Living and Partly Living
Legends of Our Time
There are those survivors of political disaster whose experience is like that of a man trapped in the air-raid cellar of a bombed house: an eyeless, troglodyte’s underworld to which, none the less, there faintly penetrate the sounds of the daylight street above, following its normal middle-earth concerns. Such is the experience of Jiri Mucha, who survived the coal mines and uranium mines of Czechoslovakia under Stalin. And there are those who have survived the nuclear explosion itself, the total holocaust, so that there no longer exists a world to return to: here is the place of Elie Wiesel, revisiting the metaphysical crater where once there existed European Jewry. Lastly, there are those whom the blast scorches and bruises but leaves still upright, still with the breath to yell back in fury and outrage. This is the category of Vassilis Vassilikos, the young Greek novelist and left-winger who watched the rise of fascism in Greece before the coup of the Colonels and must now live abroad.
Book after book which emerges from Czechoslovakia uncovers a little further the sheer size of the wound which the political trials conducted by the Communists made in the public consciousness. The seven months of liberty, and the twilight of literary tolerance that preceded them, have produced accounts of the Slansky trials alone which amount to a small library of nightmare—the accounts of Mme. Clementis, of Slansky’s widow, of Mme. Slingova, of Eugen Loebl, to name only some of them—but they have shown, too, how much still remains to be revealed. As an account, not of his trial, but of the life of the prisoner, Jiri Mucha’s book surpasses them all. Condemned in 1951 for “spying for the Americans” to six years’ imprisonment, of which he served three, Mucha was the novelist son of the great “Jugendstyl” painter Alfons Mucha. He entered captivity as a young Western intellectual whose roots were in the Czech lands but who had lived in Paris and New York, traveled in the Middle East, and served most of the war in Britain with the Royal Air Force. Living and Partly Living (the title is a quotation from Murder in the Cathedral) is the diary and commonplace book which Mucha kept during the year he worked as a penal laborer in a coal mine.
Mucha’s job was to manhandle loaded coal-tubs round a turntable below ground. The paper on which he kept his journal was hidden under lumps of coal in a tin with a few pencil stubs, dug out and re-buried every day. Even when things were normal, he had constantly to drop his writing and attend to the coal-tubs rumbling down the gallery to him from the mine face. And in this death-hole of a pit, where the equipment was totally worn-out and men smoked freely below ground, explosions, roof-falls, and accidents were frequent. “Bergson maintains that—“ Mucha begins and then drops everything as he hears the thunder of a runaway tub hurtling …