Life Is Beautiful

Lovers for a day”: yet is “lovers” the right word, and can the dust jacket be accurate in calling this a “lovely” collection of stories, unless of course the word is used in some special, aesthetic, possibly ironic sense? The dates of Ivan Klíma’s twelve stories have an obvious significance: the first five were written between 1962 and 1969 (and duly banned by the Czech Communist authorities), one of the remaining seven in 1987, and the other six in 1994. We are bound to look for differences between the two sets: Will love be more dangerous, anguished, valued, more “interesting,” under political repression? Will love in a free society be serene, happier, if less “inter-esting”? Surely happiness doesn’t have to be uninteresting; or is this too much to ask, given human nature, or—more to the point—the predispositions of art in our time? Readers will feel whatever anticipations or apprehensions are natural to them.

In the most touching of the earlier group, “Execution of a Horse” (1964), Katka is lonely—her mother has set up house with some fat old slob—and feeling sorry for herself, having discovered that her boyfriend has been carrying on with a gym teacher. “Love, she reflects, true love, is unbreakable. It is complete and everlasting.” True, love is not love which alters as it alteration finds; and maybe one day, if she bides her time, he will come back to her. Still, it’s a fine day, and “I have to do something on a day like this.” In a nice touch the trams are seen as “chipped thermos flasks,” though less pleasant (and no doubt hurtful to the powers that were) is the ball of twine she catches sight of as she leaves her room, used for tying up parcels and hanging the washing, “and those in despair.”

A car soon pulls up for her, “a private car, no less.” The driver, a dealer in animal skins, talks incessantly, while Katka muses that it wasn’t very sensible to have spent so much time with her boyfriend, as if he were the only person in the world. Love is certainly the greatest happiness, but at the same time it swallows you up: “At the very moment you feel you are living to the full you actually stop living,” oblivious to the countless possible loves that might prove more fulfilling. Faithfulness in emotional matters, Oscar Wilde said, like consistency in intellectual ones, is simply a confession of failure; the thought seems too sophisticated for Katka.

The man drives her to a stinking mink farm. Some of the animals are kept two in a cage, and she is told that they are sick, and recover more quickly if they have company. Often it is “only solitude that drives people into love,” she reflects, “and in fact people waver between freedom and solitude—except that most of the time they lose their freedom without escaping solitude.” “I must have read that somewhere …

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