A Conversation in Prague

Ivan Klíma
Ivan Klíma; drawing by David Levine

Born in Prague in 1931, Ivan Klíma has undergone what Jan Kott calls a “European education”: during his adult years as a novelist, critic, and playwright his work was suppressed in Czechoslovakia by the Communist authorities (and his family members harried and punished right along with him), while during his early years, as a Jewish child, he was transported, with his parents, to the Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis. In 1969, when the Russians moved into Czechoslovakia, he was out of the country, in London, on the way to the University of Michigan to see a production of one of his plays and to teach literature. When his teaching duties ended in Ann Arbor in the spring of 1970, he returned to Czechoslovakia with his wife and two children to become one of the “admirable handful”—as a professor, recently reinstated at Charles University, described Klíma and his circle to me at lunch one day—whose persistent opposition to the regime made their daily lives extremely hard.

Of his fifteen or so novels and collections of stories, those written after 1970 were published openly only abroad, in Europe primarily; only two books—neither of them among his best—have appeared in America, where his work is virtually unknown. Coincidentally, Ivan Klíma’s novel Love and Garbage, inspired in part by his months during the Seventies as a Prague street cleaner, was published in Czechoslovakia on the very day that I flew there to see him. He arrived at the airport to pick me up on February 22, after spending the morning in a Prague bookstore where readers who had just bought his book waited for him to sign their copies in a line that stretched from the shop into the street. (During my week in Prague, the longest lines I saw were for ice cream and for books.) The initial printing of Love and Garbage, his first Czech publication in twenty years, was 100,000 copies. Later in the afternoon, he learned that a second book of his, My Merry Mornings, a collection of stories, had been published that day as well, also in an edition of 100,000. In the three months since censorship has been abolished, a stage play of his has been produced and a TV play has been broadcast. Five more of his books are to appear this year.

Love and Garbage is the story of a well-known, banned Czech writer “hemmed in by prohibition” and at work as a street cleaner, who, for a number of years, finds some freedom from the claustrophobic refuge of his home—from the trusting wife who wants to make people happy and is writing a study on self-sacrifice; from the two dearly loved growing children—with a moody, spooky, demanding sculptress, a married mother herself, who comes eventually to curse him and to slander the wife he can’t leave. To this woman he is erotically addicted.


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