Sunday, January 09, 2011

Judge on Trial

I first read this novel in 1993, the year it was published in the US by Knopf, but the copyright date of the Czech edition, Soudce z milosti, was 1986, and even that was for a reworked version. According to a review by the late Malcolm Bradbury, the book was originally written and circulated as samizdat in 1978. The events of the novel itself take place around 1972; that is, four years after the premature end of the Prague Spring in which Ivan Klíma, as the editor of Literární noviny, was an active participant. There are also several long digressions dating back to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia during World War II. The book remained unpublishable in Klíma's own country until the collapse in 1989 of the Czech Communist regime, which to the end of its days was one of the Soviet Bloc's most hardline members.

The protagonist of Judge on Trial is Adam Kindl, is a jurist assigned to hear the case of a man accused of the murder, by gas asphyxiation, of his landlady and her adolescent granddaughter. The incident wasn't political in nature but its consequences may be. The defendant faces a possible sentence of death; Kindl, though no dissident, had once incurred the displeasure of the Communist Party, years before, by writing an article calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The judge suspects that he has been assigned the case as a test of his loyalty. If he refuses to impose a death sentence he will lose his job and his decision will likely be overruled upon appeal anyway.

Except for the fact that its author is by profession a writer and not a lawyer, much of the book appears to be loosely autobiographical. Like Kindl, Klíma was born into a thoroughly assimilated family of Jewish descent and spent much of his childhood in a concentration camp. The details of the judge's family members, his affiliation and eventual disenchantment with the Communist Party after the war, and even his marital infidelities seem to echo the author's own background. The chapters dealing with the concentration camp coincide with many of the details of the story "Miriam," included in Klíma's My First Loves. (It will be interesting to see to what degree they will also correspond to Klíma's as yet untranslated memoirs.)

In contrast to much of the literature of the same period, whether from Eastern Europe or elsewhere, Judge on Trial is neither ironic nor phantasmagorical. Its manner is realist, its tone earnest. It presents no difficulties, in terms of following the action or interpreting the motives of the characters, but on the other hand it makes no attempt to amuse or divert the reader either. It's not particularly grim -- the deaths of the old woman and her granddaughter are left on the periphery, and the horrors of war and Stalinism are implied rather than described -- and Klíma is fundamentally a writer of moderation, of the prosaic and ordinary rather than the romantic and heroic, but there is no mistaking the fact that this is, in the best sense of the word, a serious novel.

As is the case with much of the literature of Eastern Europe produced between 1945 and 1989, the inescapable question is whether, now that the political situation has changed and an entire generation has come of age with no memory of life under Communism, the book still bears the same urgency. The specific conditions under which Kindl lives no longer exist, at least in what is now the Czech Republic, but I think the book is more than a historical document. Its underlying theme is the inescapability of moral choice, whether in a legal decision that is literally a matter or life or death or in choosing between one's wife and one's mistress. (Kindl's lover is the seductive but cruelly manipulative wife of a senior colleague.) Tyranny complicates the predicament because the regime recognizes only its own moral authority, and will relentlessly punish anyone who refuses to do the same. Kindl is therefore simultaneously compelled to make moral choices and constrained from doing so in a disinterested manner. Our own situation is very different, and it would be a mistake to romanticize it by likening it to life behind the Iron Curtain, but it seems to me that a little of Klíma's earnestness is something we could use.

The translation of Judge on Trial is credited to A. G. Brain, a pseudonym for Gerald Turner. I speak no Czech but his rendition seems fairly adept compared to other Klíma translations I've read. There are a few slang terms and Britishisms that may stick in American ears, but nothing that will interrupt the flow of reading. One curiosity: Kindl's mistress describes a book she has been reading by a Latin American writer, in which a group of characters revere an author they have never met, then wind up meeting him by chance after he is accidentally struck by a car. Though the book isn't named, it's clearly Cortázar's Hopscotch, a different section of which is also discussed by two characters in Klíma's My Golden Trades. It's hard to think of two authors less superficially alike, but perhaps at bottom there's a kinship after all.

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