Ivan Klima survived Nazism and hardline communism to discover the world did not need saving after all, writes
IVAN Klima’s first memories are of sweet, insignificant things, closely observed, captured in minute detail through a child’s eyes. The Czech writer, born in 1931, was brought up in the Prague district of Vysocany in a rented apartment with gardens surrounding it. There was a view of a valley, there were trains, chimneys, too, belonging to the factory where his engineer father worked.
“When you are four or five, time seems endless,’’ he writes in his memoir My Crazy Century, “and I spent hours watching a blackbird hopping about the grass until he victoriously pulled a dew worm out of the earth and flew back with it to his nest in the juniper thicket, or observing how snowflakes fell on our neighbour’s woodshed roof, which to me was like a hungry blackheaded monster, gobbling up the snowflakes until it was sated and only then allowing the snow to accumulate on the surface.”
When he was seven, suddenly, overnight, everything changed: the Germans occupied the country. Klima had barely heard the word “Jew” before: now he found himself interned with his entire family in the concentration camp of Terezin. How to make sense of what was happening: the line-ups and the barracks, the fleas and rats, the bad food, the interrupted schooling, the constant disappearances of people around him on mysterious transports to the east?
At the war’s end he came back to a capital where almost everyone he had known before had disappeared. Back home, to the streets, the parks, the familiar swing of things; but that interruption of 3½ years in confinement had given him a distinctive angle on experience, a way of seeing, reflex, ingrained. So the world that seemed bright and rich in sounds and spectacle was shot through with dark, arbitrary forces. So cruelty and harshness trumped delight and joy.
The childlike tone of soft, half-wounded understanding stayed with Klima: it became the trademark of his writing all through the long life this memoir chronicles. The characters in his tales yearn and love and suffer in distinctive fashion, laughing through their tears. All is balanced light and shadows, absurd fate presides, hope and disappointment contend.
Scarcely had the night of Nazism passed when another darkness fell: the era of hardline communism in Czechoslovakia began. This was the landscape of Klima’s world as he grew up, and tried to find his path ahead. Here he is at 20, at the end of high school, with a little reading under his belt. “I still hadn’t kissed a girl; I’d never been interrogated: I wasn’t interested in the fates of those who had been unexpectedly arrested and condemned.” Most of his classmates went on to university: but what was he supposed to study when all he wanted to do was write? What was the apprenticeship for that?
Well, it was obvious: “The most appropriate thing seemed to be to become a journalist.” In My Crazy Century: A Memoir By Ivan Klima Grove Press, 544pp, $35 this way the would-be author was thrust into the thick of his country’s social transformations. His career advanced, more through bizarre accidents than through design. The political climate remained austere. Klima’s father was put on trial for “endangerment of the economic plan” and sentenced to 30 months in jail. Shortly afterwards, in the Soviet Union, Stalin died and a thaw in the satellite communist states of Eastern Europe began. Jail sentences for political crimes were reduced; his father came home.
Klima himself was out in the field, in far provinces he had imagined in romantic terms: Ruthenia, remote Slovakia, places that felt like Europe’s furthest edge: “In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined all the things we stumbled upon here. In this still untouched countryside we chanced upon tiny cottages with minuscule windows, walls of unfired bricks, often just trampled dirt instead of a floor, and animals sometimes living together with people.”
Klima wrote, and wrote. He was already experimenting with literary stories. He had gained admittance to the sanctum of the journal Kvety, a mid-grade organ of the ruling party’s ideological establishment. Its editor-in-chief was a bad writer who had composed fierce attacks on the factories of the old capitalist era. He never both- ered to go to work, his pay cheques were sent out to him by mail. The foreign editor limited himself to ringing up would-be revolutionaries in oppressed nations around the globe. Correct thinking was enforced by the widow of the communist firebrand Egon Erwin Kisch: she spied furiously on every word and action within the editorial HQ. Klima, for the first and only time in his life, was a witness at the heart of the regime’s propaganda system. “I was stunned,” he writes, “by how the environment bubbled over with rancour, continual suspicion, malicious gossip and personnel screening.”
He had fallen in love, and married, and had just moved to a green and lovely part of Prague. The map in his mind was simple: on one side, youth, freshness and hope; on the other, greyness, fraudulence, the blanket, conformist cloak of mediocrity. Could life in his homeland be different? That golden-seeming decade, the 1960s, was beckoning: Klima was coming into his own. “If someone is genuinely endeavouring to create something, he determines what he wants to say and seeks out his own rules, his own arrangement. A writer has at his disposal the words of his language, his own experience and his fantasy. He must possess the ability to perceive the delicate fabric of the work he is trying to usher into existence.” This was the way Klima was seeking to conduct himself as an artist. He was not alone. It was a vivid time for Czech culture: in that brief phase of reform communism, with the shackles being eased, there was a chink of room for young authors and performers to express themselves. “Never before or since have I lived with such haste or