Sunday, September 29, 2013
The Czech writer Ivan Klíma, now in his early eighties, has survived the German occupation of his native land, during which he and his family — of Jewish descent, though entirely non-observant — were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, as well as four decades of communist rule, and he has outlived such compatriots and friends as Josef Škvorecký, Václav Havel, Jiří Gruša, and Pavel Kohout. Though barely established as a novelist of international stature before he turned forty, he came into his own in the 1970s and '80s, at a time when it was impossible for him to publish in Czechoslovakia. A member of the Czech Communist Party from his teens (two communist uncles were executed by the Nazis), he became gradually disenchanted in the years leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968, during which he was active as a writer, journalist, and editor, and he was eventually expelled from the party. Though he evidently never signed the dissident manifesto known as Charter 77 — he is somewhat reticent about the reasons, which seem to have included both personal and philosophical factors — he was closely allied with the leaders behind the document, helped organize the publication and distribution of samizdat, and was an active participant in the breathtaking sequence of events that brought about the end of Czech communist rule in 1989. Since then he has largely kept to the political sidelines, content to concentrate on his writing.
Much of the territory in My Crazy Century, the English-language translation of a two-volume memoir published in Prague several years ago, will be familiar to readers of his fictional work, especially My First Loves, My Golden Trades, A Summer Affair, and his masterpiece, Judge on Trial. Klíma is said to have written at least twenty works of fiction, many of which are not available in English and which I have not read, but he seems to be a writer who needs to hew closely to his own personal experience; in fact in this memoir he mentions deliberately choosing menial employment, at a time when it was politically impossible for him to earn his living as a writer, in order to be able to write knowledgeably about that kind of work. He also makes it clear that his own marital infidelities have often been reflected in his fiction. He has not, to my knowledge, previously described the cultural and political movements in which he participated in as much detail as he does here.
Klíma's narrative ends in 1989 and the last hundred or so pages are made up of a group of brief essays — "expendable chapters" we might call them, following Cortázar, who may in fact have been his model — on various themes: "Ideological Murders," "The Party," "Dogmatists and Fanatics." These rather solemn and general pieces add little to the book, and suggest that although Klíma as moral novelist (and memoirist) has a keen sense of the ambiguities experienced by ordinary, essentially decent people who are unfortunate enough to live through extraordinarily dark chapters of history, he is not a particularly original moral or political philosopher. No matter, though; the stories are enough.
Update: A profile of Klíma in the New York Times (November 18, 2013) implies that the English-language version is an abridgement of the original. If so it's not clear what may have been taken out.