HU­MAN STRAIN

Ivan Klima sur­vived Nazism and hard­line com­mu­nism to dis­cover the world did not need sav­ing af­ter all, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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