Sunday, January 02, 2011


Like Ivan Klíma himself, the narrator of the "The Tightrope Walkers," the fourth and final story in this 1985 collection, has spent part of his childhood in a wartime concentration camp. Though he survives physically, he isn't unscathed:
Perhaps it was a result of my wartime experiences or of a self-pity typical of my age, but I had never quite been able to surrender to pleasure or joy, or to relax. As if I never ceased to be aware of the connection between happiness and despair, freedom and anxiety, life and ruin. My feelings were probably those of a tightrope walker on his high wire. No matter how fixedly I was looking upwards I was still conscious of the drop below me.
As the story begins, the young man is en route to visit a classmate, Ota, who has a cabin in the country. Along the way he recalls an experience, a year or so after the end of the war, of seeing a traveling troupe of acrobats. While he had been waiting for their performance to begin, a young woman had approached him selling tickets, and though he never spoke to her he had been quite smitten by her. Later he had watched the same girl, now wearing a different costume, ascend one of the masts to take part in the show.

With Ota at the cabin is his girlfriend Dana, whom the narrator has never met. She too has painful memories: both of her parents were executed in the war, her grandmother has recently died, and she herself is still recovering from a serious illness. She and the narrator become friends, and later they exchange visits, books, poems, and eventually kisses. Finally, still loyal to Ota, she implores the narrator not to see her any more, then collapses and has to be brought to a hospital. Three days later, recovering at home, she sends him a letter, ardently declaring her love and informing him that she has broken it off with Ota. He hurries out to go to her, but on the way he is racked by second thoughts:
If only her letter hadn't been so totally urgent or her offer so unconditional. Did I even have the right to reject her after what I'd caused? But what feelings did I have for her? Did I have any feelings of the kind she wrote about?
Suddenly, on the way to Dana's apartment, he comes upon the acrobats again:
As I stood there in the crowd, gazing up at the celestial acrobat who, high above our heads, above the dark void, was invoking that vaster void with the starry face, it seemed to me that I was beginning to understand something of the secret of life, that I would be able to see clearly what until then I had been helplessly groping for. I felt that life was a perpetual temptation of death, one continual performance above the abyss, that in it man must aim for the opposite mast even though, from sheer vertigo, he might not even see it, that he must go forward, not look behind, not look down, not allow himself to be tempted by those who were standing comfortably on firm ground, who were mere spectators. I also felt that I had to walk my own tightrope, that I must myself sling it between two masts as those tumblers had done, and venture out on it, not wait for someone to invite me up and offer to carry me across on his back. I must begin my performance, my grand unrepeatable performance.
His resolution soon fades, however, and the story ends ambiguously, as he stands staring up at her window, still uncertain, suspended on the high wire.

(Translations by Ewald Osers, very slightly emended.)

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