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A Conversation in Prague

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 Korán.” Jaroslav Korán 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 Korán’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-offactly, “Some people don’t have the stomach for this.”

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