Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light
The Loves of Faustyna
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.