I’ve long preferred Ivan Klíma’s fiction to his better-known Czech colleague, Milan Kundera. Klíma and Kundera explore the collusions imposed under totalitarianism and the uneasy compromises chosen as democracy returns and capitalism dominates their fractious post-1989 homeland. However, Klíma emphasizes moral dilemmas in sparer, simpler prose, shorn of the philosophical digressions characteristic of Kundera; as his autobiography demonstrates, Klíma avoids cant or cliché.
His preface warns how “often deceptive goals” lure young idealists towards self-sacrifice. Once Marxism, now Islam, but the moral endures: Klíma opts for sincerity, and he resists conformity at a considerable cost to his career. How he got there brings us back to his ill-timed birth in 1931; this made him and his family of Jewish descent, a deportee to Terezín.
Klíma adopts, subtly, reactions to his plight as an adolescent prisoner from his younger perspective. “Early one morning on a gloomy autumn day – probably in 1943 because Father was still with us – they herded everyone out of town and onto a huge meadow.” The vague date combined with the reminder of a fragile family bond blends with his blurred, then sharpened, memory. “The women were wailing that this was the last day of our lives, that they would shoot us or toss a bomb into our midst. And as if to confirm their fears, a plane with a black cross on its wings passed overhead.” Klíma tells his family’s survival in this predicament without melodrama or sentiment.
Their “town” became the infamous show-camp manufactured by the Nazis, who used its inmates to pretend to the Red Cross that all was well with Jewish life in a staged setting. Paper money “for our ghetto” was later distributed. “On the face of the bill was an engraving of a bearded man holding a stone tablet in his arms. Mother explained that this was Moses and that carved on the table were ten laws according to which people were meant to conduct their lives.” Ivan’s unfamiliarity with Judaism, given his family’s Communist ties and his assimilated upbringing, comes across in such well-crafted vignettes. Where a lesser talent might have inflated the pathos or irony in the Nazi invention, Klíma exerts emotional control.
This typifies My Crazy Century. “It’s a strange world when you are called upon to explain why you weren’t murdered as a child.” His admission of “having drawn one of the few lucky numbers” in this abominable lottery” of who shall live and who shall die raises uncertainty about why he, let alone most of his family, survived. He was, after all, no longer considered underage before the end of the war, so as a male inmate, he was exposed to the same fate meted out to millions of his neighbors.
After liberation, however, his family’s status (it appears thanks to two of his mother’s Communist brothers who had been executed by the enemy during the war) seems to have risen, if for a while. A putsch in 1948 brought the Communists aligned with Stalin into power, and the Klímas anticipated happiness.
Klíma’s cohort, too young to have remembered much of democracy, became the first to be praised by the new regime, for the young could be raised fully indoctrinated in Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. Catching up on the education he had missed behind barbed wire, he tries to seek solace in books, but these are censored; a career as a writer comes with many restrictions.
Sent as part of a hapless student brigade to build a foundation for a residence, he discovers the complicity of all involved in making the People’s Republic in its own inevitable demise. After goading and chastising the untrained students forced to labor in rain and mud, the foreman shows his own duplicity when it comes to tallying up the pay and the hours “worked”: “They were swindling us as much as they were him.” “They” stands for the State and the system against which his father will be liable.
His father, with a doctorate in electrical engineering, was told to run a factory full of similarly untrained workers. Production of its motors suffered. He was imprisoned for a stint under “Paragraph 135 (endangerment of the economic plan)”. Only the death of Stalin and a relative easing of sentences prevented his father from serving 20 years, or worse, for “sabotage”.
Chastened, Ivan seeks Party membership anyway, and to his surprise, despite the taint upon his long-standing Communist family, he is accepted. Yet, this ties him all the more to his limited options after a degree purportedly in “literary studies”, adulterated by the “official ideology” through which the humanities were taught.
As a cub journalist fired for his insistence to aim for a truer version of what he witnesses than socialist realism, and as a reluctant or crafty magazine and newspaper editor, Klíma struggles to comprehend his country’s shift after Stalin’s death. Following Khrushchev’s speech denouncing his predecessor, Klíma asks his aunt, who had lived in the U.S.S.R., why she did not tell him the truth about Russia. She responds that those who had seen firsthand Stalin’s dictatorship were themselves most suspected, and besides, she avers, nobody in Czechoslovakia would have believed her, anyway.
Married at 27 and raising two children in early ’60s Prague, Klíma learns about Stalin’s evils through a book by Isaac Deutscher. Klíma seeks help translating damning passages from its English version through the assistance of another aunt, a survivor of Auschwitz. It is a dangerous task, but this collaboration emboldens his instinctive need to elevate facts rather than fiction within his life and calling. But he must subversively express himself, given the regime’s scrutiny, as an emerging playwright and novelist. “I finally realized that in a society in which all means of expressing disagreement are suppressed, and every word of doubt is considered grounds for prosecution and subsequent execution, only the despotism of the leader comes to power.”
Allegory against such a dire condition, in his early plays and stories, was forced upon him, as with many Czechs from the creative class. Otherwise, censors swooped down. He joins the Writer’s Union and relates many instances of suppression as those seeking inspiration outside approved boundaries find their presses closed down and their submissions unpublished.
Throughout his long career, Klíma strives to stay honest and pushes against his own limits and those from above. “Art obviously does not begin when you succeed in generating form out of formlessness; it begins when you are able to judge the caliber of your creation and not fall into raptures over the sole fact that you have created one of countless paper kites.” The bestseller or the hack, Klíma opines, asserts the success of an inferior work, full of tired phrases and hackneyed plots.
The artist worries that his or her creation may not, by its merits or their lack, survive even its creator’s lifetime. Klíma allies himself with those who fuss and worry over words. Under totalitarian regimes, verbal and freed expression may undermine foundations too shoddily built by brigades forced into tasks. Reading this memoir, I speculate that Klíma might urge societies to look to role models such as his father, trained to fulfill their potential by work chosen by themselves and to direct satisfying and productive progress agreed upon by working individuals themselves rather than by top-down imposition.
Allowed to visit Israel and its kibbutzim and then England (where he meets Deutscher, who ironically, from his own perch in a plush London book-lined study counsels book-censored Klíma to praise socialism more), he moves even before the tumultuous year of 1968 towards a dramatic showdown. Rebelling against the constitutionally enshrined “eternal rule” of the Party, Kundera defends the New Wave of filmmakers in their nation, while a fellow writer cites Marx in defense of greater liberty.
Klíma denies state lies, for “in the name of some sort of future objectives, the party had deprived the people of freedom, usurped all power, destroyed political life, falsified history, mocked the art of voting, and transformed a free country into a colony”. Unsurprisingly, the Party expels him.
Part two (this was originally published in two volumes in Czech; this one-volume abridgment has been carried out by skilled translator Craig Cravens with the author’s assistance) opens as Klíma, after 14 years as a card-carrying Communist, is fired from his editorial position. Now a class enemy, he is under surveillance.
Yet a few months later, as 1968 ushers in Alexander Dubček’s brief leadership, Klíma and dissidents were reinstated. The right to act by one’s conscience was asserted officially. During the “cataclysmic Prague Spring”, Klíma reports: “Never before or since have I lived with such haste or intensity.” This section thickens, as Klíma documents manifestos by his fellow intellectuals agitating for reform and open elections. However, this is a necessary inclusion for readers who will consult this autobiography for a better insight into the forces pushing against the State and those tanks that pushed back. That August, Soviet forces reminded Czechoslovakians they had no right to stand up for themselves.
Even as the Warsaw Pact troops loomed, Klíma, now having an affair, tries another play in fabulist style. It was rejected. “The criminals who soon took power no longer needed their jesters.”
Oddly, he and his mistress first heard that their land was invaded on the radio from London. The couple had a chance to stay there for a few weeks. Meanwhile, his wife was on a kibbutz in Israel; her summer departure had rekindled a short liaison between Ivan and his new companion, Olga. But with their children in Prague, husband and wife decided they had to return. Most cars went in the other direction as Helena and Ivan crossed back into Czechoslovakia. Many of his friends emigrated.
As “healthy forces” in Party jargon regained control, Klíma bristled. He welcomed the chance to teach at Ann Arbor in 1969. On a limited income, he lectures at other universities and spends Christmas in Midland, Texas, sponsored by a local Protestant church for a week. Four days in, he flees to Big Bend National Park. He savors his freedom as he sneaks across even the Mexican border. He realizes he never had to show anyone his identity card over two weeks on US highways.
He and his family are summoned back prematurely, as the crackdown at home meant their visas were suddenly terminated at the end of 1969. Neither his dissident colleagues nor his mistress can believe he returned from America. Writers who refused to conform now washed windows or built the metro. Some philosophers and historians are hired by the water board to measure a stream every few hours. Returning to a still more intolerant society, Helena and Ivan have their passports confiscated.
As he must return to the labor force, he takes on for a few months his allotted two 12-hour shifts weekly. He logs in part-time as a hospital orderly. “Socialist health care was free, and looked like it.” Each socialist workday, he explains, consists of two periods of equal length. Work is followed by a time when “everyone pretended that work took place”.
At 40, Klíma turns from stage productions to writing fiction; his membership in the PEN Club brings about his interrogation. Arthur Miller, William Styron, and Philip Roth visited a few years after Soviet occupation, before the borders were tightened. Klíma confesses astonishment when meeting earnest, deluded Westerners who applaud “Communist propaganda”. He and others, among over a hundred banned writers, lobby for clandestine samizdat distribution at home, for a loophole means that a writer cannot be punished for “a copy made upon an ordinary typewriter”.
After all the searches, arrests, incarcerations, and deaths he had seen, Klíma joked how he’d write a thousand-page novel. Judge on Trial (originally an underground publication in 1978), remains one of his best novels, a look at those who, like its author, did not flee after the blasts ending Prague Spring.
In the matter of love, Klíma reckoned that people could find some semblance of choice, even under a police state. When “higher goals had been degraded and disgraced” and so much was forbidden, only the “dearth of apartments or money” stood in the way when it came to erotic fulfillment. Yet, he remains discreet about some of his personal affairs. “My wish is not to draw my loved ones into my tale; it’s enough that I drew them into real life.”
The year 1977 brought Charter 77, named for an international human rights covenant. This petition predictably brings the wrath of the dictatorship down on opponents of the regime, such as Václav Havel, who was imprisoned repeatedly. Klíma, who had foreseen how this charter would play into the State Security police who reacted against “reactionaries”, had prevaricated and not signed it. His lack of involvement raises suspicion.
Trying to trap him, the Party press reports he, in fact, has signed. The police wonder if he wants his passport back, Klíma gets to play his own cat-and-mouse game. What loyal citizen, after all, would claim that the paper of record published false information?
These kind of situations beg the term Kafkaesque. (Klíma to his credit avoids the cliché, but it appears apt in Prague offices run by a police state.) His interrogator asks to see his manuscripts. His books being banned, Klíma admits to the colonel: “I had no copies of my books because I didn’t want any trouble.” Many pages of such admissions ensue, and earn its wry commemoration as “a crazy century”. He quotes this phrase from a samizdat copy of Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth.
He finds in middle-age himself locked in a ghetto where he, too, now holds the key. Unbanned writers separated from banned, and the latter, forced into secret meetings to avoid the secret police, chafed. Yet no informers were secured, and Klíma and his comrades told nobody about such gatherings.
More writers, musicians, and artists are forced to emigrate. Intimidation increases. As his by-now regular interrogator greets him: “Wherever something provocative is going on, we are sure to find Klíma.” Suspicions prove founded. As an an unofficial “mailman”, he transports such documents as Meadows’ along with Czech-language publications, smuggled in from abroad. Later, bored and curious about the opposite of love, he seeks garbage. He becomes a street sweeper. As he and his wife are “persecuted dissidents against the reigning social order”, it’s one job nobody can deny him.
Although the State employs him as little as possible, Klíma has to find approved employment at least one day for each of the two years prior to his retirement to qualify for a pension. Since his writing prohibits him from making a living as an approved author, he makes do with other tasks. These jobs will provide him with inspiration for his fiction. He finagles another time-killing messenger position. Qualifying for his pension, not needing to work, in homage to Kafka he next requests a stretch as a surveyor’s lineman.
At least in this abridgment, Klíma tends towards reticence about his fiction; more about its contents might have enhanced this memoir’s appeal to readers, new or old, of his work, often set among everyday people in Prague’s streets. His odd jobs there enliven his samizdat novel titled, of course, Love and Garbage and his stories My Golden Trades.
Grandchildren and retirement don’t slow him. The year 1989 ushers in another January of protests in honor of Jan Palich who had burned himself alive in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion. This year, Havel is arrested again, but unlike past years, protests do not dwindle. Water cannons drench Klíma as he marches. But this spirited year goes more smoothly than 1969. Klíma rallies the PEN Club again. A November strike at his alma mater, Charles University, confronts the regime, and soon, the Communist Parliament unanimously elects Havel as president of the republic.
This volume appends 18 essays keyed to many of Klíma’s autobiographical chapters on the impacts of ideology, propaganda, subjugation, state control, and the concept of internal freedom pursued within conditions that limit external liberty. He asserts: “I wrote about the world not the way I was ordered to by the way I perceived and experienced it.” His one-page epilogue concludes, after the “heavens of freedom, imperceptible only a short time ago, had finally opened before us.”
As My Crazy Century proves, Klíma, in his 80s, continues to do what he chose to, despite the forces rallied for most of his life against him and his fellow marchers, writers, and workers in the Czech lands and beyond. Enjoying external and internal freedom, for the first time in six decades, he confides: “I wanted to keep doing what I knew how, at least a little. To write.”