“Lovers for a day”: yet is “lovers” the right word, and can the dust jacket be accurate in calling this a “lovely” collection of stories, unless of course the word is used in some special, aesthetic, possibly ironic sense? The dates of Ivan Klíma’s twelve stories have an obvious significance: the first five were written between 1962 and 1969 (and duly banned by the Czech Communist authorities), one of the remaining seven in 1987, and the other six in 1994. We are bound to look for differences between the two sets: Will love be more dangerous, anguished, valued, more “interesting,” under political repression? Will love in a free society be serene, happier, if less “inter-esting”? Surely happiness doesn’t have to be uninteresting; or is this too much to ask, given human nature, or—more to the point—the predispositions of art in our time? Readers will feel whatever anticipations or apprehensions are natural to them.1
In the most touching of the earlier group, “Execution of a Horse” (1964), Katka is lonely—her mother has set up house with some fat old slob—and feeling sorry for herself, having discovered that her boyfriend has been carrying on with a gym teacher. “Love, she reflects, true love, is unbreakable. It is complete and everlasting.” True, love is not love which alters as it alteration finds; and maybe one day, if she bides her time, he will come back to her. Still, it’s a fine day, and “I have to do something on a day like this.” In a nice touch the trams are seen as “chipped thermos flasks,” though less pleasant (and no doubt hurtful to the powers that were) is the ball of twine she catches sight of as she leaves her room, used for tying up parcels and hanging the washing, “and those in despair.”
A car soon pulls up for her, “a private car, no less.” The driver, a dealer in animal skins, talks incessantly, while Katka muses that it wasn’t very sensible to have spent so much time with her boyfriend, as if he were the only person in the world. Love is certainly the greatest happiness, but at the same time it swallows you up: “At the very moment you feel you are living to the full you actually stop living,” oblivious to the countless possible loves that might prove more fulfilling. Faithfulness in emotional matters, Oscar Wilde said, like consistency in intellectual ones, is simply a confession of failure; the thought seems too sophisticated for Katka.
The man drives her to a stinking mink farm. Some of the animals are kept two in a cage, and she is told that they are sick, and recover more quickly if they have company. Often it is “only solitude that drives people into love,” she reflects, “and in fact people waver between freedom and solitude—except that most of the time they lose their freedom without escaping solitude.” “I must have read that somewhere, but now I know it, now I actually feel it.” There is a horse, old and blind in one eye, tethered to a stake, with whom she makes friends: “You lovely beast,…my little brother.” The terrified horse is yanked by force into a shed, and there follows the sickening thud of a heavy body falling on stone. The precious minks need to be fed. Katka’s next encounter is in a sleazy café, where she orders a bowl of tripe soup, and is propositioned by a “corpse-faced” man who wants her to oblige him by removing her skirt. Don’t worry about him, the waiter explains, he’s a sort of cripple, “he can’t whatsname, you see.”
There being nothing better to do, she goes to her uncouth boyfriend’s place. “So you’ve come, then? You’ve seen sense, after all!… It was daft to sulk like that. You know how things are nowadays.” The inevitable is bound to happen. She loses her virginity on his dirty bed. When she cries, he tells her, “You’ll like it next time.” (Not if the author has any say in it.) Back in her own room, she thinks that love is like life, you know it’s going to end badly, but you go on living all the same. As she falls asleep, she has a vision of the old horse, among a herd of horses proudly making love, a foal running among them. “My little brothers, she whispers, and no longer feels anxiety.” This is as upbeat as we can hope for; at least we are left with a tender kind of sadness which, in its small degree, is briefly consoling.
The youthful protagonist of “The Assembly Line” (1963) looks forward to arriving at the factory and finding that it has collapsed, or that there’s a notice on the gate, “CLOSED DUE TO PLAGUE.” At work—cogs in the right hand, small axles in the left, screw them into place—he dreams à la Walter Mitty of sailing on his yacht with a beautiful girl or saving a dying woman through his medical skill. On his afternoon off, he calls on a girl he knows, but she’s busy cramming for an exam, and he ends up with an exhausted woman who works in a squalid café and services a conveyor belt of male acquaintances. A moment of weary affection passes between them. The next day he is back at the factory, dreaming of cantering on a horse through an alley of cherry trees.
“Heaven, Hell, Paradise” (1969) promises more excitement of the edgy sort we have come to expect from Eastern Europe. A man has returned clandestinely from England to be with his former lover, a married woman. “You’re crazy, a complete nutcase. You’ve been away for about a hundred years and you turn up here expecting me to be ready and waiting with my nightdress and change of shoes in a suitcase.” As for him, it certainly wasn’t wise to return—his name has been mentioned on the radio, and crossing the frontier was suspiciously easy—but “his place was wherever he knew she was close by.” (Or, later, “Why had he returned, in fact?… Had he returned for this moment of ecstasy that he could have found more easily elsewhere, as he’d never had a problem finding women to experience it with?”)
They go to a hotel: the desk clerk gives them a strange look; two foreign military vehicles are parked outside. The man feels sure he has walked into a trap. In London, in the Underground, he had been followed—or so he believed—by a ginger-haired man on crutches; and now, outside the hotel window, he sees a man on crutches, kicking a football around.
The two make love; she would like a meal, but he refuses to leave the sweltering room. In a single touch of humor, they don’t know the time, his watch having stopped at the border. It didn’t want to come back, she remarks: “It had more sense than you had.” He replies, “It had no one to come back to.” He protests his love rather too much, as if to convince himself that the sacrifice he has made is justified. There will be a knock on the door, she predicts, “and it’ll be them. And I’ll cop it along with you!” The story’s title comes from a children’s game:
Heaven, hell, paradise
Where’s your soul to go?
Into heaven, into hell
Just like so.
For him, hell is suffering, having a bad conscience, being bored, listening to lies, hearing the truth, losing one’s freedom; paradise is a state of innocence, unawareness of evil, absence of fear—and hence a delusion. The story ends without ending. A knock comes on the door, and two men walk in: the desk clerk, telling them they should have vacated the room hours ago, and (perhaps) the room’s new occupant, a young ginger-haired man walking with a stick. The sacrifice the lover has made clearly isn’t going to be justified; there is no future for his love, though we do not know the extent of his sacrifice, what fate is in store for him.
The later group of stories begins with two linked tales, both dated 1994. In “Long-Distance Conversations” telephoning is perfectly safe, on the face of it, and Bill, a naval officer in Wellington, New Zealand, is free to propose to a woman in Prague that he would leave his wife and children and join her and that she should leave her husband but keep her children. They can’t discuss such serious matters over the phone, Tereza objects. She loves Bill, but a sporadic affair is one thing, this is quite another. Moreover, Czechia has no sea, so what could he do here? Ah, but there are rivers, and “some rather nice little steamers,” and Bill has already found a job with them.
It wouldn’t be sensible, Tereza says, and the fact that Bill was a sea captain was something that most appealed to her. They find themselves talking at cross purposes—“Stop that, for heaven’s sake!” Tereza tells her little boy, who is misbehaving; “What did you say?” Bill asks, thinking it was meant for him—and the line gets crossed with people speaking Maori or Japanese, while the operator, who can’t believe the two are still talking, keeps butting in. The freedom of the telephone seems overrated. If it isn’t politics that gets in the way of mutual love, it’s something else.
In the second of the two stories, “Conjugal Conversations,” a husband and wife spend an evening at home bickering over how and why they never spend an evening at home talking together. “Stop interrogating me…. And stop looking as if you were on the verge of tears.” “How am I supposed to look when I am on the verge of tears?” We are not very far from the brittle world of Arthur Schnitzler’s fin de siècle Vienna. In their pathetic awkwardness or clichéd sourness, the two stories point at one moral: that serious conversations between couples in love or out of it are best avoided. Get out of the house or off the phone; go to your gentlemen’s club or women’s get-together.
“Uranus in the House of Death” and “It’s Raining Out” (both 1994) are somewhat light or slight—as usual, love is a little-splendored thing—but saved by the twist in their tails. In the first, Michal, director of a small theater in Prague, is invited to a cultural festival in Adelaide, Australia, where he will speak about small Czech theaters. Not many Czechs get to go to Australia, fare and expenses paid. His girlfriend, Leona, an eccentric actress, is obsessed with all forms of magic, and her astrologer warns that Michal must not fly, because Uranus is in his eighth house, the house of death. “Australia is a country like any other. You can see the kangaroos at the zoo.” Michal considers astrology a load of rot, and thinks Leona is jealous because he isn’t taking her with him.
On the plane, however, fear sets in: after all, a lot of famous people swear by astrology. “Australia—Austrology.” Sitting next to him is Jane, a teacher returning to Dunedin; they be-gin to talk, and it turns out that astrology is Jane’s hobby, and for her too Uranus is in the house of death. Then why is she flying? Because what is to happen will happen whatever you do. Isn’t she afraid of dying? Why should she be, seeing that they are going to die together? She is not Jane, she is Leona in disguise. “Your house of death will be mine too!” And the plane explodes and falls toward the ocean. He wakes up; Jane is sleeping peacefully on the seat beside him. As soon as he has disembarked he phones Leona triumphantly. “I know you landed safely,” she says calmly. She had miscalculated, counting September as the tenth month. But she certainly doesn’t mean to be one of those star-crossed lovers, and she has the last word: Michal’s Uranus wasn’t in the house of death, but in the house of love, therefore “You ought to be with me now anyway.”
In “It’s Raining Out,” an aging judge who had been involved in political trials under the old regime is now confined to divorce cases. He and his wife get along reasonably well, though love has long since died. Divorce could be quite interesting work, she tells him: “You’ll get to hear lots of stories,” a thought that had never occurred to him. Mostly the cases are humdrum: “Immature men had married young women who yearned for something that their husbands could not provide, so in time there appeared a third person who disrupted what had never been firmly established in the first place.” Then the judge meets a woman in distress, a beautiful violinist, twenty years his junior, whose divorce case he has just presided over. She looks to him for understanding: “I expect you’re good at love,” she says, and they begin a relationship. One day she asks what the point is of a loveless marriage, and all he can think to say is that when you get home in foul weather you can say to somebody, “It’s raining out.” She takes this to mean that he isn’t prepared to leave his wife for her, and they part. When the judge arrives home, where dinner is waiting for him, he finds nothing to say but “It’s raining out.” This surprises his wife, for it had stopped raining long before. Her husband, she has noticed, had been growing more and more absent-minded of late. Age must be taking its toll.
The closing story, “The White House” (1994), seems to have a sweeter twist in its tail. Jakub, a self-confident youth set to go far, is intrigued by a shy flute-playing girl, blind from birth, whose world is so different from his, poorer in some ways, more intense in others. He is moved by her gratitude, pleased to think he is the stronger of the two. “Don’t leave me yet!” are often her words when they separate. Eventually he begins to tire; to spend the rest of his life with her would be a burden. He takes her on what he intends as a farewell treat, walking in the woods in southern Slovakia. A storm breaks out and he loses the way; after hours of aimless wandering, she says she can see a white house behind rocky boulders. To his amazement it turns out to be a cemetery, gravestones and a shining white mortuary, with a path that leads them to safety. “I can’t see anything,” she says. “I just sense things.” Jakub says he wants to tell her something, and she cowers away as if sensing his intention. But what he says to her is “Don’t leave me!” Are we to understand that he has lost his freedom?
Klíma’s characters are not conceived in any great depth or detail, but “Rich Men Tend to Be Strange” (1994) demonstrates his proficiency in creating swift, economical, cartoonlike portraits. “Alois Burda loved money and subordinated everything else to it.” Under the old regime he had managed a car dealership, and prospered on underhand bribery; under the new he owns a car dealership, and prospers on above-board commission. He has built himself a large house, with gymnasium, swimming pool, and tennis court. (A character in Klíma’s 1985 collection of stories, My First Loves,2 surmises that the only result of the Communist revolution will be that a different group of people becomes poor and a different group rich. Not so, it appears, after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when some of those who had flourished in the past continued to flourish.)
Burda had been divorced only once, having learned that divorce could cost money. He soon tired of his second wife, a sporty type, and she of him, and from time to time he took a mistress, a more sensible arrangement. He falls sick with terminal cancer—“He had always believed that death came most frequently in the form of a road accident. And he was an excellent driver”—and goes into the hospital. First, though, he draws his money out from secret accounts in foreign banks and takes it with him, wrapped up in socks and slippers. His family don’t deserve to inherit, and he contemplates giving the money to a kind-hearted nurse, who moreover is religious and assures him that God welcomes everyone with love. God can work miracles, too, so (it strikes him) he had better hang on to his cash for a while. He dies before deciding what to do, and his wife collects his personal belongings from the hospital: the slippers and socks are ready for her in a bag, which she tosses contemptuously onto a rubbish pile as she drives home. “Did he give you anything?” asks the nurse’s boyfriend. “No, he only had three hundred crowns in his wallet.” “Rich men tend to be strange…. Who do you think he’ll leave it all to?” “Goodness knows,” says the nurse. “I don’t think he had anyone.”
Klíma’s stories are relatively simple and airy, though the air can be fetid at times, relying largely on laconic, bleak comments and utterances. (A sad, disillusioned woman sums up her sexual experiences: “Why start all over again? It’s of no importance. Nothing’s important really. So long as it’s nice, a bit nice, at least.”) And in these respects they differ from Klíma’s ambitious, complex, and claustrophobic novel of 1996, The Ultimate Intimacy, whose title relates to a mourned wife who died young. Complexity can make for lengthiness, otiose analysis, a host of minor characters, rather than for profundity, variety, or persuasive force. One passage stands out in that novel, and has an obvious bearing on the later stories in the present collection. Thinking of the past, Hana, the pastor’s loyal second wife, though unconscious of her husband’s current infidelity, asks herself what meaning it has for her life that the bad times have yielded to the good: “It is possible to feel better in bad times than in the good kind. Tyranny binds people together whereas freedom distracts them by holding out opportunities to them.”
That’s as may be. After so much joylessness in the company of Ivan Klíma, for whom the distinction between bad times and good ones is barely visible under an enveloping cloud of what looks much like inescapable original sin, some readers may feel inclined to seek relief in (let’s say) Mario Vargas Llosa’s Don Rigoberto and his overblown exotic, erotic fantasies and rococo lusts, where all opportunities are seized on with zest.
January 20, 2000
In his new book Between Security and Insecurity (translated by Gerry Turner), an admirable addition to Thames and Hudson’s series “Prospects for Tomorrow,” Klíma says that the goals considered desirable by Western civilization often bring neither satisfaction nor happiness. “On the contrary, in difficult situations one discovers values neglected by modern affluent society, such as solidarity, self-sacrifice, friendship, and love.” In this short but far-ranging essay, Klíma arrives at two conclusions about our future: one pessimistic, the other optimistic. It is likely that some readers will be swayed by one conclusion, some by the other. As he reports, some readers have told him that his books depress them, and others that they find them uplifting. ↩