer-cum-intellectual: the tiresome surveillance, petty bureaucratic sniping—and the various pursuits and manual or menial employments which, along with discomforts, have their own charm of an unaccustomed vantage point (for which one might sense the likelihood of an odd nostalgia, after return to public, professional life). Those already familiar with Klíma can see where Kafka is going to creep in—in “The Surveyor's Story”—but this time the dose is mild. (Personally, I would prefer Kafka to be banned from such buttressing roles.) The lyrical, sentimentally depicted mistress figures of (for instance) Klíma's novel Love and Garbage are thankfully absent, replaced by lyrically emblematic females with a more ambivalent erotic charge, if any. The stories benefit from this, even if these women, often youngish and vaguely appealing, are apt to suffer from industrially induced cancer, behead themselves under a train, or sublimate their human yearnings into a passion for ET.
History provides a texture for the contemporary context. “The Smuggler's Story” involves the psychology of smuggling books viewed by the regime with hostility, which has a parallel in the eighteenth-century smuggling of religious literature. “The Painter's Story” invokes Ecclesiastes. The Archaeologist's involves the Bohemian Celts, the Earth and the “voices of our home spirits.” In the sardonically light-hearted “Engine Driver's Story,” the “Death-She-regime” withdraws K's driving licence, but he defies Her by controlling a friend's locomotive and crossing Her path; the police-car halts at the level-crossing. In “The Courier's Story,” a messenger job at the environmental institute is compared with a perilous message delivery in Stalinist times. “The Surveyor's Story” is partly about the loss of history in a printer-and-stationer's building due for demolition where the surveyors are lodged. The female ET fan, who is employed in the nationalized shop, rounds off the volume, linking, with a pinch of bitter eros, the cosmic to dowdy human perspectives: “The girl was still standing there, squeezing the ugly little rubber extraterrestrial in one arm, and in her other hand she waved a coloured handkerchief, as if I too were some extraterrestrial departing her desolate planet for ever.”
Klíma's work is not enhanced here by poor proof-reading, or by the translator's inability to spell the cultures of Hallstatt and La Tène, form certain place names, or distinguish latitude accurately from longitude.
SOURCE: Drabelle, Dennis. “Hard Decisions.” Washington Post Book World (18 April 1993): 6.
[In the following review, Drabelle concludes that, despite a slow beginning, Judge on Trial is a passionate and compelling novel which serves as a culmination of Klíma's work thus far.]
Questions of loyalty have long preoccupied Czech novelist Ivan Klima. His newly translated novel, Judge on Trial, weaves them into a complex pattern that sums up nearly all his work. It's not allegiance to superficial symbols like flags or anthems that engages him—and certainly not to the shibboleths mouthed by the former communist establishment. Rather, the Klima protagonist is likely to agonize over temptations to ditch his profession, or his wife and kids, or his native land and language—and sometimes all the above—in seeking refuge abroad.
For Klima himself, like so many other Czech intellectuals of his generation, the moment of truth came in the late 1960s and early '70s, after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was then that two of his peers, novelists Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, chose exile in other countries (France and Canada, respectively) over suppression in Czechoslovakia. Although Klima had an easy opportunity to do the same—in 1969 he was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan—he elected to go home, a decision that cost him dearly as a writer: Until recently his fiction circulated underground within Czechoslovakia, and the majority of his audience were foreigners who read him in translation.
Through the mouths of his characters, Klima has offered various reasons why even someone who is sorely tried might turn down a chance at a fresh start. The explanation in his novel Love and Garbage, where the narrator chooses to stay in an unhappy marriage rather than run off with the mistress who adores him, is at once the most universal and persuasive: “Perhaps there is a law within us still, above everything else, some ancient law, beyond logic, that forbids us to abandon those near and dear to us.”
That law, along with other written ones, pulls on Adam Kindl, the protagonist of Judge on Trial, which started making its furtive rounds in 1978 and was revised by the author in 1986. Like his creator, Adam returned from the United States to post-invasion Prague. Since then he has attained the lofty position of trial judge in Prague, but he is under suspicion for having signed a manifesto and written an article calling for the abolition of capital punishment (the authorities saw to it that the piece never got published). As the story opens, Adam has been assigned a case that is sure to rile his conscience: The accused, a dim-witted laborer, has confessed to turning on the gas in his landlady's apartment, killing her and her young granddaughter—a crime that under the law cries out for the death penalty. Adam, in short, has been set up: If he follows his heart, he will lose his job.
At the same time, his marriage is crumbling. His stolid personality and traumatized past (he spent part of his childhood in a concentration camp) prevent him from giving his wife, Alena, the affection she craves. Almost simultaneously they each begin an affair, he with an old girlfriend who reappears in his life, she with a moony student several years her junior.
Klima tells the story in alternating chapters: third-person narrations of Adam and Alena at cross purposes interspersed with Adam's first-person reminiscences, which appear under the running title “Before we drink from the waters of Lethe” (the river of forgetfulness). The novel takes a while to get rolling—at page 200, I was still making an act of will to keep reading. Partly, I think, this is the translator's fault: A. G. Brain's English version is at best pedestrian, at worst squeaky with slang, chiefly British: “put paid,” “blot his copy-book,” “het up,” “It makes no odds.”
But Klima, too, is to blame. Adam's principles are admirable, but his stodgy reserve makes him rather a bore, at least until enough of his past accumulates for the reader to comprehend him. Early on, in fact, I found myself peeking ahead for the next installment of those memoirs, with their savage actors and shattering events. It's almost as if Klima wanted to test his readers' loyalty: If so, I'm here to say that Judge on Trial ultimately rewards the virtuous.
Once the novel catches fire, past and present, its various treatments of loyalty deepen and interlock with one another. In the realm of interpersonal relations, Klima is especially good at rendering the tensions in Adam and Alena's marriage. He has found out about her affair before she about his. When he finally brings her up to date, she is incredulous. “You don't even want to tell me who it is,” she complains. “You're making it up just to get even with me.” Honest-to-a-fault Adam replies, “I've never wanted to get even with anyone in my life.” He considers this a laudable trait, but as the exchange goes on, Alena can be seen wishing he wanted to get even—perversely, this would affirm her importance to him.
At the level where private life and politics merge stands Adam alone, who must make a delicate evaluation: Do the small amounts of integrity and humanity he injects into the corrupt system compensate for the legitimacy he lends it by continuing to serve as a judge? And in deciding whether to quit or hang on, how much weight should he give the security and comfort of Alena and their two children?
The novel contains several critiques of that system, but none more trenchant than the homespun theorizing of Vasil, a court clerk in the jerkwater town where Adam spent his apprenticeship as a judge. Having weathered a succession of political upheavals, Vasil knows how to make do: He embezzles. In Adam's recollection, Vasil believed “it was the people's God-given right to cheat their masters. That was the way things had always been. And that was the way they would be now, he said, when I tried to explain to him that [under communism] it was the people, not the masters, who were ruling now. The people couldn't rule, he told me, because the moment they were in power they were no longer the people but the gentry.” The older Adam has come virtually around to Vasil's cynical outlook.
For all its slow start, Judge on Trial is an impassioned and wrenching novel, as well as a capstone to Klima's work so far (or at least the half-dozen books of his that have appeared in English). Now that Czechs no longer need choose between home and freedom, however, one wonders whether the themes that have haunted Klima are played-out and, if so, what new directions his unsparing imagination will take.
SOURCE: Filkins, Peter. “The Way They Lived.” Partisan Review 60, no. 3 (summer 1993): 487-93.
[In the following excerpt, Filkins derides the lack of narrative progression in Love and Garbage.]
Halfway through Ivan Klíma's Love and Garbage, the narrator exclaims, “I am not going back and I am not going forward, I am standing in a void, I am standing between two fields, at the meeting point of two calls which intersect each other, I am nailed to the cross, how can I move?” Though this refers specifically to the narrator's inability to choose between his psychiatrist wife Lida and his sculptress lover Daria, it's also a lament about the stasis of life in Czechoslovakia under the old regime, as well as the dead end in which the narrator finds himself as a writer in a society that will not allow his work to be published. Hence, if only to see life from another side, the narrator decides to become a street sweeper, cleaning up the rubbish of Prague while also sorting the rubbish of his own confusion and despair.
“Rubbish is immortal,” thinks the narrator, “it pervades the air, swells up in water, dissolves, rots, disintegrates, changes into gas, into smoke, into soot, it travels across the world and gradually engulfs it.” The same can be said of the alienation that pervades Klíma's Prague. As a writer, the narrator finds that “I had been living in a strange kind of exile for the previous ten years, hemmed in by prohibitions and guarded sometimes by visible, sometimes invisible, and sometimes only by guarded watchers. … I was afraid that the silence which surrounded me would invade me, paralyze my imagination and kill my plots.”
Engulfment and paralysis, then, are very much what Love and Garbage is about. Unable to leave his lover, unable to find fulfillment in his work, the narrator has no choice but to devote himself to the jetsam of thought itself. Ideas on the essay he is writing on Kakfa in his spare time, considerations of his fellow sweepers and their broken lives, hatred of the “jerkish” spoken by hacks and bureaucrats, meditations on God and paradise, or the lack of both: all of these constantly turn themselves over in the windy passages of the narrator's mind, a lost alley glutted with rubbish from the world around him, while he must try to make sense of it all as he tends to his street sweeping and the “cleansing” of his life.
Part fiction, part literary essay, part political and religious tract, Klíma's novel is itself a kind of literary landfill. Throughout, paragraphs have the quality of someone's pocket notes set loose to the wind, landing here and there on the page in haphazard fashion, though a kind of sense remains. What is lacking, however, is a sense of progression. … Klíma's refuse pile of meditations gets trampled on by the narrator's own endless despair. He himself says of Kafka, “By writing, Kafka not only escaped his torments, but only thus was he able to live at all. In his notes, letters and diaries we find that he never tried to put into words what he thought of literature.” At the end of the same paragraph, however, the narrator does write about literature, observing, “Literature without those who receive it is nonsensical anyway, as would be a world where no other language was heard than jerkish, where language could no longer make anyone respond, not even someone above human beings.” In fact, it's hard to feel that Klíma's narrator, unlike Kafka, ever escapes his torment. There is, of course, no reason that he should in order for the book to be successful, but given the entrenched alienation he experiences, as well as how interior his world remains, it can be difficult for readers to feel as if the novel is really speaking to them.
SOURCE: von Kunes, Karen. Review of Judge on Trial, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 848.
[In the following review, von Kunes asserts that Judge on Trial is a culmination of the ideas and thematic material found in Klíma's previous work.]
Those who are familiar with Ivan Klíma's writings can recognize Judge on Trial, in one form or another, in the author's previous works. Ambitious in its depths, the novel is a quest for truth and justice, freedom and loyalty. The story, which begins after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, is multileveled, with numerous flashbacks and reminiscences.
Judge Adam Kindl, who is no longer a member of the Communist Party, is handed a case of double murder, although in reality it is he who is on trial: instructed to bring in a guilty verdict and a sentence of death by hanging for the culprit, Kindl finds his own judgment and actions are being scrutinized by the authorities. In principle, the judge opposes the death penalty, and the communist system as well, for the latter has proved to be a source of great disillusion for him and for most of his countrymen. Kindl has much in common with Klíma's hero in Love and Garbage; both Jews, they survived the Nazi death camps only to be liberated by Russians who imprisoned them in an oppressive communist system.
Oppression permeates all levels of Kindl's life—political, professional, and personal. His wife is oppressing him by her self-centeredness and her demands for tangible proof of his love; all the while, she is having an affair with a student, by whom she gets pregnant. Kindl is caught between the growing contradictions of freedom, on the one hand, and between loyalty to his wife and loyalty to his mistress on the other. His urge “to do something to ensure that people never again lose their freedom” culminates in his longing for a desert, a world of wisdom, courage, and humanity. This idea is not new in Czech literature: Klíma expressed it in his play The Master, as did Milan Uhde in The Dentist's Temptation and Milan Kundera in Tamina's Death. Klíma's hero bears a burden of guilt; deaths or attempted deaths by gassing are found throughout the story, first in the concentration camps, then in the case of the hero's aunt, the murder suspect, and finally the young lover of the judge's wife.
Judge on Trial represents not only a culmination of Klíma's ideas, both political and metaphysical, but also an attempt to create a literary masterpiece on modern Czech history. The reader feels the presence of Kafka, Dostoevsky, Kundera, and Škvorecký on Klíma's pages; at the same time, however, one senses a less-brilliant flow than in the works of the authors who influenced Klíma. Adam Kindl, a person of grim and often unconvincing idealism, stands out as a distant and confused hero. Only the passages describing the earlier periods in the Nazi camps have both strength and depth.
The Czech original, Soudce z milosti, was published by the Czech émigré house Rozmluvy in England in 1986, though the manuscript circulated in a samizdat version as early as 1978. The serviceable yet undistinguished English translation by A. G. Brain has allowed English-speaking readers to become familiar with an important period of Czech history as presented by one of the major contemporary Czech writers.
SOURCE: Sherwood, Peter. “The Other Europe.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4781 (18 November 1994): 21.
[In the following review, Sherwood examines the bleak themes and outlook of Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light.]
It is now five years since those faces on the television screen, ecstatic as the Berlin Wall fell and as the party men took their final curtain. Not all that has followed in the Europe can be explained in terms of the re-emergence of age-old fault-lines; in particular, the radical political changes achieved without armed conflict in the north and west of the region have been too readily seen as proof of an organic return to the body of Europe. This appealing notion doesn't pay attention to the legacy of vast areas of postwar history. The remains or return of the former nomenklatura in many walks of life is only the most obvious evidence of continuity with the former regimes; at least as significant is the nexus between writing and political power, which has survived the changes in some countries, notably the Czech Republic. Here, Václav Havel has continued to claim, as President, the high moral ground he occupied in philosophical-artistic opposition, while Ivan Klíma, one of the best-known Czech writers in the West, though continuing to take no active part in politics, last year published this ambitious and highly wrought fiction. Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is perhaps the first novel exploring continuities on either side of 1989 to appear in English translation.
The work is a profoundly pessimistic account of Czech society told through the character of Pavel, a cameraman in his mid-forties who films the demonstrators of 1989 for the state television he has served for almost twenty years. Pavel comes from a broken home; his mother declines into dementia; his relations with women are disastrous. He endures censorship of his work, and the censure of his friends for enduring it, and since he has no time for poetry, dislikes the theatre and abhors video, his only sources of pleasure are making nature documentaries and writing a screenplay for a film to be made when freedom comes.
The purity of film is, however, challenged by Klíma's uncharacteristically complex presentation of his text. The second half of each chapter of this novel takes the form of a “film story” (filmová povídka, rendered simply “film” in this fluent translation by the excellent Paul Wilson). These sections add up to a shorter, perhaps more visual, story, a complementary version of the main Pavel narrative, which adds new strands involving a convict and the President, a senescent septuagenarian clearly based on a suspicious and doddery Husák. Unlike the rest of the book, these two strands are written in a straightforward, linear style, with the convict story reading like a bad crime novel. But the significance of this and indeed of such a complication overall is unclear. This duality of text is matched by such determined defractions of character that the artifice is more visible than the art, as in Klíma's depiction of women. It is three women who bring together the three men in a climax of tragi-comical clemency in Prague Castle; without them, there would be no mercy for men. One of these three Fates is Eva, a materialist more interested in having her own shop than staying with Pavel. She contrasts with the dyad of Albina, a nurse in white who would care for him if he were not the way he was, and Alice (Germanic: “truth”), who cared for him once, but not for the way he is now. Albina/Alice are shortened to Ali, and unlike men, have faith of an Eastern or naive kind: Albina swears by a blind Indian guru (who is behind the title of the book), while Alice believes that “when evil begins to outweigh good, angels cram themselves in on the lighter side [of the scale].” At different times and in differing ways, they have both lost a child by Pavel, and are carefully intertwined in both narratives.
In a similar vein, the three alliterating men (Pavel, his friend Peter and the President) form two pairings. Peter, before the changes, was a dissident marginalized as the guardian of a castle. He and Pavel form an obvious vertical link, while Peter's keys link him horizontally with the President as superior keepers. Here, it must be said that Klíma's well-known dependence on Kafka strongly suggests that aspects of his novel, or perhaps the novel as a whole, should be seen in the context of The Castle. In fact, even Klíma's own interpretation of that work, in his essay “The Swords Are Approaching,” reprinted in The Spirit of Prague, reflects forms and thoughts familiar from his fiction. When he writes about the apparent “illogicalities” of the text, which he formulates as a series of questions (“Has K come to the village to survey or to engage in a struggle? If he has come to engage in a struggle, what is it to be about?”), he sees them as “caused by the interpenetration of two levels: the level of immediate experience, and the imagistic level into which the underlying experience has been transformed.” And the present work certainly tapers to the same conclusion as his view of Kafka's The Castle: “far more than a novel about mercy, [it] is about a lost, squandered mercy, a lost opportunity, a defeat.”
Such reductive polarizations, like the carefully wrought dyadic contrasts in characterization, and the non-film/film narrative device, suggest a Manichaean dualism that seems to have much in common with the doctrinal notion of “living in truth” revived by Václav Havel and his circle (which included Klíma) in their dissident years. In his essay, “An Anatomy of Reticence,” dating from 1985, Havel wrote of their dissent: “It is tactical because it does not let itself be guided by tactical considerations. It is political because it does not play politics.” (Aphoristic remarks like this dot Klíma's book.) This came some years after his better-known essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which included the sentence: “To cling to the notion of traditional parliamentary democracy as one's political ideal and to succumb to the illusion that only this ‘tried and true’ form is capable of guaranteeing human beings enduring dignity and an independent role in society would, in my opinion, be at the very least shortsighted.” Such overweening moral purity, perhaps vital in the fight against oppressive political power, can be traced back through Masaryk and the Hussites; in the absence of oppression it can become a prerogative of the elect unattainable for the non-dissident.
This means, in effect, that the majority of the population cannot be forgiven, for they have lived under the old regime, without Havelian truth perhaps, but also without actively asserting any support for the regime, beyond that implied by obtaining the best job they could get in order to support themselves and their families (the conventional family is highly valued in this book). There were hundreds of thousands like Pavel who hated the untruth they lived in, felt wretched and hopeless, but were not obviously dissenting. Klíma has perceptive asides on the survival in the new order of the morally corrupt (the censor who now runs a radio station, the cameraman who ends up making porn movies) and the morally pure (Peter taking over at the television station, albeit temporarily), and he even gives bleak insights to those in between (“The system never allowed you to win, so it saved you from defeat as well”; “It made sense to make the film when it couldn't be made; it doesn't make sense now”). There is no denying, either, some incidental pleasures, such as Klíma's subtle ways with time and memory and his sure ear for dialogue. But his message is fundamentally bleak: those who are neither untouchably pure nor irredeemably corrupt are morally weak, and the morally weak, both supporters of and supported by the old regime, go to the wall when it falls or soon thereafter. There is no escape from your country or your past. The book is as unmoving and as black-and-white as its title suggests.
SOURCE: Zamoyski, Adam. “Bearing Witness to the Truth.” Spectator 273, no. 8683 (10 December 1994): 43.
[In the following review, Zamoyski praises Klíma's skill with prose and narrative in The Spirit of Prague and Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light.]
Ivan Klima has had quite a life. He was eight years old when the war began to impinge on his Prague childhood, restricting his movements in the city, banning him from school, forbidding him from going to the cinema—though he challenged the Gestapo on that one when Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came to town. He describes these things in The Spirit of Prague and Other Essays as they appeared to him then—as minor nuisances—and he records the exhilaration he felt when the whole family were pushed on to a train bound for the concentration camp of Terezin. It was the excitement any child feels at going on a journey. He describes the three years he spent at Terezin with the same committed detachment as Primo Levi, and this makes the first three essays in this collection particularly valuable, as well as moving.
Klima's detachment, and above all his intelligence, allow him to reflect on subjects such as the solidarity among prisoners, the loss of dignity in people under stress and the more philosophical aspects of the strangeness of life in a concentration camp. He admits that it was the fact of having survived where the vast majority of his family and friends perished that spurred him to write; not in order to cry for revenge, or to document in the way many survivors have documented; more in order to bear witness to the truth. This motivation served equally well after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. How strong it is can be gauged by the fact that Klima was in London when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, yet he chose to return. It is as though he could not bear not to be there to endure the dictatorship so that he could bear witness to its evil.
We must be grateful to Klima for this piece of heroism, as it enabled him to observe from within the workings of totalitarian socialism, and, with his keen eye and deliberate prose, to produce some memorable essays. ‘The Beginning and the End of Totalitarianism’ is, for all its brevity, as clear an explanation of how such regimes come about and as elegantly put as anything Alain Besançon has written on the same subject. ‘On the Literature of Secular Faith’ is a marvellous reflection on where the collapse of socialism has left so many writers. It is of universal relevance and should be read attentively by many played-out intellectuals of the Left in this country. It might help them come to terms with their error rather than persist in it.
In one of the essays Klima describes a tiresome ritual that has entered his life and that of other writers since 1989. A foreign journalist telephones him asking for an interview. He agrees, on condition that the interview is to be about his writing, not politics. The journalist agrees, but no sooner is he, or rather, she—it is usually she—inside the door, than the questions rain down about politics, about the environment, about issues that torture the conscience of the West. The only faintly literary question is: ‘And what are you going to write about now?,’ the inference being that once he ceases to be a dissident not only his inspiration but also his talent will wither.
Klima has answered that question, triumphantly, with his novel Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light. It is about a middle-aged television cameraman who was one of the idealists of 1968, tried to escape to the West a couple of years later, but eventually made his peace with the system. This uneasy peace comes under review with the events of 1989, which leave him morally beached and unable to make anything of the new freedom. Although the book is about the Czech experience, it is, like Klima's essays, of universal import. He has some searingly truthful things to say about the wretchedness of human mediocrity, but with its hint of surrealism and its wonderful black humour it is an immensely enjoyable book. It is also very well translated, and Paul Wilson deserves to be congratulated.
SOURCE: Bradbrook, B. R. Review of Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 395.
[In the following review, Bradbrook explores how the fall of Communism affected the protagonist in Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light.]
“In our literature now we have too many Joyces,” declared the Czech poet Miroslav Holub in an interview in London in March 1995. Although Ivan Klíma's novel Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light does not quite fall into this category, its layered structure of time and place, together with the interweaving of the single episodes, is reminiscent of Joyce; yet the combination of dream and reality has a distinctive, gloomy, Kafkaesque tang. The “dark” period for the TV cameraman Pavel is that dominated by the long-lived communist regime; it is a time during which he can only dream, about his own great, uncensored screenplay. Through his own fault he loses the woman he loves; he then sleeps with another because he cannot live with his senile mother, whom he visits and cares for loyally. His experiences, rather ordinary but including a jail term after his unsuccessful attempt to flee the country, are projected in his fictitious screenplay into a drama full of thrills, tension, and tragedy.
Under the old regime, Paul keeps his comparatively good job in a minimal show of conformity. Has he betrayed his ideals? he wonders. Following the velvet revolution, the question arises as to whether he is now one of the “poisoners.” He is not dismissed, but he feels utterly alienated among the new people around him. He leaves voluntarily and, with friends, starts a private advertising company. The world of consumerism only increases his alienation, as he finds the price of independence to be rather high: the earlier pressure to sing the communist tune has only changed into the pressure to eulogize “ever-sharp kitchen knives, ketchup and chewing gum.” The darkness has not turned into light for Pavel, and his gloom grows into pessimism, even nihilism, in his now almost surrealist dream screenplay. Clearly, he “lacked hope.”
Psychologically, Klíma has drawn an admirably deep portrait of an ordinary citizen under communism and his hapless emergence from under its sway. The novel's unusual structure gives it its artistic frame. The author's style and language are powerful, abounding in symbolic images, not always of lame jays (in the semtex factory) or ravens looking “like black crosses floating in the sky,” which truly bring darkness into the book. But is Pavel a true representative of the nation's mood? one wonders. There may be quite a few who have not fully realized that there is a price to pay for freedom, and the wounds inflicted upon human souls by the old regime's poison cannot be healed overnight. But surely, the new life is not quite so hopeless?
In 1962, conforming only gently, Klíma was able to publish his commendable monograph on Karel Čapek, who saw a writer's first duty in the use of his art for the encouragement of his nation in difficult times. Would he not hope that the pollution (actual and symbolic) has not yet killed off all the doves? Would he not like to see them replacing a few of Klíma's ominous ravens? Next time, perhaps?
SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Broken Blossoms.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 7 (20 April 1995): 15-16.
[In the following review, Annan focuses on the pessimistic outlook, cynicism, and sense of disillusionment that pervades Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light.]
A short time before the Velvet Revolution a peaceful demonstration marches through Prague with banners calling for LESS SMOKE, MORE AIR. The police are ready with their truncheons and water cannon; Pavel is standing ready with his television camera and the van with the State Television logo on it. “The clash would be as absurd as all the others before it,” he thinks,
but there was no stopping it. Everyone knew this: those who would administer the beatings and those who would be beaten. This utter certainty transformed the raw determination on both sides into movements that almost seemed preordained.
It is also preordained that most of Pavel's footage will be thrown out or used to travesty what is happening; and he himself is preordained to play the role he plays in this opening shot of the novel: to be an outsider—his camera
a sign of his alien, observer status, a status that could not distinguish between what was essential and what was not, in which, for the most part, it was impossible to get excited about anything, regardless of the occasional need to pretend excitement.
So although Ivan Klíma's new novel is about the end of communism and the disillusion with its replacement, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light also belongs to the Romantic nineteenth-century genre of outsider fiction. Its hero, Pavel, is a modern Onegin: apart, cynical, disillusioned, without hope. There is even some resemblance between his love life and Onegin's. Each loses the woman he might have loved through his own insensitivity, and when he meets her again after many years, she rejects him.
Twenty years or so before the revolution, when he was very young, Pavel and his friend Peter tried to escape from Czechoslovakia, Peter because he was a Christian, and Pavel because he wanted to create a free work of art, which wasn't possible under the Communist regime. “He hadn't been entirely sure what form it would take, but he knew he had the power to create it.” The two young men are captured at the border and sent to prison. When they come out, Peter accepts the lot of the dissident intellectual, which is to clean streets or stoke boilers. Pavel manages to get a foothold in television. His friends deplore his cooperation with the state propaganda machine, and his employers don't trust him because of his past.
“Wretchedness was the lot of those who hadn't the strength to be honourable nor the courage to be dishonourable.” Pavel has to make do with being a hack cameraman on routine assignments, instead of writing and directing his own work. He dreams of the day when he will be free to do so, and meanwhile pretends to himself that some of his footage will, in a nobler future, bear witness to the vile present.
Pavel and Peter have drifted apart, but when they were young they formed a like-minded trio with a beautiful, idealistic girl called Alice. She was not quite seventeen when Pavel made her pregnant and persuaded her to have an abortion (the equivalent to Onegin's rejection of Tatyana's letter). Alice marries Peter. They have three children, and in the novel's present they live in the remote countryside, where Peter is employed as caretaker in an empty castle whose owners have been dispossessed.
Pavel remains unmarried and sleeps around, even though for some years he has been attached to Eva. Eva works in a lingerie shop and wants to marry him. She wears a lot of makeup and shares a flat with her little boy and divorced husband, who has nowhere else to go. There is no corner in it that Pavel can call his own, and he is not very fond of Eva, who is uneducated and a primitive materialist.
He keeps remembering the two women he really loved: Albina and Alina. Both have left him. Both their names can be shortened to Ali, and so can Alice's. The sharper the reader the sooner he will guess that Albina and Alina are just fantasy substitutes for the unavailable Alice.
Much of the novel, indeed, takes the form of fantasized recollections of Pavel's life with characters he makes up. He confesses that this is so, but not until near the end of the book. By that time things have got very confusing, especially when Eva is supplanted by an imaginary woman called Ella whenever he is thinking about Ali. On top of that, there is a subplot about an escaped prisoner who murders Albina. He might or might not be to Pavel what Albina and Alina are to Alice. Bewildering ambiguities of reality and identity heighten the sense of being lost in a second nightmare within the nightmare of life under communism; they are also a fairly regular feature of Czech fiction—Kundera's, for instance.
After the revolution, Peter—untainted but unqualified—is appointed head of State Television and briefly becomes Pavel's boss. But Pavel soon moves on to join a former colleague in a brand-new company making television commercials. Peter leaves Alice, who moves to a provincial town with her children. At the end of the novel, Pavel seeks her out and asks her to marry him. Predictably, she turns him down.
“You'd want to start something completely different?”
“That's impossible. We're not completely different. You're sad and lonely, maybe too sad and lonely. And I really feel sorry for you, Pavel. But that's not enough.”
She is voicing Pavel's own, momentarily forgotten, conviction that people are incapable of change. It seems to be Klíma's conviction too. His novel is pessimistic through and through: capitalism doesn't turn out all that much better than communism.
The beastliness of life under communism comes across when Pavel visits, just before the revolution, a chemical plant the size of a small town: barbed wire, security guards, and a stench of ammonia everywhere, broken windows because there are too many explosions to make them worth replacing; the birds are too sick to get off the ground, and the gray-faced managers are edgily facetious. A secretary shows Pavel around. “It happens sometimes. They find a watch on an arm,” she says flirtatiously, “but they can't find the body to go with it.” The two hundred women in the aniline dye factory “have to be at least forty years old. And they have to sign a waiver saying they understand what the consequences might be. To their health, that is.”
None of this is news; but Klíma describes it so strongly that is almost seems to be. There are other documentary tours de force about Communist life, more sarcastic in mood: interviews with the senile president, ludicrous official entertainments for African VIPs, and drinking parties in dreary bars, where noisy heartiness papers over suspicion.
The parties are just as vulgar and noisy after the end of communism, except that now their purpose is neither official propaganda nor mutual comfort and distraction, but PR.
There were more familiar faces here than he expected, faces he remembered from past meetings and conferences. These faces had ruled over ministries, press agencies, factories, personnel departments, the television network and him. Halama [the former head of the state network] was there. He now owned a private radio station that broadcast the same hit songs he himself had so recently banned. He saw a poet with whom he'd once made a film about folk carvings of nativity scenes. The poet had gained official recognition by writing verses that expressed his love for women, the motherland and the Party. Now, anonymously, he wrote copy expressing his love of ever-sharp kitchen knives, ketchup and chewing-gum.
Pavel's own company, with foreign backing, has moved into porn movies. He is too disillusioned with freedom to care. After a night with one of the actresses, he races his brand-new Mercedes along the now accessible German Autobahn and into another hallucination. He is taking Alina home after their wedding; she disappears from her seat beside him; the earth disappears too; the car floats in space; and the novel ends in a rather clichéd fade-out, presumably implying Pavel's death, from a mixture of despair, heart disease, alcohol, and dangerous driving. One feels sorry for him, but only about as sorry as Alice does; and she, like the rest of the subsidiary cast, has little substance. This is not a novel whose characters engage you strongly. But it is nevertheless a powerful and affecting work, part tragic documentary (as a reporter Klíma makes one think of Kapuściński, down to the occasional surreal frisson); and part psycho-philosophical reflection on human nature.
Which does not change, except during short spells of exaltation. Such a spell occurs during the Velvet Revolution. Pavel is sent to film the demonstrations at the university. In the early hours of the morning he finds himself in a lecture hall in the drama faculty. Exhausted students lie asleep on the floor. A girl offers him her blanket. This comradely gesture is the high point of the novel:
The air was acrid with the smell of tired human bodies. … And that strange, almost exultant mood that seemed to bring everyone, including him, closer together. This feeling of solidarity had surprised him. He wasn't prepared for it, and in fact he'd always resisted it …
Alice understands how transitory the mood is. When Pavel tries to make love to her at the end of the novel, he reminds her that during the demonstration they bumped into each other in the street and she kissed him “out of the blue, and it seemed … it seemed that we were as close then as we were all those years ago.”
“It was the moment that did it, Pavel, the time. We were all close in those days.”
“Is that time over now?”
“A time like that can't last for very long.”
Alice has wisdom. She happens to be a Christian, but the novel is not very positive about Christianity. Christianity is no more than a tiny trickle in it, an option for those who happen to be able to believe. In one of his fantasy talks with Albina, Pavel describes his scenario for a film about a man obsessed with history and prehistory. On his deathbed the man perceives God. Albina is surprised: “It's as though someone else had invented it, someone else inside you, someone who longs to have faith.” And Pavel thinks: “Faith was a longing that pretended to be a conviction.” An elegant aphorism. The text is full of them, and all express disgust or despair.
Pavel's career defines him as the man of whom God says, in Revelations, “because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth.” But Klíma does not exactly condemn him; on the contrary, the evidence of the novel suggests that Pavel's view of human nature is the true one, and that all that human beings are capable of, or even deserve, is either communism or an empty consumerism.
SOURCE: Schubert, Peter Z. Review of My Golden Trades, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 609.
[In the following review, Schubert notes that My Golden Trades is well worth reading, despite what he contends to be a flawed translation.]
The latest addition to the extensive list of Ivan Klíma's publications in English, the novel Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light has just been favorably reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Even before this special attention, however, Klíma undoubtedly was one of the most frequently translated and most popular Czech writers. Although his latest novel found its way to the American reader very fast, this was not the case with My Golden Trades. The 1993 Penguin Books edition referred to a concurrent publication on both sides of the Atlantic, but in actual fact the U.S. reader had to wait another year to obtain his copy. This being the case, it comes as a surprise that the long-awaited U.S. edition uses British spelling.
My Golden Trades is the third—both chronologically and thematically—in a series of short-prose collections correlated by the author's style and autobiographical inspiration. The other two parts of the “trilogy” are Moje první lásky (My First Loves) and My Merry Mornings. Although Moje první lásky came into samizdat circulation only in 1981, three years after My Merry Mornings, it is chronologically the first of the cycle as the thirteen- to twenty-five-year-old narrator experienced his “first loves” in the 1940s and 1950s, and My Merry Mornings follows, as the action of these narratives takes place in the 1970s. Moreover, two of the stories in the latter collection already deal with the “golden trades,” which the writer had to practice in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was banned from publishing—the general theme of My Golden Trades. This, of course, is also the central theme of Klíma's more recent Love and Garbage.
My Golden Trades consists of six “stories,” each—except for the first one, “The Smuggler's Story”—named after one of the occupations the author performed between 1979 and 1987. In other words, he painted, worked on archaeological digs, drove a locomotive, worked as a courier and as a surveyor's helper. “The Archaeologist's Story” is the second oldest among the selections, and it was previously published in the émigré journal Listy (16:5) in 1986. The first complete edition of these stories did not come out, however, until 1990, after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, and by virtue of the depicted yet no-longer-existing reality, the collection automatically took on a “historical” character.
Klíma, the “I”-narrator, presents his experiences and the absurdity and tragedy of life in Czechoslovakia during “normalization.” Although the author is very careful with his linguistic tools, the same is unfortunately not the case with the translator Paul Wilson, who frequently omits parts of sentences, as in the following examples: “he had [perhaps after his father or mother] a dark complexion” and “he was a [career soldier who attained the rank of] colonel in the army.” Elsewhere he abbreviates sentences so that “inspired poets to verses and visions of the world in which they wished to live until they had to live there” becomes “poets, who did not live there,” or “for whom the books were intended, so they could get him, too” becomes “who the books were for,” which usually spoils the style. As a result, he ends sentences with prepositions, omits explanations, destroys images, and impedes the flow of the narration. Moreover, this makes one wonder whether the sections omitted in Wilson's rendition were deleted by the author or by the translator. Other examples of the inept translation are the rendition of “your imagination is running away with you” as the brief “Rubbish,” “nonsense” as “bullshit,” “two dormitories with 300 beds each and they are full of marauders already” as “two dormitories and they filled them.” Moreover, Wilson translates idioms literally: “Let them eat [keep] the stupid keys, if they want.” On rare occasions he adds to a sentence with rather peculiar results: “[I remembered how,] 247 years ago,” or “I am taking this opportunity” becomes “Permit me to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.” Furthermore, he obviously looked up several words in the dictionary and in the process discovered mistranslations that are not his own. Thus, “bucket” (džber), for instance, is translated as “tub” and “overnight detoxification center” (záchytná stanice) as “detention center.” One can add to the mistranslations also the computer “key-punch cards” referred to as “perforated labels,” “power plants” that become “nuclear generating plants,” “dispose of them” which becomes “hide them safely away,” “Sclerosis Multiplex” as “Parkinson's Disease,” et cetera. In addition, Wilson disregards the declension in the Czech original (e.g., Komořany becomes Komořan and Julek becomes Julka) but keeps the Czech gender for “death” and refers to the grim reaper as “she.”
One could go on, showing how, for instance, “by her appearance, Angela did justice to her name” becomes “she looked like the angel in her name,” or “A lousy brass-hat irritatingly talked at us” is transformed into “An officer with a lot of brass on his shoulders came and gave us a pep-talk,” a simple “bus depot” becomes an “open-air-bus station,” and flags, right next to the washbasin, glowing with colors become flags leaning against a brightly colored washbasin, or how Wilson translates some abbreviations and leaves others in the original. It comes rather as a surprise both that the author, who speaks English, accepted this translation and that My Golden Trades remains interesting and well worth reading.
SOURCE: Bradbrook, B. R. Review of The Spirit of Prague and Other Essays, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 610.
[In the following review, Bradbrook evaluates the essays in The Spirit of Prague, providing brief summaries of the major thematic material, including Klíma's childhood, his opinions regarding dissident writers, and the history of Prague.]
“In themselves, extreme experiences do not open the way to wisdom,” says Ivan Klíma in one of his essays in the collection The Spirit of Prague, which in fact contains much wisdom resulting precisely from the extreme experiences the author had to endure. Muses may be silenced by oppression, but human thought matures and takes shape by experience in such conditions; the number of excellent essays by Czech dissident writers prove that.
The essay is a comparatively new genre in Czech literature, used widely by Karel Čapek (1890-1938), a great admirer of G. K. Chesterton; Klíma's style continues in the best Čapek vein. The earliest piece in the present collection dates from 1974, but most of them were written during the last few years as the author pondered the oppressive past (among other subjects) from the perspective of the first years of freedom. His themes, however, apart from one section, are not really political; the first part, for instance, tells us a great deal about Klíma himself and his “unconventional” childhood, spent partly in a Nazi prison camp; it also includes an informative essay on his native Prague and its history, a piece radiating his affection and admiration. The best of Klíma's humor emerges in “On Conversations with Journalists,” where he verbally tortures those who parrot the stereotyped idea of dissident writers' being limited to fighting against communism and perhaps “closing down” with the revival of freedom. In spite of his childhood daily lesson that “life can be snapped like a piece of string” (and in spite of the gloom his last novel, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, emanates), Klíma, in his interview with Philip Roth, claims to be an optimist. There too, on the basis of interests and not achievement, Klíma views Václav Havel as “a politician first, an essayist of genius second, and a dramatist last.”
Klíma's argument in the four political essays—“The Power and the Powerless,” “Culture vs. Totalitarianism,” “The Beginning and End of Totalitarianism,” “Czechoslovakia: A Premature Obituary”—is deeply poignant; the split between the Czechs and the Slovaks was in the air when he wrote the “obituary,” elucidating the two nations' relations through history, leading to a friendly separation. Literature itself receives a fair share of Klíma's attention in the last two sections, with the essay on Kafka dominating. Himself of Jewish origin, Klíma understands his German-writing predecessor better than many; the value of his comments on past Czech/German cultural relations in Prague is increased, as contemporary events might easily obscure the facts.
Last but not least, the translator must be complimented on his achievement in communicating Klíma's ideas to the English-speaking reader so clearly. In The Spirit of Prague his task appears even more difficult than in Klíma's last novel.
SOURCE: Sherwood, Peter. “A Czech Intellectual.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4935 (31 October 1997): 26.
[In the following review, Sherwood offers a negative assessment of The Ultimate Intimacy, commenting that the novel overindulges in “simplistic nostalgia.”]
The latest in a long line of serious Klíma professionals, Daniel Vedra is a Protestant pastor with the familiar melancholy air and ascetic strain, whose journey through the past twenty years of Czech(oslovak) history The Ultimate Intimacy strives to show as a Calvary of the decent Czech intellectual. The stations of his cross have the definitive articles of his faith: the Charter (1977), the Revolution (Velvet, 1989) and the Restitution (of property, in the 1990s). He is, in turn, harried, hailed and finally handed back a handsome house; so that, for the duration of the novel, money is not the issue. Vedra has a small but loyal flock and dispenses the word and good deeds, relying on the loyal companionship of his second wife, Hana, and his virtually grown-up children from both marriages. But something in his life—the ultimate intimacy that he is said to have enjoyed with his first wife—is missing, as he realizes when the beautiful stranger, Bára, comes to hear him preach. As their entanglement progresses, his life unravels, and he discovers the true meaning of an affair of the heart.
Ivan Klíma was born in 1931 and was in Theresienstadt as a child. Although he began to write in the late 1950s and 60s, it was the dissident movement of the 1970s that proved to be his defining experience, as indeed it was for Václav Havel. For many abroad, then as now, it was easier to identify with the vitality and worthy cause of these verbal whizz-kids (and, let us not forget, this support gave them hope and security of a kind against the pork-pie hats) than to offer a critique of their work or to locate the historical sources of their moral high ground. Much has changed around them in the past twenty years, so it is remarkable that neither Havel nor Klíma has yielded an inch of this territory, and, on the whole, both continue to enjoy their present status largely on the cushion of their dissident past. In this context, the title as well as the tale of The Ultimate Intimacy gains a distinctly personal resonance, almost as if it were the author's own reckoning.
There are certainly many ways in which this book is quintessential recent Klíma. His interest in technical innovation in the novel is here represented by the diary and letter sections in each chapter, which offer somewhat differing perspectives, even typographically, on the “same” action, perhaps echoing Lawrence Durrell, whose Justine is quoted. Klíma's emotional tendency to ramble in the scenes between Daniel and Bára and in their letters makes it impossible to perceive them as psychologically real. His fondness for the contemplative overwhelms the novel with swaths of unmoving quotation, from Scripture, the Koran (handily on Daniel's desk) and from the Far East: Lao Tzu, haiku and all. At the same time, aliens in the Czech backyard get short shrift; everyday xenophobia is represented by Bára's husband, who is unhinged by Hare Krishnas and their weird delicacies, while Bára ditches a Catalan art historian the moment he lets slip that Prague is in Russia—a fine example of an enduring red rag to the bourgeois bull. The light drug-taking and unmarried pregnancy of Vedra's daughter fail to convey the sense of social and economic upheaval intended, if only because such ills were hardly unknown in the Czech lands before 1989. That is the period summoned up by one of Daniel's sons, who seems to exist solely to look through telescopes and thus counterpoint his father's faith with the science of the son and the other-worldiness of the previous regime. Hard-pressed angel Hana, in the hospital interior, meanders in monologues:
Much water had flowed under the bridge since Marek was a little boy and they moved from one manse to another, since the days when Daniel used to be called in for interrogations, and he was under permanent threat of losing his permit to preach, so that they would be shunted off to goodness knows where. Since then the bad times had become the good times but what did it mean as far as her life was concerned? It is possible to feel better in bad times than in the good kind. Tyranny binds people together whereas freedom distracts them by holding out opportunities to them.
Her husband, by the end a patient, sums up: “He [Daniel] had survived the time of oppression but not the time of freedom.” Disillusionment with some aspects of life after 1989 is not uncommon in Central and Eastern Europe, but Klíma's simplistic nostalgia is disappointing, and it makes for bad art. How much of that disappointment is due to the untypically leaden prose of A. G. Brain, it is difficult to say, but one suspects that the translators have been all too faithful. Where is the deftness of My Merry Mornings, or the energy of Judge on Trial? Or is this just simplistic nostalgia?
SOURCE: Irvine, David. “The Old Story Served Fresh.” Spectator 280, no. 8839 (3 January 1998): 28-9.
[In the following review, Irvine maintains that Klíma undertakes a powerful examination of the nature of love in The Ultimate Intimacy.]
In his novel, Love and Garbage, Klima's narrator says on the subject of writing:
I still believe that literature has something in common with hope … I am not greatly attracted to books whose authors merely portray the hopelessness of our existence, despairing of man, of our conditions, despairing over poverty and riches, over the finiteness of life and the transience of feelings. A writer who doesn't know anything else had better keep silent.
The dictum lends itself well to Ivan Klima's latest novel, The Ultimate Intimacy. There is much that is positive in this novel, but little that is unambiguously so.
The novel—a combination of diary, letters and narrative—is couched in Klima's familiar, deceptively simple language. The backdrop to the novel is a Prague no longer constrained by totalitarianism, but consumed by social and economic upheaval. The central protagonist, Daniel Vedra, is a pastor, married to Hana, with whom he leads a quiet, untroubled life. He has consigned passion to an earlier period of his life with his first wife, Jitka, who died at an early age. On the day his mother dies, Bara Musilova, an exciting, sensual woman, comes to hear him preach. He is struck by her resemblance to Jitka. A passionate affair ensues.
The story of a middle-aged man falling for a woman more energetic and sexual than his wife is common. When he confides to his prosaic sister Rut that he is having an affair, she replies in a letter: ‘Surely you're not too infatuated to see that it's a bit hackneyed?’ Daniel's story is anything but hackneyed, nor is it merely a tragic falling from grace. It is the creation of a dramatic framework in which solid faith is made to grapple with doubts stemming from human weaknesses. Daniel asks himself:
Does a man have a right to fall in love once he is married? Has he the right to look for intimacy with another person when he is unable to find it with those nearest to him?
Daniel's infidelity forces him to examine his relationship with God. He and the reader have an increasing sense of the irony of his role as preacher and father-figure whilst he is breaking God's law.
In one of her letters to Daniel, Bara writes:
Last time you told me you thought true love could last an entire lifetime. Do you really think so? Is it something you believe in, or something you know for sure?
Her questions point to the similarity between faith and love, which is central to the novel. Humans seek solace in each, and both have redemptive power.
But in the case of Daniel human love is tragically at odds with the love of God and leading a virtuous life. And yet this most intimate love which Daniel finds with Bara resembles the love of God. Of human love he writes to Bara:
The ultimate degree of intimacy—surely that is the capacity to trust utterly and therefore to confide everything, even one's deepest secrets, even the things one conceals from oneself. Not concealing even the things one deceives oneself about.
Christian existence has failed to provide the human intimacy he requires. Perhaps this is what he has in mind when he quotes Nietszche:
The great lie of personal immortality destroys all rationality, all naturalness of instinct—all that is salutary, all that is life-furthering, all that holds a guarantee of the future of the instincts henceforth excites mistrust.
In this respect, The Ultimate Intimacy is a sad book. But it also ‘has something in common with hope.’ The reader is given an enduring impression of the worth of the Protestant ethic and the power of human love. Ivan Klima has conducted a powerful inquiry into moral confusion and the human need for love which readers are unlikely to forget.
SOURCE: Bradfield, Scott. “Freefall.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1998): 8.
[In the following review, Bradfield criticizes The Ultimate Intimacy, arguing that the novel is too long and often repetitive.]
In Ivan Klíma's new novel The Ultimate Intimacy, the Communist-free Czech Republic is finally ready to catch up with the fast-track modern world. Skinheads are advocating capital punishment in Prague streets. The health-care system has been privatized into a shambles. And now that freedom of religion is available to everyone, nobody wants to worship anything but money. It's a perilously liberated world in which the old walls are coming down in a torrent of rusty rocks. And the startled citizenry can no longer blame the state of their nation on anyone but themselves.
The Ultimate Intimacy's moody, dutiful protagonist is Daniel Vedra, a Protestant minister who no longer suffers from fears of political persecution and sudden tribunals in the night. A pragmatically good man who sincerely wants to do God's work and had been persecuted for it, Daniel has lived his entire life in a country where the divisions between good and evil have been pretty easy to make out. On the one hand, there was the government, which nobody liked. And on the other hand, there was the glorious abstract notion of the “people,” which everyone pretended to prefer. For almost his entire career, Daniel has considered the church, like art, as some abstract alternative to government. But now that his suddenly democratized parishioners carry the responsibility for their government everywhere they go, things have gotten a lot more complicated.
In a series of interior monologues, letters and diary entries, The Ultimate Intimacy establishes its own special intimacy with readers. Bereft of his old certainties and lacking a single metaphysical hook on which to hang his surplice, Daniel eventually starts to question everything: his family, his faith and his political beliefs. He suspects that his devotion to God may be a way of avoiding intimacy with other people. His faith in the sacrament of marriage gives way to the growing realization that he may never have loved his present wife (his first and much adored wife, Jitka, died painfully of cancer while she was still very young). And though he works in a prison to help criminals find their way back into a liberated society, he's not quite so sympathetic when one of them starts dating his daughter.
Even the stories Daniel likes to tell himself about his own history aren't holding up anymore. His father may have been a double agent and, according to the one surviving government agent who knew him, he wasn't even good enough at it to merit remembering. Duplicity, Daniel begins to realize, isn't the exclusive domain of governments and secret services. Sometimes even the people you love harbor secret intentions of their own.
When Daniel falls for one of his troubled parishioners, it's not long before he betrays almost every moral tenet he's ever preached. And as he strays further and further from his long-held beliefs, he begins to suffer a sort of moral vertigo:
Previously he had trodden paths that people had followed for centuries and now all of a sudden he found himself in the middle of an immense plain devoid of paths. He could set off in any direction. Admittedly he could not see the end of the plain but he knew that whichever direction he took, he would eventually confront an insurmountable bottomless abyss.
Sometimes Daniel discovers, a revolution can go too far. And once people have finished toppling their government, they go on to topple everything else they've ever believed in. Sometimes even themselves.
For many years, Klíma's work was published almost everywhere except in Czechoslovakia. A survivor of the Terezin concentration camp, Klíma worked as an editor for most of his life, emerging to prominence when he edited an influential literary journal during the Prague Spring of 1968, and though he is known primarily as a “dissident” writer, the most powerful aspects of his work aren't overtly political. At his best, he 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.
The Ultimate Intimacy, however, is too long. It tends to reiterate its arguments, and its central narrative focus gets lost in a series of unresolved diversions. But as in his previous novel, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, Klíma generates genuine human compassion for his characters on every page. And like John Updike's Roger's Version or Brian Moore's The Color of Blood,The Ultimate Intimacy is an absorbing account of people seeking faith in an age of faithlessness.
SOURCE: Klíma, Ivan, and Rob Trucks. “A Conversation with Ivan Klíma.” New England Review 20, no. 2 (spring 1999): 77-87.
[In the following interview, Klíma discusses his body of work, his major themes, and his opinions on Czech literature.]
NOTE: The writings of sixty-six-year-old Ivan Klíma were banned in his native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) following the Prague Spring of 1968. Unlike fellow Czech prose artists Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, Klíma chose not to emigrate. He remained in Prague where his writings were only available through samizdat, a network of writers who distributed typed copies of each other's manuscripts.
An accomplished playwright and essayist (The Spirit of Prague), Klíma is best known in the Western world for his fiction, including the short story collections My Merry Mornings and My Golden Trades, and the novels Love and Garbage,Judge on Trial, and his latest, The Ultimate Intimacy.
I met with Ivan Klíma at his home in Prague in May of 1998.
[Trucks]: I wanted to apologize, first off, for having to conduct this interview in my language rather than yours.
[Klíma]: Don't apologize. Sometimes it brings problems because I cannot be so precise in my answers, like in Czech, but you are free to improve my answers in English.
I want to ask you, first, about the time you spent in America. I know that you taught at Michigan in 1970.
1969 and 1970 and then last year I was at Berkeley but I was only in Berkeley for one month.
How did the Michigan job come about?
Well, very briefly, they staged my play, The Castle, and I was invited for the opening night. Afterwards the head of the Slavic department asked me if I would like to stay. This was in 1968 so the situation here was not so bad, but it was after the Soviet occupation. Michigan offered me a very good salary, so I accepted it for the first of September of '69, and I had very good luck because I left on the thirty-first of August and the government closed the borders on the first of September.
So I stayed, still legally, in the States, and then our government canceled all permits for all people. I was not yet a dissident but I was on the blacklist, so they refused to prolong my permit. They extended it until March but refused to prolong it any more so I came back then.
But you had the option of staying in the States in March of 1970.
Nearly all Czechs could stay in 1969, 1970 but I decided to go back. I decided it was better to go back to be in my own surroundings, where I was able to understand people better than in the U.S.
Your situation is similar to that of the protagonist in your short story, “Tuesday Morning: A Sentimental Story,” from My Merry Mornings. I don't want to make too large of an assumption here but your fiction often feels autobiographical.
But this story is entirely invented.
Are your reasons for returning to the Czech Republic similar to the reasons of that protagonist?
Probably yes. He says, more or less, that he is unable to explain why he came back.
I could have repeated that it was because this was my country. Because here I have several friends whom I need just as they need me. And because people here speak the same language as I do. Because I'd like to go on being a writer, and to be a writer means also to stick up for people whose fate is not a matter of indifference to me. At least to speak up for those who perhaps are less able to do so than I am, to given expression to their desire for freedom and a more dignified existence. All this I can do here, where I grew up, where I became part of whatever is happening and can therefore understand it, at least to some extent …
I could have said: Because I like to stroll over the cobblestones of one or two Prague streets whose very names remind me of the city's history, which I know and understand. But equally I could have said: My country is not to be found any more, it has vanished, just like that spot in the woods …
It so happens that life often presents you only with a choice between two kinds of suffering, two forms of nothingness, two varieties of despair. All you can do is choose which you think will be the less unbearable, or even the more attractive, which will allow you to retain at least a modicum of pride or self-respect.
I could have given her so many reasons for and against, and still she would not have been able to understand. And so I preferred to reply by saying: “I don't know.”
That's correct. Those were my feelings. That is autobiographical, yes.
What did you teach when you were at Michigan?
I taught Czech language and Czech literature in English.
I want to ask you about Czech literature, specifically for a Western audience. What books did you teach at Michigan? Or maybe a better question would be: What Czech literature would you teach now were you to do it again?
I prepared the whole year, of course, so I started in the fifteenth century and I mentioned the most important writer. I went to the seventeenth century for the second writer, and then I jumped to the nineteenth century. Then I concentrated on the beginning of this century when Czech literature, for the first time, reached the European level. In the previous century we had few really good writers. Maybe three real good writers and I mentioned five or six because the course was for students of Czech. From our century I mentioned Kafka, Čapek, Hasek, and Vancura, and from contemporary literature I mentioned Vaculik and maybe two or three others, not including poets. Altogether I mentioned about twenty names. I also mentioned Hrabal who, in my opinion, is the most important of the contemporary writers. He died last year. Now I would add maybe two or three more names. I'd mention Lustig, I'd mention Grusa, I'd mention Kohout as a dramatist. I'm not sure if I mentioned Havel. It may be too early to mention Havel. I'm not sure.
Two names which are notable in their absence are Kundera and Skvorecky.
I mentioned both of them, I'm sure. Of course, then Kundera was not as famous as he is now. Before 1968, though, I had written a long essay on Kundera's The Joke which was published in 1965 or 1966.
In America, there's been a mythologizing of The Great American Novel. If there is a Great American Novel, most would say it is Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Is there a Great Czech Novel? Is there one novel from which all other Czech literature flows?
That's an interesting question but I think it's better to speak about the writer and not about the novel. There's an extraordinary novel that was written in the middle of the last century by a woman named Bozena Nemcova which is called The Grandmother. More or less it's the first novel in Czech literature. She was collecting fairytales, this lady, and she wrote more books but this is something else. This is the Bible for Czech literature. If you ask about poetry it's quite easy to find the man who was the greatest poet in the last century. His name is K. H. Macha and the poem is called “May.” It's really something which is not only readable, but magnificent.
In modern literature it's [Jaroslav Hasek's] The Good Soldier Schweik, of course, because we haven't had many great novels. We don't have a tradition of good novelists. There was a very interesting writer, Vancura, who wrote two magnificent novels but, because he was a pre-war Communist and he was executed during the war, he's not so popular now. Of course, he wrote nothing about communism. One story is from the medieval age and the second is about a poor baker who was such a dreamer that he could not survive in our brutal world. But still, I'm afraid that his politics are the reason he's not so popular even though he was one of the greatest Czech novelists. And of course, there's Karel Čapek who wrote very interesting novels.
Didn't you write your university thesis on Čapek?
Yes, you're right. And, of course, in modern literature, probably the best novelist in Kundera. The Joke is a great novel. Also The Cowards by Skvorecky is a great novel in contemporary literature. Hrabal's I Served the King of England is also a great novel, but it's really difficult to say that this one is number one or this one is number two. As I said, we had no tradition in drama and not such a great tradition in novels. It was poetry which was preferred and we've had many great poets.
When you mention The Joke as one of Kundera's best novels or I Served the King of England as one of Hrabal's best, can you look at your own work and say, This is the best I've done?
I don't like to speak about myself but the critics would probably select Love and Garbage.Love and Garbage, or maybe Judge on Trial.
Are these Czech or English-speaking critics?
I'm speaking mostly of American and English critics because most of the time that I've written my books weren't published here and, in the aftermath, because they're too old, they're not written of so much.
But you're comfortable with the selection of Love and Garbage?
I'm comfortable, yes. Love and Garbage I like and Judge on Trial, I guess, is not so bad. It's just that I rewrote it so many times that I hate it.
This might be a good time to talk about the actual process of writing. You say that you revised Judge on Trial many times.
I'm always revising my texts, many, many times, but in this case I wrote it entirely maybe three times. One version was published in German and there's a definitive Czech version which is the same as the English one. I entirely rewrote about twenty-five percent of the text. In that time I had no computer so it was rather hard work. In reality I was rewriting the whole book.
Was Judge on Trial your most difficult book to write?
Yes. It's also the most autobiographical in the sense that I put together all of my life experiences, too many, and I didn't succeed with the first version in really building the story. It was like a heap of bricks rather than a building. For the second version, then, which was maybe three or four or five years later, I used the same facts but I hope the form, the construction was better.
Do you write every day?
At that time I was writing nearly every day. And now I'm writing nearly every day but in that time, nearly twenty years ago, I wrote the whole day and now I write mostly in the morning, each day until lunch. It depends on what I'm writing. My last novel, The Ultimate Intimacy, which has just been published in the States, was much easier for me. I finished it within one year.
Was The Ultimate Intimacy easier to write because of the subject matter or because of your experience?
It's much more invented. It's easier to invent than to follow part of your life. And it may be because I'm a little more experienced. It's funny. I had no computer fifteen years ago. When I finished a page it looked so ugly that I started the page anew and this repeated itself five, six, seven times so I was writing and rewriting the same text. Now the computer saves sixty, maybe seventy percent of my time, so since I've had a computer writing has become easier for me. You rewrite the sentence or a paragraph and still the page looks clear and readable, because you can see it. That's a funny explanation but it's a true one.
No, that makes perfect sense. I write much more quickly with a computer, especially in the revising stage. If you want to change something structurally, like if you want to move a paragraph from the end to the beginning, with the computer it's just a couple of clicks, but on the typewriter or longhand it's a lot of work.
While we're talking about The Ultimate Intimacy, I wanted to ask you about Daniel, the protagonist. He's not your only character with strong religious beliefs but he's perhaps the most obviously religious because he's a minister. Do you consider yourself a religious man? The work is quite knowledgeable.
It's knowledgeable because I was a member of the church for many years since my youth. I was in the Protestant youth movement but I was not a real believer at any time of my life.
Including now. I have just finished an essay where I touch upon some of the same questions, why it's so difficult to be a Christian now with the touch of contemporary science. There's a new understanding of space and time which is so different compared to the time in which the Bible was written. Both my parents were atheists so I had no religious education at all in my family. But as I said, I attended the church when I was younger and I have many good friends who are priests and I have always admired their honesty, their character. It's only, for me, a question of a message which I cannot accept.
Did you have to do much research for Daniel's character?
You just knew these Bible verses by heart?
I guess it was, for me, one of the easiest characters to write because I really know the subject. I've read the Bible many times and I've studied a lot of religious books and, as I have mentioned, I have five or six very good friends who are priests. As a member of the church I also knew their problems so, to tell the truth, other professions were much more difficult for me. The priest is so interesting because I can look at the existence of faith at the end of our century.
Do you feel sympathy for Daniel? He goes through quite a struggle.
I always feel sympathy for my protagonists because their struggles are so close to my struggles and my problems. I've never written a book too far from my own experience.
Still, The Ultimate Intimacy would probably be the least autobiographical of your works?
I think my books only look autobiographical. In My Merry Mornings there are some autobiographical paragraphs but most of the stories are entirely invented. In My First Loves there are two autobiographical stories and two which are entirely invented.
If you don't mind me asking, which two are autobiographical?
The first one, “Miriam,” is very autobiographical. “The Truth Game” is also autobiographical. Probably Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is my least autobiographical novel.
I want to stay with The Ultimate Intimacy for one more question. The structure, or what I would term the structure of that novel, consists of a third-person narrative, diary excerpts, and letters. Did you know that this would be the structure of the novel before you started writing or were you already into the novel when you decided on the structure?
My first idea was to write a novel only with letters. But then I remembered Amos Oz's novel, The Black Box, which is written in the form of letters and so I decided not to do it. I decided to only use letters for part of it. And I guess I had the idea, at the beginning, of his diary. And I always like to be precise, to use some magic of numbers. For example, in Judge on Trial it was the number ten. It has ten parts, and each subchapter is composed of five parts. In The Ultimate Intimacy the magic number is eight. It has eight chapters and eight subchapters. There are always eight letters in each chapter and eight notes from Daniel's diary in each chapter. Nobody recognizes this but it's very helpful in the writing because if you use something like letters or notes from a diary, if you don't have limits, you can be too talkative. Maybe these eight letters are sometimes too much, too many. Sometimes I had more notes or more letters but everything is eight times.
That's very interesting. It's like a map for your writing.
I like it. You should have some limits. You must have your own limits.
In My Golden Trades each story is based on a different job but that collection is not one of the ones that you mentioned as autobiographical.
There are some stories that are very autobiographical, mostly the last one, “The Surveyor's Story.”
The protagonist has to take the job, not so much for the money but so his insurance won't be canceled.
Yes, and that was really my case. Maybe the most invented story is “The Painter's Story.” “The Smuggler's Story” is autobiographical, too, as well as “The Engine Driver's Story.”
Now did you plan beforehand to write a collection of stories where each would be based on a different job?
It happens mostly that I write, by chance, two stories with a common theme and then I get the idea that it should be a book, and then I write the other stories very quickly. It happened this way with My Merry Mornings,My First Loves, and even my last short story collection which has yet to be translated into English. It was published two years ago in Czech. The best translation for the title would be Love Talks. I wrote one short story after many years and then, very quickly, I wrote fifteen short stories, all of them on the theme of love and death.
Have arrangements been made to publish Love Talks in English?
Yes, the publisher has even paid for it but I don't know when it will appear. My agent handles that. I must say that publishers mostly prefer novels to short stories. It's much easier to sell them.
Who decides who will translate your book?
It's mostly decided by the publisher. Sometimes they ask me but not very often. I have very good relations with my English publisher so usually they will ask me if I agree with their choice.
If I can go back to the autobiographical “Smuggler's Story” from My Golden Trades—when you were bringing in books during the Soviet occupation, what language were they written in?
Mostly Czech. Skvorecky's wife founded a publishing house in Toronto and they published more than two hundred original, new Czech titles.
Including your own work?
Including my own work. Another Czech publishing house was in Germany and, again, they published more than one hundred books. Then I left Skvorecky and published in London. Another one was in Austria, another one was in Zurich, and another one was in Rome, so altogether we had enough opportunities to publish in Czech. They were bringing in these Czech books and also some for me in English and for somebody else in German. I even got the English books, sometimes, in a parcel. One colleague who was with the Christian Science Monitor once sent me maybe twenty books in one parcel. The government confiscated some political literature but not fiction.
But you're comfortable reading in both German and English?
I prefer, always, English. I could read in German many, many years ago and Polish, too, and some Russian, but now I just read English.
When you read Faulkner for the first time, was that in Czech or in English?
I have never read Faulkner in English. I read Hemingway in English. Philip Roth and many, many others in English. Lawrence Durrell and Flannery O'Connor and Henry Miller I read in English, but not Faulkner. I guess he's very difficult.
Yes, Faulkner can be difficult even for English speakers. Are most of his works available in Czech?
He was published mostly in the sixties. I guess he's entirely translated into Czech.
Are there any American authors that you particularly enjoy?
There are many. You mentioned Mark Twain. I like him very, very much. I admire him. I like Faulkner. I liked Hemingway in my youth. I like Thornton Wilder very much. From the younger generation I enjoy reading Mailer, Heller, and Philip Roth. Mostly I like English and American literature. I like French literature less, with the exception of Camus. Another great literature was, and still is, written in Russian: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. And I like Márquez, Cortázar, and Fuentes. And the Italian writer Buzzati. I admire Graham Greene and Durrenmatt. I could go on and on.
Would you say that any American authors influenced your writing?
When I read Philip Roth's Letting Go, I decided to write a long novel and the result was Judge on Trial, so it was an impulse for my writing. I like him very much. I like him personally and his writing was inspiring for me.
When I was young I was influenced by Hemingway, by his dry style, but that was for a very short period.
In My Golden Trades, in “The Smuggler's Story,” you have a line that reads, “Censorship may add to a book's appeal but it can add nothing to its wisdom.” Will the fact that the Soviet occupation is over, the fact that Czech literature is no longer forbidden, will that negatively affect your sales or readership?
I understand your question but it's not so simple to answer because you cannot judge separately from the rest of culture. The era is entirely different now It's a era of visual culture and computers. It's a different situation and the interest of people is split between TV, the Internet, films, radio, and literature. For many people, reading is something very old-fashioned.
Are you on the Internet?
I can use it but I have no time. I have two computers. I use the new one with Windows 95 for the Internet, and the older one with DOS and WordPerfect for my writing.
Will the political change, though, affect your readership? Americans have a great fascination with the forbidden.
Yes, it is the same here.
They also like the underdog.
I don't guess it's a special Czech feeling for underdogs but under the old regime literature was the only free expressed opinion of the people. The TV was censored terribly. It was very official. The same with newspapers and magazines. The same with officially published literature. Samizdat was the only access to free thinking in this country so it was, in some ways, very popular, and maybe more read in that time, when it was circulated only in typewritten copies, than now. But, of course, now there are so many good books available and nothing is censored. TV has many interesting programs, excellent documentary films, for example. Of course, most people are watching “Dallas” and this kind of thing, action shows, but even people who are educated, readers of literature, can find many good programs on TV.
Are your Western sales as strong now as they were during the occupation?
They sell better now because I'm much more known. Now I can come and help the publisher gain some publicity. I've given hundreds of interviews since 1990. Thanks to Kundera and Havel there was a great interest in Czech literature.
Did your writing provide enough of an income for you during the occupation?
It was ninety-five percent of my income.
But that was enough and your other jobs were only to keep your insurance?
These jobs were, as I mentioned, always for insurance. We were not rich but I succeeded in feeding the family. And we still had a car which, at that time, was not like having a car now. It was mostly thanks to my plays. My plays have been performed in many countries and on radio and TV in Germany, Sweden, England, the Netherlands, Canada, and so on.
Even with the plays providing most of the income, and you've also published a collection of essays, do you consider yourself primarily a fiction writer?
Yes, I am a fiction writer. Sometimes I need to write an essay because I like to meditate on problems and my wife, who is my first reader, always tells me, You are too explicit. You are always trying to explain what you mean and it's not necessary because the story has to tell it, and she's entirely right. So I always cut out some explanation. This was also Čapek's habit. He always commented on his writing, but his inspirations and aspirations were much more philosophical than mine. But still I try to express myself precisely so I've found the best thing is, from time to time, to write essays and then go back to the novel. I've just finished an essay for an English publisher. He asked me to write about my expectations for the next century and not to be too pessimistic. I am afraid I did not succeed in finding an optimistic perspective for our civilization. When I started a new novel a few days ago, it was a relief for me. I enjoy writing novels more. I don't like to read them but I like to write them. I always prefer to write fiction but I would like also to combine fiction and nonfiction. I even have some ideas for a nonfiction book.
Can you tell me about it?
I would like to write about the big dictators of our century: Hitler, Stalin. Mostly Stalin, Lenin, and the Communists. Maybe I'll combine fiction and nonfiction.
Going back to My Golden Trades, in “The Painter's Story” there's a section where the protagonist says, “It occurs to me that we are approaching a frontier. We have used up not only most of our fuel, our non-ferrous metals, our drinking water, our clean air; we've used up our stories as well. There is nothing new to add.” Whether this story is autobiographical or not, do you agree with the protagonist's sentiments?
More or less, yes.
If you feel that way, that there are no new stories to tell, isn't it tough to write fiction?
Not really. When I say that there are no new stories, there are some basic stories that we can find in olden times, like in the Bible, and what we can add is some details. It's a new time with some new problems. There are so many people who are suffering from depression and psychological problems. I hope that I can add something new, plus I also like to write. I try not to repeat something which is quite clear but I visited, for example, the Frankfurt Book Fair and there were millions of books. I prefer not to see them so that I don't suffer from any depression. It depresses me. I'm sure that among these million books, even if ninety percent are trash, that ten percent, tens of thousands of books, have aspirations similar to my books, and it is quite probable that many will touch on the same themes I have touched on. It's a problem which I wrote about in my last essay. I tried to explain the situation. People look to literature for symbols. Thousands and thousands of books are published everyday, and nobody can read all of them, but people need literature. They need something in common that they can discuss, that will unite them. One moment it's Márquez, another moment it's Kundera or Graham Greene, and then it will be somebody else. This is something quite different from the time when Dostoevsky or Tolstoy were writing. Contemporary writers aren't worse but they are only symbols for thousands of others. It's like Princess Diana and her funeral. For all of those people her death was a symbol of something: of a tragic death, of a dying dream, of the murdered lovers, of the loss of a fairytale world.
You mentioned people suffering from psychological ailments or depression. In “The Engine Driver's Story,” you write about a tormented wrestler who believes that death is following him in the form of the police, and on “green days” he attacks them. In one sense the wrestler seems symbolic, mythic, a representation of people's frustrations. He is a physically powerful man whose strength is not enough to keep him happy or even sane. You write, “The borderline between the madman and someone with brilliant insight into things that remain a mystery to others is usually infinitesimally narrow.” I was struck by the wrestler's story and his need to lash out. Even though he resides in an asylum, his only deviance seems to be his need to lash out, which is understandable. Is there anything you can tell me about the wrestler's story?
Sometimes, I must say, that after many years I'm not sure if I invented it or not, so I'm not the best source for information about my own writing. I mentioned that I often join something entirely invented and something autobiographical in one story. Regarding this wrestler, I heard something about a man who was attacking policemen. He stripped one of them of his uniform and put him in an ashcan. He lived in an asylum. Because he was taking tranquilizers, he was usually rather mild and not aggressive, so therefore he was allowed to leave the asylum for the weekend. But when he saw a policeman, he attacked him. And once he did not come back. He was found dead in the fields. So it really happened, yes.
It's just a very touching story. Like your story, “Friday Morning” from My Merry Mornings, the image of Mr. Lhota sitting by his dying wife's bed, wanting to apologize, wanting to do something for her. Those two particular stories, Mr. Lhota and the wrestler, both stayed with me.
I like to combine motifs within a story. You mentioned this story in the hospital. I worked there, but this was inspired by a colleague of my wife who told me a story about a man who was sitting with his dying wife. It happened in the same hospital, but it was not my own observation.
I think what the old man, who is physically weak, and the wrestler, who is physically strong, have in common is they both are lacking control over their own lives. They experience frustration. The wrestler can't control his demons and lashes out and the old man can't express to his wife, as she is dying, how he feels about her. They share a feeling of powerlessness and frustration that is universal whether you're an old man or a wrestler.
I was lucky with both of the stories you mentioned. I didn't analyze them. In both cases I used the stories with some intention. I needed the wrestler's episode because the whole story was about the police in the totalitarian regime which should symbolize death. And this old man from the hospital story expresses something which I observed many times and that is that people are unable to express their own feelings. Even in the most important moments they are unable to do it and it causes them to be alone. The hospital is very inspiring for this point of view.
If I can go back, in The Ultimate Intimacy part of Daniel's attraction to Bara is the memory of his first wife who is the only person he feels he's been intimate with. But Daniel's not your only character who cheats on his wife. Is lack of intimacy the reason that so many of your characters go outside of marriage or is adultery a given nowadays? Like science and television, is it just a part of life?
I guess it's a part of our culture, and it's one of the main problems of our culture. In our country, as well as in England, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, but this doesn't tell anything about the rest of the marriages and how they are functioning. I'm sure that two-thirds of the rest of the marriages may not be happy or functioning. On the other hand, there is a problem of how to educate the children if the family doesn't function. It's a great problem for our culture and, of course, it's a magnificent and important theme for literature. Only one novel of mine steers clear of this problem, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light. It's in A Summer Affair,Judge on Trial, and Love and Garbage. I'm not able to solve this problem. I can sometimes solve it for one couple because it's literature but even with my heroes it's mostly unsolved. It's solved only in Love and Garbage, and in some way it's solved by suicide in A Summer Affair.
Which is not the best solution, obviously.
It's not the best solution and it's not my best novel because of it.
Most of the Czech writers who are known in America are of your generation—Kundera, Skvorecky, yourself. Are there works by younger writers that you would recommend?
A lot of it is not my taste. It's always this postmodern literature that's nearly unreadable, or very difficult for me. One man who is the most popular is Mr. Viewegh who has one book in English, Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, but it's not his best book. His best book is another one I hope will also be translated, Wonderful Years as an Underdog. There are three ladies, Mrs. Berkova and Mrs. Brabcova and Mrs. Hodrova, who are really very interesting. I don't know if they're in English or not. I recommended all of them to my publisher but I don't know what became of it. These women are all in their forties. Of the younger generation, the most interesting is Mr. Topol. I recommended his books to an American publisher but nothing came of it in the end. Mr. Topol promised me that he would shorten his book because it had eight hundred pages of manuscript and it was too talkative. Now he's published a very interesting book of North American Indian writings.
But I'm afraid that nobody is like Kundera or Havel, Kohout, Skvorecky, or Vaculik. We were such a strong generation. I don't know why. Maybe it was our life experience or the war and years of oppression during the time of the Communist regime. Maybe it was mere coincidence.
SOURCE: Klíma, Ivan, and Mark Schapiro. “Fading Czech Velvet.” Nation 268, no. 18 (17 May 1999): 38-41.
[In the following interview, Klíma discusses how Czech literature has changed since the political reconstruction of the country.]
As I'm driven to the home of Ivan Klima, one of the Czech Republic's most internationally respected writers, the hand of fate slips in beside me in the taxi. Heading into the remote, hilly outskirts of Prague 4, I fumble to show the driver my scrawled address, but he tells me I needn't bother: He used to live right next door to Klima. They were neighbors almost two decades ago.
Has he read any of Klima's books? The driver shakes his head; he was a taxi driver then too, a relatively privileged position. Reading his notorious neighbor, one of the founders of Communist-era Czechoslovakia's samizdat press, he could have lost his position in a flash.
Has he read any of Klima's books since the 1989 Velvet Revolution?
“No, too busy now,” he says, in halting English, a touch embarrassed.
He shows sudden pride, though, as we turn onto a street that's a sort of countrified suburb a half-hour's drive outside downtown Prague. He points to the slate-gray, two-story, semi-detached house that his family once shared with the Klimas—Ivan, his wife and their daughter.
Klima smiles when I recount the story. Sitting in his study, lined with books along the walls and a foot-tall pile of manuscript pages from his latest novel on the floor—finished the day before—he recalls the family next door as decent, “law-abiding” citizens. With thin hair hanging over his head in a bowl cut and eyes bulging behind spectacles, he wears a loose sweater—the uniform of Czech intellectuals—and comes across as a mischievous, grandfatherly figure. While widely known in the West for his novels and for sharp essays (smuggled out of Czechoslovakia) on the absurdities of Communism, Klima now faces, in his own country, the backlash of revolution. Once he was one of the country's most widely read unpublished authors; today, as the comments of my cab driver would imply, he is among the country's least-read published authors. After an initial efflorescence in the nation's cultural life, the downward trajectory in popular appeal of Klima and other former dissident writers has been dramatic as the literary marketplace adjusts to the vagaries of public taste.
The early nineties in this country were heady times. The president was a playwright; the unofficial cultural ambassador he appointed was Frank Zappa; Lou Reed was hosted in the presidential palace. Actors and writers were elected to Parliament. There was a powerful cultural dimension to the Velvet Revolution that made it the toast of intellectuals, bohemians and romantics around the world. French students had scrawled “Imagination Takes Power” on the walls of Paris in 1968; the Czechs, it seemed, were putting that principle into action. The country seemed to be inhabiting that rare historic space in which ideas, and the men and women who had them, animated the public sphere.
Immediately after the revolution, Klima's books, unearthed after twenty years in the underground, were a sensation. My Merry Mornings, a 1985 collection of lighthearted stories for each day of the week, had a press run of 155,000—enormous in a country of 15 million people (that was before Czechoslovakia split in two in 1993). Love and Garbage sold 100,000 copies; My Golden Trades, 80,000.
Since then the country's cultural climate has not been kind to Klima, or to writers of his ilk. Today he's lucky to sell several thousand copies of just about anything—and that's limited almost exclusively to Prague, Brno and the university town of Ostrava. “Nearly everyone was forced to read real literature after the revolution,” he tells me, “because there wasn't much else available. There were no trash novels, no Harlequins.” Now, the Czech bestseller list looks much like the bestseller crop in any other country, topped by lifestyle, nonfiction scandals and translated editions of Ed McBain, Jackie Collins and Stephen King.
Klima explains one of the gross misperceptions of the sudden celebration, and equally sudden collapse, of formerly banned authors in the Czech literary marketplace. Like many other writers who were proscribed in the Communist era, Klima is not explicitly political in the traditional sense. “Young critics knew we were banned, but they had not seen our work,” he comments. “They thought we were writing like Solzhenitsyn. They wanted big heroes.”
With the possible exception of Milan Kundera (who has, according to the popular view here, forfeited his “Czechness” by writing in French, from Paris), none of the most well-known banned writers had imbued their writing with the slightest bit of heroic grandeur. Czech fictional narratives are characteristically episodic and highly personal. Klima's fiction is concerned with such themes as the obsessions of love, the power of self-delusion, the unraveling of faith, the tragicomic moments as people attempt, and fail, to be bigger than they are. “The interests of the suppressed writer,” Klima says in the preface to his collection of essays, The Spirit of Prague (1998), “far from focusing exclusively on political questions, were similar to the interests of most authors anywhere in the world.”
The very human nature of Klima's work is precisely what makes it accessible, if not always lofty. His writing does not belong on the highest rungs of literary master-works but in the realm of the vivid storyteller, the prober into human foibles. The structures of his stories are not complex—as they are in the novels of Bohumil Hrabal, for example—nor are the characters grandiose in any way. It is his eye, however, for individuals' means of coping with the tragedies and absurdities of political and social conditions—rendered in the background, or even in passing—that made Klima dangerous to the Communists, and today makes his writing resonate with the dramatic changes in the country over the nearly ten years since the revolution.
Klima's latest novel translated into English, The Ultimate Intimacy (1997), reflects many of those changes, as seen through the eyes of a Protestant minister, Daniel Vedra. Forced to practice in a small, isolated town during Communism, after the revolution he returns to Prague. He suddenly finds himself famous—via televised sermons he delivers weekly, with growing numbers of congregants visiting his church—and rich, after he sells a family house obtained through restitution. We catch up with him as his newfound wealth and fame lead him into the arms of temptation, via a mysterious woman who starts showing up at his services. The novel traces Daniel's decline as the fabric of faith and family life he carefully constructed unravels under the pressures of an extramarital affair.
In the process, Klima captures the sense of disillusionment that has followed the heady days of the Velvet Revolution. The novel is laced with the excesses and self-absorption of nouveau capitalism—increasing consumerism, drugs, sexual promiscuity, dissipation of family life and of what were once tight friendships dating from a time when all you had to trust (and not even then, sometimes) were a few close friends upon whom you could rely for support. But Klima is no puritanical moralist: Many of his books revolve around illicit or problematic sexual relations, or the ethical quandaries faced by people in particularly gray situations, whether personal or political.
The disillusionment evoked by Klima is a reflection of the mood of the country. The economy is in crisis; unemployment is rising; corruption is rampant; politicians have sunk quickly into petty maneuvering, virtually paralyzing the Social Democratic government. The ideals of the revolution are barely discernible—in either the political or literary culture. Even President Havel's public support is dwindling, as his eloquence is used against him; he is accused—by rival politicians and by commentators in the nation's press—of being out of touch with economic realities.
In his first novel after the revolution, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light (1994), Klima portrays a middle-aged television producer, Pavel, who before 1989 worked for the widely despised government TV—justifying his collaboration by telling himself that by going along, someday he'll be able to make one of his dream projects. He is lying to himself in his professional life, as he is in his love life. When the revolution hits, Pavel is lost—unable to determine what that dream project ever was or should be, and now his credibility is shattered in the newly democratic environment. It's not a smoothly written book; it's even clumsy at times. But the novel conveys the stories people tell themselves to keep going in an insulting and humiliating system—a particularly vivid portrait in a country in which the ludicrous, anti-Austro-Hungarian pinpricks by “Soldier Schweik,” the post—World War I creation of Jaroslav Hasek, have taken on iconographic status. Unlike in the case of Schweik, the system oppressing Pavel actually does disappear within the context of Waiting for the Dark; the characters' disorientation is evoked when the oppression to which they've devised personal, private responses is lifted.
Klima has no explaining to do himself when it comes to devising a response to absurdity and oppression. He spent three and a half years as a young boy in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt; though Klima was baptized a Catholic, his mother was Jewish. Klima's experience in the camp would later inform his response to the brutalities of the Communism that was soon to come. “I came to realize that few things are harder to restore than lost honour, an impaired morality, and perhaps that was why I tried so hard to safeguard these things during the communist regime,” he writes in “A Rather Unconventional Childhood,” an essay in The Spirit of Prague. That collection includes autobiographical reflections and essays on life during and after Communism.
Klima was in the United States on a yearlong fellowship when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. He returned to find his work banned as part of the Soviet-led “normalization,” along with that of many other of the nation's leading writers. He subsequently was one of the founders of what would become a thriving network of illegal, underground literature and political commentary. The range of samizdat publications was vast; during my visit he rifles through a pile of yellowed mimeographed pages, as well as professionally bound books, containing works by Havel, Kundera, Hrabal, Josef Skvorecky—an archive of the country's then-thriving underground press.
“We got together and decided to hold readings each month to share each other's works,” he recalls. Samizdat took advantage of a gap in the banning law, which allowed for typewritten manuscripts to be distributed among friends but not sold through official channels. Between 1973 and 1976, fifty titles were published in this informal fashion, loosely bound on typing paper. By the late seventies and early eighties, a parallel universe of underground publications had evolved, including magazines and books, and translations of American writers like Arthur Miller and Philip Roth (the most popular single title was George Orwell's 1984, which appeared in no fewer than twenty-four different samizdat editions). Klima was repeatedly harassed by the regime and had a permanent tail on his movements and a tap on his telephone, experiences rendered, often hilariously, in one way or another in virtually all of his pre-1989 works. He survived off foreign royalties; his books have been translated into numerous languages. He used his relative good fortune as the head of the Czech PEN club to assist other writers not so lucky, administering a special fund providing support to banned writers.
Repeatedly given the opportunity to emigrate, Klima refused. He explains this decision to a former lover in “Tuesday Morning,” one of the autobiographical selections in My Merry Mornings, after she demands to know why he didn't follow her abroad:
Because here I have several friends whom I need just as they need me. And because people here speak the same language as I do. Because I'd like to go on being a writer, and to be a writer means also to stick up for people whose fate is not a matter of indifference to me. … All this I can do here, where I grew up, where I became part of whatever is happening and can therefore understand it.
The Velvet Revolution offered redemption for those, like Klima, who labored for years in the cultural wilderness. According to the National Library, more than 13,000 books were published in the Czech Republic in 1997, nearly triple the number of titles published in 1989. But that has not translated into a literary boom: In the mid-nineties publishers of serious fiction could expect to sell upward of 5,000 copies; today, they're happy to sell 2,000. Several of the nation's top-quality publishing houses—which flowered in the early years after the revolution—have either folded or adapted to the market with romance novels, nonfiction, self-help books or works in translation.
Of course, such an ineluctable process is not unique to the Czech Republic. The free market does not work in mysterious ways. But here, if nothing else, the country's steps off the literary pedestal have been particularly painful, given the high expectations of those who labored for years in the limited space of the cultural underground. The same goes for the country's dissident folk singers, who used to be able to rouse a packed hall, and now are lucky to be playing small clubs where they compete with the beer.
“After the revolution,” Klima says, “many of my friends dreamed of starting a good publishing business. Writers, theater people—they wanted to publish all of us from the samizdat, they wanted to show Beckett, Ionesco. But the big theaters found it difficult to survive showing Beckett and Ionesco, and most publishers of good books are now very poor creatures. Dreams are dreams, and reality is reality, and reality that demands money has a quite difficult time facing the dreams.”
Today, ironically, those writers who sustained the country's cultural lifeblood in the underground face an audience not dramatically different or expanded from the days when their works could be obtained only on the sly. “Most of this society collaborated with the regime from the first moment [in 1948],” Klima comments. “Later, samizdat did not represent them. Samizdat was for a small number of people, a few thousand at most, who opposed the regime and lived according to their own beliefs. And it's no different now in terms of who reads the [quality] literature.”
In a remarkably prescient colloquy between Klima and Philip Roth, published in the New York Review of Books six months after the revolution, Roth cautioned Klima of the coming pressures of the marketplace, and how writers would “come to mean far less to readers here than you did when you were fighting to keep alive for them a language other than the language of the official newspapers … and books.” Klima recalls being confused by Roth's admonition at the time. Now, he says simply, “Roth was right.”
But Klima does not seem particularly perturbed by this development; in fact, he conveys a certain fatalistic optimism. “My dream was to get my books published,” he says with a wry smile.
“I argue with those who complain about how writers are less important today. Because now, you know how to write or you don't know how to write. … For some people, it has been difficult to accept. They are less famous, less heroic than they were before. On the other hand, you might have been famous for your bravery, but not for your mastery.”
He refers to the statement he made to Roth a decade ago, which he still holds to today: “I believe that, for the time being at least, the fall of the totalitarian system will not turn literature into an occasional subject with which to ward off boredom at parties.”
SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “The Poetry of Waiting.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 September 1999): 2.
[In the following review, Levi examines the stories in Lovers for a Day, commenting that Klíma's earliest stories are the strongest in the collection.]
Waiting. In a century that has given birth to more utopias and more graves than any other, is there a word that describes better the state of man? Is there a more active word to describe man's activity (perhaps, following Beckett, man's only activity) or man's hope?
The Czech writer Ivan Klíma is best known in this country for his novel Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, the story of Czechoslovakia's passage through the Velvet Revolution of 1989, from a Communist past to an uncertain future. Klíma films the book through the eyes of Pavel, a cameraman for the party's television station, a man of dreams who is forced to act when the country awakes after its long sleep. Like Pavel, Klíma's latest book, Lovers for a Day, passes from the early 1960s through the brief radiance of the Prague Spring of 1969, to the bruising disappointment of the following two decades and into the uncertain light of the 1990s. And perhaps it would surprise no one, least of all Pavel, to conclude that the early stories—stories of waiting—are the true gems of the collection, sparkling introductions to yet another Czech genius produced by the crush of Hapsburgs and Stalins.
These early stories are all painted in the black and white of art-film memory, with the millions of complex grays that make the plays of Václav Havel or the “Closely Watched Trains” of Bohumil Hrabal so vivid. “The Execution of a Horse” follows a schoolgirl on an afternoon of truancy, during which she watches the slaughter of a horse at a mink factory and loses her virginity. “The Assembly Line” follows a Walter Mitty of an auto worker moving from the romantic dreams that help him survive the assembly line of daytime work to the romantic dreams that help him survive the assembly line of nighttime romance.
“Honeymoon” is the story of a man and a woman, lovers for a year, he older, she younger, who have carried on their affair on car trips “across half of Europe.” Although they've been on lots of “honeymoons,” this night is special—she has finally married, although she wed someone else. She wants this night to be more than the quiet dinners, the trip upstairs to a room in the inn for immediate undressing and sex. She wants a wedding feast, she wants guests. And so, with the patience that comes to all of Klíma's heroes, the man invites to their table the other inhabitants of the dining room—three country bumpkins, a soldier and his girl, who “looked like a sheep that had been given eye makeup and artificial lashes.” They eat, the woman plays a tune on the jukebox and dances with the soldier. The man waits.
“For a split second he saw himself. He saw himself sitting here with weary eyes, weighed down by his whole long life, waiting. He still had something to wait for, which was why he was sitting here impatiently, waiting for the girl to finish dancing and come and sit by him.” Finish dancing she does. Yet it is only after replacing the “wedding bed” with a haystack, only after replacing the word “hate” for “love,” that the pair can consummate their odd marriage.
The most haunting of these early stories, “Lingula,” features yet another Klíma brand of heroine—a distant, world-weary, extraordinarily beautiful woman. There is an eerie black and white quality to Lingula, a worker in a film archive, watching four films a day of “departing trains. Street lights at night. The world through a wet windowpane. The poetry of solitude. The poetry of rain. The poetry of great plains. The poetry of mountains. The poetry of discord. The poetry of war ruins. The poetry of sun between branches. The poetry of the first kiss that ends the film—or starts it. Everything. … She knew everything. She knew precisely why it was worth living. She knew precisely why it was not worth living.”
She refuses to respond to the biology student, Tomás, who is chosen from among his fellows to attempt her seduction, because “Tomás was at the time the only one of them to have any free moments.” She refuses even to tell him her name. Yet she allows Tomás to lead her, first for a drink and then onto a train and out into the country, with the ornery passivity of a Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. Her most active response is a shrug as Tomás baptizes her with the name Lingula, from a genus of worm he is studying for his exams. While Tomás struggles to prod her into some kind of biological reaction, Lingula struggles to find something new in him, something that will approach her cinematic vision of novelty, developed from months of looking through a locked window onto the West. And yet, as they part from each other at dawn, comically unfulfilled, each of them smiles with the hope of a Beckett tramp.
These tales of interrupted freedom paint a Czechoslovakia where the hotels have bottle openers but no bottles, washbasins with two taps that run either both hot or both cold, in which just enough movement is possible to allow hope and just enough is forbidden to deny satisfaction. No wonder that until 10 years ago, Klíma's writings were banned in his own country.
“A Baffling Choice” from 1987 is the best of the later stories, the story of a young woman who leaves her husband and child for an elderly cripple in the apartment below. “The White House” (1994), the story of the relationship of a young law student and a blind red-haired musician he picks up on the street, has moments of Grimm intensity, as the two lose themselves in stormy woods, before fading into sentimentality.
But there is a naked earnestness to the characters and their conversations in the more recent stories that supports the contention that silence, cunning and the shadows of a foreign language are the best friends a writer can hope for. One wonders like Pavel, “What was the point of replaying the same old images and the same old stories? He should be inventing new ones. But he was too tired for that now. Whenever he began a new story these days, he tired of it before he had finished.”
It could be, to invoke a tired cliché, that the Velvet Revolution has softened Klíma's edge, has dulled his vibrant black and white into a monochromatic color. But it could also be that there is something intrinsically more dramatic about waiting than talking, about waiting than departing. While I wait, after all, I hope.
SOURCE: Brownjohn, Alan. “Love after the Revolution.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5032 (10 September 1999): 21.
[In the following review, Brownjohn traces Klíma's portrayal of love throughout the stories in Lovers for a Day.]
These twelve short stories about love and lovers are selected from two collections representing quite distinct periods in Ivan Klíma's work. Neither book has been published in Britain, and Lovers for a Day thus provides a most welcome addition to the substantial number of remarkable novels already available in translation; several of which, like A Summer Affair, are addressed to the same favourite theme.
A date is appended to each story, and there is a wide gap between the last of the five earlier pieces, which is given as 1969, and the first of the seven later ones, from 1987; the rest of those being dated 1994. That long interval included most of the years during which Klíma's work was banned in his native Czechoslovakia, and there is a clear difference in the treatment of character and situation between the earlier and the more recent examples. However, love remains, as the novels emphasize, something simultaneously all-absorbing, clandestine, threatened, transient and more often than not inconclusive.
Sometimes it appears hardly to exist at all; the newly married couple in “Honeymoon” are uncertain as to who they are, how long they have been together, how they should celebrate when opportunities for joy are so meagre. The wife's acceptance of the husband at last comes, poignantly, through her finding in him a substitute for the imaginary dog she conjured up to comfort herself as a child. Unsurprisingly, the circumstances threatening Klíma's lovers change between the two periods in which the stories are set. In the 1960s, relationships are inhibited or stifled by the repressive political atmosphere. People may be following you, the telephones cannot be trusted, and the real risks create their own penumbra of imagined hazards. In “Heaven, Hell, Paradise,” from 1969, a man and a woman are booked illicitly into a hotel facing a square where “two foreign military vehicles” stand waiting. They make love, but suffer in despondent inertia from a fear that a curious crippled stranger originally seen on London's Northern Line may have pursued them to this place. This is a compelling study in claustrophobia and terror, with the reader left as unsure of the outcome as the lovers themselves. Easily the best of these earlier tales is “Execution of a Horse.” An adolescent girl, Katya, strikes off fatalistically into the unknown to get away from the shabby surroundings of her parents. Hitching, she is picked up by “an expert on animal skins,” witnesses the sickening slaughter of a horse, and experiences a traumatic loss of innocence. Her subsequent loss of virginity reinforces a conviction that love is always “going to end badly … end too soon, and there is no hope of its lasting.” Nevertheless, a vivid, epiphanic sense that trauma and disillusion are shared and universal enables her to transform horror into hope and affirmation.
In this earlier batch of tales, people like the working-class teenage boy in “The Assembly Line” fantasize about love and adventure in far-off, unattainable worlds; his reality is reluctant, paid-for sex with the sad girl from the cheap café. When, after the revolution of 1990, some people are enabled to make money (the state car dealer enriching himself with his new private showroom), they can go abroad, and at the very least they can use the phones without apprehension. Falling in love now involves complications and dangers of a more expected kind. “Long-Distance Conversations” is told entirely in dialogue. The freedom to make a call from New Zealand to Prague and talk endlessly (if not without the operator's intrusion) merely compounds the problems of the two married lovers, instead of resolving them. Perceptively noting the way in which the wider world has developed a curious romantic respect for narrower, Eastern European places where life was until quite recently restricted and perilous, Klíma has his Pacific sea captain crazily but credibly seeking work on a Czech river steamer to be near his beloved. This is a love destined to founder on the air waves under the weight of the lover's clichés and self-deceptions. As darkly comic, though less successful because more obvious, is a counterpart sequence of “Conjugal Conversations,” a spiral of acrimonious challenges and defences, ending with a resigned rejection of divorce, because “You'd never find anyone to put up with you”; this he and she are recognizably tied together in the “Knots” described some time ago by R. D. Laing. Two briefer narratives, “Uranus in the House of Death” and “Rich Men Tend to Be Strange,” explore new-found chances of featuring, respectively, a lover openly obsessed with astrology and a loveless member of the capitalist nouveau riches. The latter is much the better of the two, an effective parable about the sheer difficulty of doing good with wealth if money is what you love most. But both stories end with conventional ironic twists which arrive rather too neatly.
Is it fair to wonder whether this writer finds his lovers' dilemmas less compelling now than when politics palpably overshadowed their transactions? Others of the shorter 1994 tales, notably “A Baffling Choice” and “The White House,” rival the earlier stories in portraying the fascinating illogicality and pathos of their situations. But the later full-length novels, rather than these 1990s vignettes, are the best testimony to the continuing renewal of Ivan Klíma's extraordinary talent.
SOURCE: Bradbrook, B. R. Review of No Saints or Angels, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 670.
[In the following review, Bradbrook lauds the interior monologue and narrative structure of No Saints or Angels.]
The effect of Ivan Klíma's traumatic childhood experience under the Nazis often appears in his writings as a tone of gloom. In his latest novel, No Saints or Angels, the gloom has intensified into a serious concern and a search for the causes of unhappiness in human relations. A decade after the fall of communism in Klíma's homeland, the destructive legacy of the odious regime still upsets indirectly the balance of normality in Klíma's excellent analysis of the fact that not everything is well in the renewed democracy as yet.
The heroine, Kristýna, still feels the shadow of her father's communist past, as well as his misbehavior toward her mother; she herself, no saint but not a great sinner either, is just an ordinary, fallible, vulnerable being, a dentist by profession and inclined to suffer from depression. Although attractive and longing for a stable relationship, she seems unable to attain one: her husband leaves her and their young daughter, to whom she then gives all her attention. Later, however, unaware of the danger, she fails to prevent the adolescent girl from falling in with bad company and becoming a drug addict of the lowest kind. Finding solace in the genuine love and support of a man much younger than herself, Kristýna ultimately cannot keep him. Her anxiety about curing her daughter's addiction provides the core and tension in the book, with the redeeming aspect of the daughter's ultimate return to normal life.
A number of successfully drawn minor characters complete the scene. Although some of them are not old enough to remember the darkest periods of the old regime, they still seem to be subconsciously guarding their sense of self-preservation at any price. Kristýna's young admirer, who works in a government office and has access to reports of agents working for the old regime, gets closest to the evil. His attempts to remedy the wrongs prove futile for lack of evidence or inadequacy of the law. But he too is no Messiah, neither saint nor angel, and he disappears quietly from Kristýna's life.
The novel is an excellent piece of writing, as the author uses almost exclusively interior monologue. This allows the reader to look closely into the characters' deepest thoughts and feelings; however horrifying, the teenager's remarkably realistic idiom gives the novel a streak of comedy. The sequence of the chapters, alternating between the three main characters—Kristýna, her young admirer, and her daughter—provides the ebb and flow, like the pulsating rhythm in human life. In No Saints or Angels Klíma has created a powerful picture of post-communist Czech society at the close of the millennium.
SOURCE: Laird, Nick. “The Apparatchik's Daughter.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5143 (26 October 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Laird contends that the use of a female narrator in No Saints or Angels adds to the book's clever and engaging plot.]
In a letter to the Editor of the New York Review of Books (July 21, 1988), Czeslaw Milosz upbraided Al Alvarez for a positive and respectful review of his Collected Poems, complaining that Alvarez shoehorned his poetry into an outdated mode of thinking about Eastern European writing as being essentially a reactive art, an exact and opposite impulse to the pressures of oppression.
History. Society. If a literary critic is fascinated with them, that's his choice; if, however, he is insensitive to another dimension, he risks to curtail his right to reflect on literature. Perhaps some Western writers are longing for subjects provided by spasms of historical violent change, but I can assure Mr Alvarez that we, ie, natives of hazy Eastern regions, perceive History as a curse and prefer to restore to literature its autonomy, dignity, and independence from social pressures. … The voice of a poet should be purer and more distinct than the noise (or confused music) of History. You may guess my uneasiness when I saw the long evolution of my poetic craft encapsuled by Mr Alvarez in the word “witness,” which for him is perhaps a praise, but for me is not.
Milosz's extended rebuke—that literature depends not on the right place at the right time but the right words in the right order—opens a wider problem of examining Eastern European writing from a Western viewpoint. It is disingenuous not to look at the circumstances from which the literature springs, and dishonest to judge it compassionately, as letters from the besieged, rather than as independent literature. We should not read Eastern European novelists or poets as we read, say, the Diary of Anne Frank or the autobiography of Nelson Mandela.
Philip Roth has referred to Eastern European writers' “clarity of mission,” an understanding that literature is “the remnant of truth people cling to.” Roth makes a comparison with American culture, “where nothing is censored but where the mass media inundate us with the most inane falsifications of human affairs,” and where “serious literature” is therefore “no less of a life-preserver.” This is useful because it provides a benchmark. A problem then arises as to how the critic who has never experienced repression judges the veracity or adroitness of its representation, and this leads to the evasive circumspection and respectful tone of much Western writing on Eastern European literature.
Ivan Klíma's work almost allows itself to be looked at in the open. His writing focuses on the personal as much as the political. He is fond of quoting Kafka's diary entry for August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon,” and this conflating of the personal with the historical is itself a trope of Klima's. In his essay “The Swords Are Approaching: Franz Kafka's Sources of Inspiration,” published in The Spirit of Prague (1995), he argues, not entirely convincingly, that the political nature of Kafka's work is predicated on his domestic problems, and in doing so explicates his own fictional method.
In his new novel, No Saints or Angels, for example, Krystina, the main narrator, receives poison-pen letters because, it seems, of her dead father's links with the Communist Party's People's Militia (“YOU DAUGHTER OF A RED SWINE”). It turns out that the reason for the abusive notes is less doctrinal than domestic. Klíma personalizes the political. When the young Krystina is caught smoking, the way she describes it has political overtones: “she immediately denounced me to Dad,” “he gave me a hiding, walloping me until I perjured myself by swearing that that was the last time.” Krystina's oppression has been both patriarchal and political, and her father personifies the strictness and purblindness of his party.
Klíma's preceding novel, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, suggested that, for any revolution to work, it had to be personal as well as political. Pavel, a cameraman for the state television channel, does not feel released after the Velvet Revolution, and has to examine his own life in order to achieve the sense of freedom he assumed had been lacking as a result of political repression. No Saints or Angels, as its title suggests, is a further blurring. Klíma's world is not dualistic. External evil has always been matched by inner contamination, and the question of how to live well is explored in a manner that never becomes didactic or polemical. Here, Krystina reads the notebooks of her dead father, the apparatchik, whom she feared and demonized, and finds he is fallible, and therefore human. Klíma's novels work in much the same way: humanizing concepts, complicating ideologies, testing received wisdom.
Like Milan Kundera, he writes about love. Or rather, Klíma writes about love, and Kundera writes about sex. It might be argued that this foregrounding of relationships against a backdrop of Communism is from necessity. When everything else is repressed, sex and love allow self-expression and choice. Kundera's protagonist Tomas, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is stripped of power (he has to work as a window cleaner), and becomes addicted to adultery. It is with sex that characters express themselves. In Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, Pavel is even paralysed by the scant choice he has left to him. His inertia makes him stay with a woman he does not love, because she offers him security in a country where his work and his life are overshadowed by fear and deceit. The last tale in Klima's short-story collection, Lovers for a Day, more explicitly explores how fear itself can engender forms of love. “The White House” has Jakub, a mathematician, take Alzbeta, a blind busker he no longer loves, on a final holiday. They become lost in a wood and, as a storm breaks, effectively leaving them both sightless, stumble into a cemetery.
Jakub's plans to finish his relationship with Alzbeta are redrawn, and the story finishes with him pleading to her not to leave him. Love is less about passion than staving off fear, boredom, loneliness, death. In another story from Lovers for a Day, a judge is asked by his mistress why he stays in his marriage: “‘Maybe,’ it occurred to him, so that when I come home in foul weather like this I can say to someone ‘It's raining out.’” The characters in No Saints or Angels have different methods of evading fear: alcohol, politics, role-playing games, nicotine, sex, music, drugs, philosophy, work. Krystina, a dentist, has a difficult relationship with her daughter, Jana, who is turning into a promiscuous junkie. Krystina begins an affair with Jan, a former student of her ex-husband. Jan's father was persecuted by the Communists, and Jan now works as an investigator of the crimes perpetrated by the post-war regime. Through their relationship, the novel explores what happens when people get what they have wished for and find it falls short. The use of a female narrator seems to have given Klíma's writing new confidence; the earnest, self-pitying, po-faced musings of the protagonist in Waiting for the Dark are given to Kristyna's ex-husband, and receive the puncturing they need:
He was simply trying to explain that time began along with the universe. It hadn't existed before. There had been nothing at all, not even time.
I told him how awfully clever and learned he was, instead of telling him he should get a sense of humour.
Krystina believes that she lacks something: “Some love that won't come to nothing … ? Is it peace in one's heart … ?” She is “unable to open the door to it. Dad locked it against me and my one and only husband added a padlock.”
Betrayed by all the men she has known, Krystina sees two blue vases in an abandoned church and has an epiphany of forgiveness: “one ought to be capable of reconciling oneself with people, even if one can't reconcile oneself with their deeds.” Klíma's symbol of the two vases on the church altar suggests that personalities are constructed out of individual experiences: “Look,” says Mum. “There are no saints or angels. Just two vases and nothing else.” Written in a style which, in Gerald Turner's translation, rejects pomp and excess, perhaps as a corrective to the mendacious and extreme rhetoric of the State, this big, clever, generous book is Ivan Klíma's best yet.
SOURCE: Czerwinski, E. J. Review of No Saints or Angels, by Ivan Klíma. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 221.
[In the following review, Czerwinski praises No Saints or Angels as one of Klíma's strongest and compelling works, but faults the translation for its confusing melding of British English and modern slang.]
Like good wine, Ivan Klíma improves with age. During the sixties and seventies his works seemed guided by a heavy hand and a censor's steady gaze. As the political climate became more oppressive, his writings acquired an air of freedom. His latest novel [No Saints or Angels] (perhaps more accurately translated as “Neither Saints nor Angels”) is undoubtedly his finest work.
Klíma has always been praised for experimenting with the boundaries of point of view. In Saints he manages to incorporate several voices into a harmonious whole. The central figure, Kristýna, dominates the novel. She sees herself as a failure. It is the interaction among the various people in her life that creates the tension in the novel. Jana, her daughter, is a teenager hooked on various drugs. She manages to free herself of substance abuse and ultimately comes to terms with her immature and guilt-ridden mother. Curiously enough, Klíma allows us to believe that somehow there is hope that Kristýna and Jana will even find some degree of happiness, an element missing in the lives of all these characters, victims either of Nazi atrocities (like Kristýna's grandmother, who dies in a concentration camp) or of communism (like her mother, her sister, her unfaithful husband whom she divorces, her young lover, and her daughter). It is interesting to note that Klíma allows Jana to make a realistic assessment of the burst of euphoria that Kristýna experiences at the end of the novel: “I just wonder how long it's going to last.” It is in keeping with Klíma's philosophy that so long as one has hope, one can go on living.
Unfortunately, the translation is uneven and combines a mixture of British English and modern-day slang. At times the slang is so jarring that it makes the translation almost incomprehensible. The following is only a sampling of obscure terminology that one finds on almost every page: “kippered lungs,” “did a runner on her,” “old lag,” “scarpered,” “snogging,” “muck out,” “gobsmacked,” et cetera. This compelling work deserves a more sympathetic treatment. It is, after all, Klíma's finest performance.