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Notes from Underground

Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
A Soviet tank in Prague during the invasion of Czechoslovakia, August 1968

The Czechoslovakia to which Klíma returned had made radical changes to its censorship policies. The regime no longer merely censored writing; it banned certain writers outright, rather than “editing” their work. Cultural supervision became a matter for the police. This new policy quickly made a wasteland of what had so recently been a vigorous public culture but again, there were unintended consequences that sometimes favored the creators.

As Klíma explained in a piece he wrote for Index on Censorship in 1981, those affected were deprived not just of a passport or a driver’s license or a telephone or a job; they lost everything that went with a normal, literary life. Most of all, they lost their readers. “At first, it seemed to me that my life had been impoverished,” Klíma wrote, “but more and more I came to realize that instead, I’d been freed from a lot of external baggage. As the things I clung to fell away, I felt more liberated, more unassailable, more independent.”

Klíma used this newfound inner freedom to serve others as well. In the community of the damned, he was able to help his colleagues and act, to some extent, as an entrepreneur as well. He gave parties at his flat so writers could get together and break the curse of isolation; along with Ludvík Vaculík and Václav Havel he was one of the main instigators of the samizdat publishing ventures that became one of the principal dissenting activities of the time; he put himself at risk by distributing samizdat books, and serving as “postman” for packages smuggled to and from the West. He acted as host to many American writers who came to Prague to express their solidarity with the beleaguered Czechs. (Klíma was clearly buoyed, in particular, by his encounters with Arthur Miller, William Styron, and Philip Roth, who called Klíma his “principal reality instructor.”) He took on a series of menial jobs, not so much because he needed the trivial income they provided, but because they gave him new things to write about.

It must have come as a surprise to many, therefore, that when Klíma was asked to sign Charter 77, the influential human rights manifesto that deeply unsettled the regime and resulted in lengthy prison sentences for colleagues like Václav Havel, he declined. Klíma admits that he may have been thinking about his daughter, Nanda, who was trying to get into art school at the time. But his real reason, I think, was his reluctance, dating back to his days as a Communist, to sign petitions or to get mixed up in politics, an activity he associated with “people who are plagued by the notion that they must tell others how to live in order to make the world a better place.” He had once shared the same obsession, but had left it behind along with the Communist Party.

His dissident friends, he says, completely respected his decision not to sign the charter but, oddly enough, the police did not. One of the book’s most amusing passages is Klíma’s account of how the authorities were so confounded by his decision not to sign Charter 77 that they publicly accused him of signing it anyway and then encouraged him to demand a retraction, hoping to make it appear that he had caved in and begun to collaborate. By this time, though, Klíma was too familiar with such tactics to fall for them, and he politely declined to do what they wanted.

It was in this period that Klíma wrote two of the best novels to come out of the Communist era, Judge on Trial and Love and Garbage. Because he is a strongly autobiographical writer, these novels cover some of the same territory as My Crazy Century, but with more passion and in richer detail. By contrast, Klíma’s accounts of his several love affairs in the current book seem almost perfunctory, as though his love life, and in particular the powerful tensions he and his fictional characters felt between the lure of sexual passion and the deeper attractions of loyalty and domesticity, were a part of his story he would have preferred to omit but, for the sake of honesty, could not.

The second and final part of My Crazy Century ends with another experience of liberation as Klíma, having worked in the late 1980s to revive the Czechoslovak chapter of PEN, finds himself in the middle of the Velvet Revolution, which culminates when Václav Havel is unanimously anointed president by the Communist parliament. Given the cruelties the Communists had inflicted on Havel over the previous two decades, Klima found Havel’s coronation deeply paradoxical. “The most important thing, however,” he concludes, “was that the heavens of freedom…had finally opened before us.” Naturally, we want to learn more, but that is where his book ends.

I finished My Crazy Century with the strong sense that Klíma’s life—and indeed the postwar life of his country—is, at the very least, a three-act play in which the third act—the quarter-century from 1989 to the present—remains to be written. Klíma experienced many liberations in his life—from Terezín, from Stalinism, from Party membership, from the constraints of censorship. Each of these experiences of freedom had proven illusory, or at least merely temporary. Finally, with the Velvet Revolution and the restoration of some kind of normal, human order, his personal struggles against the demons of totalitarianism came to an end and he was able to go back to doing what he loved most—writing.

This might seem a happy ending, but the story is far from over, because the demon of tyranny is a devious enemy, and will not properly be laid to rest until the damage it inflicted is soberly assessed and taken to heart by a majority of the population. Part of the malaise one senses among Czechs today about the current state of the republic—with its unbridled corruption and a political system that seems to have lost its way—comes from this failure of the broad Czech public, so far, to understand the totalitarian past with the same kind of moral, intellectual, and narrative clarity that the “great generation” brought to it.

The dissidents took the measure of communism long before the system collapsed and many, no doubt, feel this aspect of their work is done. Their world was a harsher place; the moral choices were clearer, but also more costly. Klíma’s book is a reminder that efforts at truth and reconciliation must take the Czech experience of both fascism and communism into account, just as the Germans—in films like The Lives of Others, for example—have begun to include the story of communism in East Germany in a broader understanding of their totalitarian past. Ivan Klíma was on intimate terms with both systems, and though his new book lacks a third act, My Crazy Century—and indeed his entire life’s work—will be an excellent resource for those who may eventually be able to write it.


Styron in Prague March 20, 2014

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