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Notes from Underground

My Crazy Century

by Ivan Klíma, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens
Grove, 534 pp., $30.00
Sean Gallup/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Ivan Klíma, Prague, 1996

Ivan Klíma, the prolific and irrepressible Czech novelist, essayist, and playwright, belongs to the remarkable cohort of Czech writers and artists who came to the world’s attention in the 1960s and went on to produce some of their best work in the following two decades, either in exile or in conditions of heavy repression at home. They included people of formidable talent but wildly different temperaments, among them Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Václav Havel, Miloš Forman, and many others not as well known abroad but of no less importance in the revival of culture and politics they helped to bring about.

In retrospect, there is something improbable and even astonishing about the very existence of this group. Its appearance coincided with the brutal imposition on Czechoslovakia of Soviet communism, a system not known for encouraging free expression in the arts or anywhere else. Yet in the first two decades of communism, from 1948 to 1968, they managed to find their feet as artists and establish reputations at home, while mostly eluding the regime’s strenuous efforts to bind them to its cause. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, their work began to appear in print and on the stage and screen. The growing excitement they created eventually found political expression in the reforms of the Prague Spring of 1968, but by that summer, the pressure for change was beginning to undermine the authority of the Communist Party and the Soviets moved in with tanks and troops to stop it.

That invasion was the beginning of another two decades of repression, euphemistically referred to as “normalization.” Almost all of the main figures in the cultural renaissance of the 1960s were treated as nonpersons and their works were suppressed. Some of them, like Škvorecký, Kundera, Kohout, and Forman, emigrated to the West. Others, like Havel, Vaculík, and Klíma, remained behind and, despite constant harassment and, for some, imprisonment, found the inner strength to keep working. In doing so, they once again created an epicenter of change.

Ivan Klíma’s My Crazy Century is the most extensive autobiography of a member of this extraordinary generation yet to appear in English. (Havel’s presidential memoirs, To the Castle and Back, and his earlier book-length interview, Disturbing the Peace, cover only portions of his life.) First published in two volumes running to almost a thousand pages in Czech and somewhat abridged in Craig Cravens’s precise and elegant translation, the book chronicles Klíma’s life and times, from his first childhood memories (he was born in Prague in 1931) through his early adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp, his youthful struggles to become a writer in the Stalinist 1950s and the post-Stalinist 1960s, his work as an editor in several important literary magazines, his engagement in the Prague Spring, his sojourns abroad, in England, Israel, and the US, his voluntary return into the long night of normalization, and his activities as a dissident writer in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the return of political freedom to Czechoslovakia.

In addition to telling his story, Klíma interleaves his chapters with twenty-three separate essays, eighteen of which have been included in the English edition, but gathered at the end so that in English Klíma’s story can be read as an uninterrupted narrative. Most of the essays are reflections on a controversial subject that is at the very heart of Klíma’s experience: the striking resemblance—despite their obvious differences—of German fascism to Soviet communism: their common history of mass murder, deliberate starvation, and genocide; their origins in utopian thinking; their reliance on mass political parties, state terror, and secret police; their use of lies and propaganda; their perverse appeal to intellectuals; and their exploitation of the ignorance and enthusiasm of young people. On this last matter, Klíma knows what he’s talking about, because he was one of them.

One of the many ironies of Ivan Klíma’s life is how, having narrowly survived the murderous intentions of the Nazis, he went on to become a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, which was responsible for imposing Stalinism on his country. Unlike many Jewish Holocaust survivors, however, Klíma seems to have embraced communism, not out of any deeply held Marxist convictions, but rather from a vague belief that the Party held the key to a better future. When he was recruited into the Union of Youth in high school, the fact that his father was a committed Marxist and a member of the Party and that two of his uncles were antifascist war heroes was enough to make up for what might have gone against him: his bourgeois background and the fact that he was, officially, a Jew. (To this day, Klíma does not consider himself a Jew, since he was declared one purely on the basis of the Nuremberg Laws; to accept that identity now, he has said, would be to affirm the validity of a racist edict.) He became a candidate for official membership in the Party in 1951, the year he graduated from high school.

A series of events that tested Klíma’s faith in communism, such as it was, followed in rapid succession. First came the infamous Slánský show trials, when many top Communist officials—including some Jews—were accused of being agents of Zionism and American imperialism and, after very harsh treatment, sentenced to death or long prison terms. Klíma, who followed the trials closely, says he found the defendants’ public confessions odd (“Would evil-intentioned enemies and spies use the term ‘camp of peace’ for the Soviet Union and its allies and condemn American imperialism?” he asks), but he apparently did not yet conclude that the trumped-up charges and forced confessions were reason enough to quit the Party.

Not long afterward, in a scene eerily reminiscent of one from his childhood in World War II, the Klímas’ flat was ransacked by a gang of plainclothes policemen who dragged his father away to prison. Then Stalin died, and soon afterward, in a meeting at which his membership in the Party was to be decided, an official denounced Klíma’s father—who by then was facing charges of sabotage—as an enemy of socialism and demanded that Klíma disown him. Klíma refused and defended his father’s innocence. To his astonishment the meeting voted to grant him full membership. But the decision left him depressed. “It was as if I had been accepted into some kind of merciless holy order that could demand of you anything, even the renunciation of your own father,” he writes.

Klíma’s father was eventually found guilty of a lesser charge (with Stalin safely dead, the system had begun to relax, however slightly) and was sentenced to thirty months in prison. He was later expelled from the Party, while Klíma remained a member for nearly another decade. Khrushchev’s revelations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956 left him in no doubt that terrible deeds had been committed in the name of socialism, but he says the thaw persuaded him that the Party’s wrongdoing would be somehow rectified. “Deceived by the sudden feeling of freedom,” he confesses, “I unreasonably and senselessly placed my hopes in it.”

Klíma was finally expelled from the Party in 1967 after he delivered a fiery attack on censorship at the Fourth Writer’s Congress, one of the main harbingers of the Prague Spring. “Surprisingly,” Klíma writes of his expulsion,

I did not have any great fear of further punishment, whether I would be allowed to publish anything or whether I would even be able to find a job. I was thirty-six, and it was high time to tread a path that was, as much as possible, not subordinated to anyone who had arrogated to himself the right to define for me what was correct and what was not.

Perhaps the only real benefit Klíma derived from his card-carrying days was the encouragement he received, as a young writer, to develop his skills as a reporter and a novelist, and the liberty it gave him to observe and write—without arousing suspicions of disloyalty—about the wasteful and absurd ways that communism was being forced on Czechoslovak society.

One of his earliest assignments was to spend time with so-called “socialist work brigades”—platoons of young people who were sent to depressed areas, often in the former Sudetenland, to do unpaid manual labor in the name of “building socialism.” He tried to report on them accurately, including descriptions of the drinking, the casual sex, the complete indifference to the “higher” purpose of their labor, but his stories were rejected as too pessimistic. The regime officially extolled realism but what the cultural watchdogs really wanted were fairy tales about the glories of “socialist construction” and creating the new “socialist man.” These early rejections led Klíma to an important discovery: if he used the same material in fiction and gave it a moralizing tone, he stood a better chance of being published. Thus his career—and his unique brand of moral fiction—was launched.

Klíma’s autobiography is a reminder that, as depressing and cruel as the 1950s were, those years, paradoxically, could also be a good time to be a young writer. It was official Party policy to support talented young people, though with the aim of turning them into what Stalin called “engineers of human souls.” One of the main instruments of this policy was censorship, a process that, for the printed word, was handled by an agency called the Central Office of Press Supervision. Editors, Klíma said, submitted galley proofs to the censor, who would then mark words or passages for deletion, or suggest additions. There was some room for negotiation, which lent the system a superficial resemblance to standard editorial practice elsewhere, except that it was deeply corrupting, because it made the writers collaborators in their own censorship and accustomed them to making compromises that were politically motivated.

Of course the system drove many writers underground, into private salons where they read their works to one another, but it was also alert to changes in the political climate, which meant that when the stranglehold of Stalinism relaxed, so did censorship. As the decade wore on, more and more good writing appeared in print and on the stage, and by the early 1960s, a rebirth of sorts was underway that not only provided greater opportunities for younger authors like Klíma (his first two books, a collection of reports from eastern Slovakia and a collection of short stories, appeared in 1960) but also brought older, more established writers back into the public eye, thus reconnecting with the mainstream and avant-garde cultural traditions of the 1920s and 1930s. Formerly censored writers like Karel Čapek and Franz Kafka, both of whom had a huge impact on Klíma and his generation, began reappearing in print. For authors and audiences alike, this reknitting of the country’s cultural nervous system was one of the more hopeful aspects of life in the 1960s.

After the Soviet invasion, thanks to Western interest in his novels and plays, Klíma was offered a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Long-term visas were still being issued, and Klíma was able to travel to Ann Arbor with his family in 1969. Later that year, the Czech government revoked these visas, forcing Klíma and his wife to make a hard choice. They could emigrate, and he could take up a job he’d been offered at the University of Indiana, or they could return to face persecution, possibly even prison. In the end, Klíma decided that

for me, the only meaningful work was writing, telling stories that were somehow connected with my life, and this was interwoven with my homeland. The thought of writing in a foreign country about things that deeply touched me but with which I had to cut off all ties seemed foolish…. I would forever be aware that I had voluntarily decided to call it quits with the only work I cared about.
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