A short time before the Velvet Revolution a peaceful demonstration marches through Prague with banners calling for LESS SMOKE, MORE AIR. The police are ready with their truncheons and water cannon; Pavel is standing ready with his television camera and the van with the State Television logo on it. “The clash would be as absurd as all the others before it,” he thinks,
but there was no stopping it. Everyone knew this: those who would administer the beatings and those who would be beaten. This utter certainty transformed the raw determination on both sides into movements that almost seemed preordained.
It is also preordained that most of Pavel’s footage will be thrown out or used to travesty what is happening; and he himself is preordained to play the role he plays in this opening shot of the novel: to be an outsider—his camera
a sign of his alien, observer status, a status that could not distinguish between what was essential and what was not, in which, for the most part, it was impossible to get excited about anything, regardless of the occasional need to pretend excitement.
So although Ivan Klíma’s new novel is about the end of communism and the disillusion with its replacement, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light also belongs to the Romantic nineteenth-century genre of outsider fiction. Its hero, Pavel, is a modern Onegin: apart, cynical, disillusioned, without hope. There is even some resemblance between his love life and Onegin’s. Each loses the woman he might have loved through his own insensitivity, and when he meets her again after many years, she rejects him.
Twenty years or so before the revolution, when he was very young, Pavel and his friend Peter tried to escape from Czechoslovakia, Peter because he was a Christian, and Pavel because he wanted to create a free work of art, which wasn’t possible under the Communist regime. “He hadn’t been entirely sure what form it would take, but he knew he had the power to create it.” The two young men are captured at the border and sent to prison. When they come out, Peter accepts the lot of the dissident intellectual, which is to clean streets or stoke boilers. Pavel manages to get a foothold in television. His friends deplore his co-operation with the state propaganda machine, and his employers don’t trust him because of his past.
“Wretchedness was the lot of those who hadn’t the strength to be honourable nor the courage to be dishonourable.” Pavel has to make do with being a hack cameraman on routine assignments, instead of writing and directing his own work. He dreams of the day when he will be free to do so, and meanwhile pretends to himself that some of his footage will, in a nobler future, bear witness to the vile present.
Pavel and Peter have drifted apart, but when they were young they formed a like-minded trio with a beautiful, idealistic girl called Alice. She was not quite seventeen when Pavel made her pregnant and persuaded her to have an abortion (the equivalent to Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana’s letter). Alice marries Peter. They have three children, and in the novel’s present they live in the remote countryside, where Peter is employed as caretaker in an empty castle whose owners have been dispossessed.
Pavel remains unmarried and sleeps around, even though for some years he has been attached to Eva. Eva works in a lingerie shop and wants to marry him. She wears a lot of makeup and shares a flat with her little boy and divorced husband, who has nowhere else to go. There is no corner in it that Pavel can call his own, and he is not very fond of Eva, who is uneducated and a primitive materialist.
He keeps remembering the two women he really loved: Albina and Alina. Both have left him. Both their names can be shortened to Ali, and so can Alice’s. The sharper the reader the sooner he will guess that Albina and Alina are just fantasy substitutes for the unavailable Alice.
Much of the novel, indeed, takes the form of fantasized recollections of Pavel’s life with characters he makes up. He confesses that this is so, but not until near the end of the book. By that time things have got very confusing, especially when Eva is supplanted by an imaginary woman called Ella whenever he is thinking about Ali. On top of that, there is a subplot about an escaped prisoner who murders Albina. He might or might not be to Pavel what Albina and Alina are to Alice. Bewildering ambiguities of reality and identity heighten the sense of being lost in a second nightmare within the nightmare of life under communism; they are also a fairly regular feature of Czech fiction—Kundera’s, for instance.
After the revolution, Peter—untainted but unqualified—is appointed head of State Television and briefly becomes Pavel’s boss. But Pavel soon moves on to join a former colleague in a brand-new company making television commercials. Peter leaves Alice, who moves to a provincial town with her children. At the end of the novel, Pavel seeks her out and asks her to marry him. Predictably, she turns him down.
“You’d want to start something completely different?”
“That’s impossible. We’re not completely different. You’re sad and lonely, maybe too sad and lonely. And I really feel sorry for you, Pavel. But that’s not enough.”
She is voicing Pavel’s own, momentarily forgotten, conviction that people are incapable of change. It seems to be Klíma’s conviction too. His novel is pessimistic through and through: capitalism doesn’t turn out all that much better than communism.
The beastliness of life under communism comes across when Pavel visits, just before the revolution, a chemical plant the size of a small town: barbed wire, security guards, and a stench of ammonia everywhere, broken windows because there are too many explosions to make them worth replacing; the birds are too sick to get off the ground, and the gray-faced managers are edgily facetious. A secretary shows Pavel around. “It happens sometimes. They find a watch on an arm,” she says flirtatiously, “but they can’t find the body to go with it.” The two hundred women in the aniline dye factory “have to be at least forty years old. And they have to sign a waiver saying they understand what the consequences might be. To their health, that is.”
None of this is news; but Klíma describes it so strongly that it almost seems to be. There are other documentary tours de force about Communist life, more sarcastic in mood: interviews with the senile president, ludicrous official entertainments for African VIPs, and drinking parties in dreary bars, where noisy heartiness papers over suspicion.
The parties are just as vulgar and noisy after the end of communism, except that now their purpose is neither official propaganda nor mutual comfort and distraction, but PR.
There were more familiar faces here than he expected, faces he remembered from past meetings and conferences. These faces had ruled over ministries, press agencies, factories, personnel departments, the television network and him. Halama [the former head of the state network] was there. He now owned a private radio station that broadcast the same hit songs he himself had so recently banned. He saw a poet with whom he’d once made a film about folk carvings of nativity scenes. The poet had gained official recognition by writing verses that expressed his love for women, the motherland and the Party. Now, anonymously, he wrote copy expressing his love of ever-sharp kitchen knives, ketchup and chewing-gum.
Pavel’s own company, with foreign backing, has moved into porn movies. He is too disillusioned with freedom to care. After a night with one of the actresses, he races his brand-new Mercedes along the now accessible German Autobahn and into another hallucination. He is taking Alina home after their wedding; she disappears from her seat beside him; the earth disappears too; the car floats in space; and the novel ends in a rather clichéd fade-out, presumably implying Pavel’s death, from a mixture of despair, heart disease, alcohol, and dangerous driving. One feels sorry for him, but only about as sorry as Alice does; and she, like the rest of the subsidiary cast, has little substance. This is not a novel whose characters engage you strongly. But it is nevertheless a powerful and affecting work, part tragic documentary (as a reporter Klíma makes one think of Kapuscinski, down to the occasional surreal frisson); and part psycho-philosophical reflection on human nature.
Which does not change, except during short spells of exaltation. Such a spell occurs during the Velvet Revolution. Pavel is sent to film the demonstrations at the university. In the early hours of the morning he finds himself in a lecture hall in the drama faculty. Exhausted students lie asleep on the floor. A girl offers him her blanket. This comradely gesture is the high point of the novel:
The air was acrid with the smell of tired human bodies…. And that strange, almost exultant mood that seemed to bring everyone, including him, closer together. This feeling of solidarity had surprised him. He wasn’t prepared for it, and in fact he’d always resisted it…
Alice understands how transitory the mood is. When Pavel tries to make love to her at the end of the novel, he reminds her that during the demonstration they bumped into each other in the street and she kissed him “out of the blue, and it seemed…it seemed that we were as close then as we were all those years ago.”
“It was the moment that did it, Pavel, the time. We were all close in those days.”
“Is that time over now?”
“A time like that can’t last for very long.”
Alice has wisdom. She happens to be a Christian, but the novel is not very positive about Christianity. Christianity is no more than a tiny trickle in it, an option for those who happen to be able to believe. In one of his fantasy talks with Albina, Pavel describes his scenario for a film about a man obsessed with history and prehistory. On his deathbed the man perceives God. Albina is surprised: “It’s as though someone else had invented it, someone else inside you, someone who longs to have faith.” And Pavel thinks: “Faith was a longing that pretended to be a conviction.” An elegant aphorism. The text is full of them, and all express disgust or despair.
Pavel’s career defines him as the man of whom God says, in Revelations, “because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth.” But Klíma does not exactly condemn him; on the contrary, the evidence of the novel suggests that Pavel’s view of human nature is the true one, and that all that human beings are capable of, or even deserve, is either communism or an empty consumerism.
Nina FitzPatrick’s The Loves of Faustyna is another novel about political disillusionment in Eastern Europe. The opening date is the autumn of 1967 when a cloud portent “in the shape of human buttocks appeared over Kraków.” If Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is a lament, The Loves of Faustyna is a romp, at least until the last page, when it ends, literally, in tears. The structure is unilinear, a bed-hopping tale on the pattern of eighteenth-century picaresque novels. It even has pastiche chapter headings beginning “In which”: “In which Faustyna, Inspired by the Cloud, Arranges for her Defloration.”
In 1967 Faustyna is studying neuropsychology at the Jagellonian University in Kraków. She reads Proust in bed and shares an eight-by-seven-foot room in the women’s hostel with cockroaches and a law student called Olivia. Olivia has had sixteen lovers and two abortions, and Faustyna envies her. So Olivia fixes her up with a visiting Russian engineer who deflowers her in his room at the Europa Hotel. After that there is no stopping her. In 1973 she gives birth to Julia, who might be the daughter of either Damian or Barnaba.
Faustyna has red hair, long legs, and an irreverent sense of humor. She is high-spirited, clever, resilient, brave, and delightful company as the first-person narrator, equally flip and dismissive about communism, Catholicism, New Age cults, and—later on—Solidarity. (Half-Jewish herself, she isn’t keen on Judaism either. “I believe in Jehovah and that he is mad and bad. Very capricious. He loves you or rejects you for no reason. A kind of Stalin in the sky.”) Occasionally she lapses into cuteness and whimsy, but one forgives that because she is a most appealing creation. During her pregnancy, Faustyna gets politics the way people get religion.
It was the time of posters, anniversaries, speeches and referenda. Thousands of believers were waiting for a new faith while shops sold beef marked “merchandise of secondary freshness.”
I felt that I had dreamt all my life away. I was about to be born.
She becomes an underground messenger for Solidarity, which turns out a disappointment.
They were half-baked poets, frustrated lawyers, pissed-off mathematicians, who found in Solidarity a compensation and a deliverance from their fraudulence and failure…. I shone and sparkled. I coquetted the rebels and they coquetted me.
The same adolescent brew of flirtation and power games infused the talks between Solidarity and our government…. The apparatchiks dallied with the rebels and the rebels winked at the apparatchiks. The air was full of allusions and courtesies and nobody said what he meant.
Faustyna’s new lover is Feliks, a speaker at Solidarity meetings; he is arrested while they are practicing positions from the Kama Sutra in a chapter headed “In which both Faustyna and the People’s Republic Endure Coitus Interruptus.” Faustyna herself is arrested twice. The first time she buys her release by signing a declaration of loyalty to General Jaruzelski; Julia needs her. The second time she spends a year in internment, after refusing an offer from the secret service to become a spy. This has a wonderful effect on Julia who has always been a cool and contemptuous child, and now becomes affectionate and respectful. The mother-daughter relationship is handled with much charm.
Shortly after her release, Faustyna refuses another offer—of marriage, this time—from a do-gooding leftish American journalist who has made so much money from his books about war and famine and oppression in distant countries that he is able to make a huge donation to a Polish agricultural project.
I know you may not like what I’m saying but I think you should trust your government. Said he. You may disagree with me but I believe that history will vindicate the General. He needs all the help he can get. For God’s sake, after fifty years you’re not going to go for capitalism, are you?
Said. I Oh shit.
The man’s complacent heroics disgust her. She walks out of the expensive restaurant where he is buying her dinner, “back to the trivial boring horrors from which there was no escape. He want back to the spectacular horrors of his own choosing which gave him the feeling of being alive. He was doubly the winner because he supported only the noblest cause, whatever the price.”
Faustyna is sick of Poland. She takes the advice of a famous old dissident and gets passports for herself and Julia. The passports are one way; there is no reentry. Julia, now a teen-ager, goes to Kenya to join one of her putative fathers. Faustyna applies for a post at Galway University, and is turned down. “The interview board was Ireland in miniature. An unappetizing mixture of gracelessness, brilliance and fear of women. Better Kraków under martial law than Galway under any circumstances.” These thoughts belong not to Faustyna, but to the writer of the epilogue, which is subheaded “In which the Author Owes the Reader an Explanation.” The Author claims to be a hippie male intellectual living in a cottage in Kinvara. (Then how can he be Nina Fitz-Patrick? Further explanations are required.) He picks up Faustyna on the road from Galway after her rented bicycle has a punctured tire. She moves into his cottage, “rapidly turning the place into a chaos of books, newspapers and discarded coffee cups.” They make love, “all the sweeter because it came from nowhere and was going nowhere.” After a week she leaves. He offers her a lift in his car.
No, she said, I like to cycle on wet days. It’s only on my bike I can cry as much as I want.
She looked at me with that insistent ironic gaze I had come to mistrust.
You see, I can pedal away and cry like a beaver and nobody can tell my tears from the rain.
Faustyna’s autobiography is a very funny spoof of Poland and Poles. The funniest chapter is about her first job at the Psychotechnic Bureau at the Central Railway Station in Opole, where she has to administer psychological tests to aspiring engine drivers. She pokes fun at the government’s absurd decrees, and equally at the pious housewives who defy them and mob the statues of Christ and the Virgin in the churches; and she punctuates her story with abuse of her countrymen. When martial law is proclaimed she comments: “The Poles had done something unprecedented in their long history of self-abuse: they had invaded themselves.” And after contemplating the “misery and chaos” of Russian history she concludes: “We, by comparison, endured a kitschy, amateur agony. We said: Our situation is hopeless but not serious. We were comedians, in spite of all the suicides and tragic gestures. We were the parrot and the peacock of nations.” Still, one would guess the final tears on the bicycle are shed not for herself, or for humanity in general, but for incorrigible Poland.
April 20, 1995