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Living in the Shadows

Judge on Trial

by Ivan Klíma, translated by A.G. Brain
Knopf, 549 pp., $25.00

How to write a book on the subject of emptiness: that is the task Ivan Klíma has set himself in Judge on Trial. He succeeds very well indeed. When the dust settles—if it ever does—after the convulsions of the past fifty years in Eastern Europe, Judge on Trial will, in my view, be seen as a central testament not only to the horrors of this century, but to the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of tyranny, and to the capacity of art to maintain its autonomy while still serving as witness to social and political events.

Klíma’s novel seems all the more remarkable in that it contains no heroics or elaborate formal experiment: he is very different from Solzhenitsyn or Milan Kundera. One English reviewer has described Judge on Trial as “a War and Peace for the Nineties,” but Klíma has none of Tolstoy’s obsessive particularity or religious preoccupation. Judge on Trial is largely lacking in local color: it might be set anywhere, from Husak’s Czechoslovakia to Stroessner’s Paraguay, and the spiritual quest its characters are engaged in is not a metaphysical struggle for transcendence but a dogged search for a way to live in the here and now with valor and decency, with care for oneself and for others, and with as little self-delusion as possible. In Adam Kindl, the book’s main character, we are presented with an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary dilemma in a nightmare time; it is his ordinariness, and Klíma’s refusal to make a hero of him, that impresses us most. Judge on Trial is an epic of the mundane.

Ivan Klíma was born in 1931 in Prague, where he still lives. In the “Prague Spring” during the first half of 1968, when Alexander Dubcek introduced sweeping reforms of the Communist system, including the abolition of censorship, Klíma was the editor of the journal of the Czech Writers’ Union. In 1969, a year after the Russian invasion and the reversal of the Dubcek reforms, he went to the United States as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. In the following year he returned home, where he worked at a number of menial jobs; his experiences of this time are recounted in lightly fictional form in My Golden Trades.1 In the years before 1989 his work, including novels, plays, and short stories, was banned in Czechoslovakia, and all his books were first published abroad.

In the novel Love and Garbage, Klíma’s narrator has this to say on the subject of writing:

I still believe that literature has something in common with hope, with a free life outside the fortress walls which, often unnoticed by us, surround us, with which moreover we surround ourselves. I am not greatly attracted to books whose authors merely portray the hopelessness of our existence, despairing of man, of our conditions, despairing over poverty and riches, over the finiteness of life and the transience of feelings. A writer who doesn’t know anything else had better keep silent.2

Although it is, of course, a fictional character who is speaking here, Klíma’s work is in some way always autobiographical, and this passage is unmistakably a wormhole in the page through which the author can be clearly glimpsed. It is ironic that Love and Garbage is in part an impassioned meditation on Kafka as a writer and literary theorist: ironic, for how are we to reconcile Klíma’s aesthetic with Kafka’s dictum that “the artist is the man who has nothing to say”; or with Kafka’s reply to his friend Max Brod, who asked him if he thought there was no hope: “Oh yes, there is hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us”? The answer, complex and inconclusive, as all artistic answers must be, is suggested in Judge on Trial, which despite its surface transparency is ambiguous in its depths.

No Czech writer, perhaps no Czech of any profession, can escape the shadow of Kafka. Judge on Trial—first published in samizdat in 1978 and revised in 1986—is set in a world in which Kafka’s darkest prophecies have come true. Adam Kindl is a judge in a country in which the Law rules supreme, though the laws themselves have been debased by the state into instruments of repression. It is the 1970s, and every last green shoot of the brief spring of 1968 has been firmly uprooted. As the book opens, Kindl is handed a case to try against a young man accused of a double murder. The young man, who may or may not have committed the crime, is something of a political trouble-maker, and the authorities want the death sentence to be passed. Kindl, whose political correctness is under suspicion, realizes that he as well as the defendant will be on trial.

Immediately after he has received the documents relating to the Dostoevskian double murder, Kindl is surprised by a visit from Magdalena, a teacher with whom he had lived for a time after the war at the beginning of his legal career. She is in trouble: her husband, also a teacher, is about to be sacked by the authorities because he has signed a human rights declaration. Kindl contacts a friend of his from the old days, the fixer Ruml, who arranges for the right people to be bribed so that the husband’s job will be saved. This act of kindness, even, perhaps, of love, will of course contribute to Kindl’s downfall.

Interspersed through the story told by a detached narrator is Kindl’s first-person memoir—“Before we drink from the waters of Lethe”—which moves in stages from Kindl’s wartime childhood through his youth as a committed Communist to 1968 and its aftermath. This straightforward device allows Klíma to sketch broadly the history of his country over the past fifty years without having to resort to the clumsiness of flashbacks; it also affords him a way to show us the processes that have nearly destroyed Kindl’s soul.

The son of a family of committed socialists, Kindl at the age of ten is interned by the Nazis along with his mother and his younger brother, Hanuš, while his father is sent to a concentration camp.

Then the moment arrived. It was just before mid-day and Mother was cooking potato dumplings, my favourite, for lunch. The doorbell rang: there stood a little fellow, a complete stranger. He made a deep bow, then spoke some quiet words I couldn’t hear and my mother rushed out on to the staircase. For the first time in my life I heard. her scream.… They had generously given us two hours to pack. Even the little fellow helped bring things and toss them into the cases. Then they drove us to the fortress, where they assigned thirty people to live with us, allocating us twice two and a half square metres of blackened floor, just enough space for six of our mattresses, six mattresses for the three of us and three cases at our feet. That was our space.

These early memories are moving and frightening—the “little fellow” here is wonderful, a malign figure straight out of Kafka (he turns up four hundred pages later in a different guise and in different though no less nightmarish circumstances, as Nimmrichter, an acquaintance of Kindl’s from college days who has become a powerful and poisonous apparatchik). The little fellow’s opposing counterpart is the clown who performs in a show for children in the prison fortress. He recites a poem—

A little man came visiting
In a jacket brown
But when we took it off him
It made us weep and frown

—and then stops before the child Kindl, demanding that he say “who is the most useful of men,” and proceeding to answer the question himself: “the most useful one of all, of course, is the man who tells the truth. That’s why even kings had their fools and wouldn’t let any ill befall them.” At certain key moments in the book this clown reappears in Kindl’s imaginings, an emblem of truth in all its ambiguity and motley disguises.

Kindl’s father, an engineer, survives the camps and the forced march home, and throws himself at once, along with his brothers, into building the new socialist state. To these men and their Party comrades the way forward is clear and the goal inevitable. Behind their optimism and determination, however, lurks a general moral confusion:

Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday’s laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday’s crimes to be acts of heroism. They naturally regarded this change as a victory for historical truth and agreed that guilt must be assessed, wrongs put right and society purged.

But what was to be identified as guilt and what condoned, seeing that they had all lived under the former regime, however hated and imposed it was? Seeing that the existence and actions of the regime had also depended on their own existence and behaviour. Who was to be the defendant, who the witness and who the judge?

These are afterthoughts, however, and in the drive to build socialism the son is no less committed than the father, so much so that his enthusiasm for the cause can survive the shock of seeing that father hauled off to prison again, this time at the behest of the Party to whom both had given their allegiance. At school Kindl becomes a doctrinaire Communist, ready to denounce anyone who gives the slightest indication of being any less enthusiastic for the cause than he is.

Convinced I had to do something to ensure that people never again lost their freedom, so that they should never again find themselves in hermetically sealed surroundings with no chance of escape, ruled solely by butchers’ knives, I prepared to become a foot-soldier of the revolution, a hobby horse for a new generation of butchers to mount, and wielding their cleavers drive the scattered human herd into rebuilt enclosures, and set to with their knives to carve out a splendid future.

The account of Kindl’s training as a lawyer in the Alice in Wonderland world of postwar Czechoslovakia is horrifying in its matter-of-fact portrayal of the systematic corruption of an entire generation: “Our teachers carefully concealed from us everything that had happened in the social sciences since the death of those they regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. We lived in the deep shadow of the idols of social revolution, they were our measure of everything.” It is this willed ignorance, this self-blinding on the part of those who should have known better, in view of the horrors and the lies they had witnessed during the Nazi years, that ensured the eventual bankruptcy of the system they were putting in place. On a trip to England in the 1960s, Kindl at last realizes “how wretched were the conditions from which I had come.”

I came to realise the pitiful nature of a world in which people were forever exchanging one set of rulers for another, and with them their beliefs and their history, one in which past events were forever being amended and embellished, thus depriving people of the chance to develop a sense of humility or pride; a world which, for centuries, those who wished to preserve their beliefs had fled, leaving behind those who found it easy to conform; a world where laws often ceased to apply even before they could be used, where the achievements of past generations were usually reviled and praise was reserved solely for current events; a world where fresh beginnings were made time and again in the name of something better and lasting, while in fact nothing had lasted longer than a single part of a single generation’s lifetime; a world where everything that was pure, dignified, noble or exalted aroused suspicion. How could one live in such a world?

Live in it Kindl does, though with increasing doubts. He goes to work as a young magistrate in a provincial town which he refers to as The Hole, where he meets Magdalena and lives with her briefly. A position in Prague becomes vacant and he takes it, leaving Magdalena with a callous ease which later he comes to recognize as another symptom of his increasing emptiness of spirit. He meets Alena, a good but intellectually limited young woman; they marry. Then comes 1968, which finds Kindl on a visiting fellowship to a university in the American Midwest. He and Alena return home to a country seething with excitement and reveling in new freedoms. They are hardly back when the Russians invade. Kindl is allowed to keep his position on the bench, though he knows the authorities have their suspicions of him and that his time is limited.

Klíma conveys with great and unobtrusive skill the peculiar mixture of boredom, hopelessness, fear, and black comedy which characterizes life in a totalitarian system. His friend Matej, former journalist and intellectual, has been banished to the countryside, performing what the title of one of Klíma’s stories calls a “golden trade”: he lives in a workman’s trailer “measuring water flows.” Another friend, also trained as a lawyer, has been sacked and now works as an insurance clerk (the shadow of K. again). Only Ruml, always something of a cynic, has survived. Ruml does not figure largely in the book, and what we know of him comes mostly from his wife, with whom Kindl conducts a brief, dismal, and yet liberating love affair.

Kindl’s wife Alena also has a secret lover, a pathetic young man named Honza whom she tries to discourage but who follows her about like a lost little dog, protesting his inability to live without her; when he tries to commit suicide he botches it. Honza, and to an extent Alena also, represents the ingrown, demoralized side of life as it must be lived under tyranny: “Lack of freedom harms people not only by blocking their path to knowledge and curtailing what they can say and where they can go, but also by damaging the very core of their being and enslaving them by switching their attention to themselves alone.”

Alena finally puts an end to the affair, only to discover that she is pregnant. When she has an abortion her experience mirrors the fate of the young man accused of murder, whose guilt Kindl is gradually coming to doubt, so much so that in the end his boss, the Presiding Judge, takes over the case and rushes it to a conclusion with, of course, the required death sentence, Kindl quits his post. “Now, whatever the future might bring, he felt a sense of relief: for the first time in his life he was not requiring something better or different from the world or other people, he was requiring it of himself.”

One of the book’s most interesting characters hardly appears in it: this is Kindl’s younger brother Hanuš. He is for Kindl an emblem of the warmth and sense of freedom which have been so lacking in his own adult life. One of the most moving scenes in the book occurs after the two boys and their mother have been put in prison, where Hanuš falls ill with pneumonia and Kindl is left to tend him. Returning with some food for him, Kindl finds Hanuš close to death and in his panic to revive him pricks his own finger and feeds him with drops of his blood.

In time Hanuš recovers and becomes a mathematician, working in England. At the end of the novel, he takes what seems to his family and friends a foolhardy decision and returns home. It is the sign of hope that Kindl has been waiting for.

It was immaterial what would happen next. Only an effeminate, pampered and introverted mentality demanded the assurance that everything that caused it to rejoice at a given moment, everything that nourished and intoxicated its body and soul, would last for ever and ever. There was no way of insuring the future, one could only lose the present.

Judge on Trial is a grim, controlled, fiercely honest, and, finally, consoling book. It has the quality of a documentary, in which the necessity for witness is of more consequence than the demands of art. If this at times leads to a certain dullness of tone (which may be partly a side-effect of translation), it is a small price to pay. It lacks the brilliance and density of Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House, the desperate hilarity of his fellow countryman Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, the postmodernist daring of the Hungarian Péter Esterházy’s Helping Verbs of the Heart—all written under the same totalitarian conditions in which Klíma worked on Judge on Trial in the 1970s and 1980s—yet it carries a weight and authority that are all its own.

Klíma’s book offers no easy resolutions to the difficulties of life, either in the life of the mind or in the world of power. Ivan Klíma is too good a writer and thinker to imagine that the collapse of a totalitarian system could automatically bring freedom. As Adam Kindl recognizes, what is required of us is “moral grandeur,” something which is immensely difficult to achieve and which no political system can confer: one’s task is to learn how to live moment by moment. Ivan Klíma has conducted a profound moral inquiry, and in doing so he describes the education of a sensibility and a conscience that we are not likely to forget.

  1. 1

    My Golden Trades, translated by Paul Wilson (Granta Books, 1992).

  2. 2

    Love and Garbage, translated by Ewald Osers (Knopf, 1991; Vintage, 1993).

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