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. 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 …

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