The limits of dissent

Ivan Klíma was clearly a dissident. But then the Czech writer was too cautious to sign Charter 77, and now he is oddly accepting of Václav Havel

Bounded by books: Ivan Klíma. Photograph: Tomas Krist/Isifa/Getty

Bounded by books: Ivan Klíma. Photograph: Tomas Krist/Isifa/Getty

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
My Crazy Century


Ivan Klima

Grove Press Uk

Guideline Price:

On his second visit to Prague, in the spring of 1973, Philip Roth met several dissident writers, including Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, Ludvík Vaculík, Miroslav Holub and Rita Klímová. Five years after the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in August 1968, that put an end to it, dissidents were forbidden from publishing their writings in Czechoslovakia. If they contrived to publish them elsewhere, they found it nearly impossible to be paid in foreign currency. At the end of his visit Roth asked Klíma, “What do you people need?” Klíma answered, “Money”.

Roth asked for a list of 15 writers who needed help. Back in New York he set up a bank account called Ad Hoc Czech Fund and invited 15 writer friends to contribute $100 a month, matching each of the donors to a writer in Prague. Klíma was on the list the first year, but he removed himself from it the next year, because his financial circumstances had somewhat improved.

This episode does not appear in My Crazy Century . I found it in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and H is Books (2013). It may be in the original edition, published in Czech in two volumes, from which this book has been abridged.

Born in 1931 to a poor Jewish family, Ivan was sent off with his parents, in December 1941, to Terezín, a concentration camp not far from Prague. He stayed there until the end of the German occupation, on May 9th, 1945. His father was retained, charged with sabotage, found not guilty but guilty of a lesser crime, and given three months in jail. Meanwhile, Ivan tried his hand at journalism and started thinking that he must somehow become a professional writer, a playwright, a novelist and short-story writer.

In My Crazy Century Klíma surveys the main events of his life and the life of Prague as if from a distance. We move quickly from his academic studies to his marriage to Helena, at the age of 27, the birth of their daughter Nanda, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Communist Party congress in February 1956.

Klíma was in England while the Soviet army was taking possession of Prague, and he left Prague again at the end of August 1969 to teach for two semesters at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. I’m sure he could have found a teaching job in the US. Many of his friends were leaving Prague for good. Kundera settled in Paris. But Klíma chose to return to Prague, where he got a job as an orderly in a hospital. Obviously he was a dissident within the meaning of the word in any country under Soviet dispensation.

Charter 77
But he had his limits in dissent. In December 1976 a number of intellectuals prepared a petition to be sent to the government, asking for the full restoration of human rights.

Charter 77, as it was called, probably the most telling document in the modern history of Prague, had already been signed by Jan Patocka, Václav Havel, and Jirí Hájek when it was offered to Klíma. Eventually, it had more than 1,000 signatures. But not Klíma’s. The reason he gives is that his daughter Nanda was trying to get into an art school, and he knew she would be rejected if he signed the charter. But Nanda’s mother signed it.

Klíma, like most of us, grows old. When the Velvet Revolution took place in Prague, in August 1989, he was 58, but a tired 58. He resuscitated the Czech branch of Pen, the inernational writers’ organisation, and called writers to come to it; he marched on the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a student at Charles University who had set himself on fire in front of the national museum to protest against the Soviet invasion. But he seems to be in a hurry to bring My Crazy Century to an end.

The unexpected development of events led to a strange compromise, which resulted in the Communist parliament unanimously electing Václav Havel president of the republic, and Havel appointing the communist Marián Calfa prime minister. That was on December 29th, 1989.

My Crazy Century is not as vivid as Klíma’s fiction, but it observes a similar aesthetic procedure. In fact some episodes in the memoir have already turned up in the fiction, especially in Love and Garbage (1986 in Czech, 1990 in English): not surprisingly, because the most pressing motif in Klíma’s imaginative world is the relation between a man and two women – wife and married mistress – both of whom he loves. In the memoir he rehearses two affairs, but neither of them is worthy of her correlative in the fiction.

Klíma is a realist, but he practises realism in his own way. Realists assume that a sufficient degree of presentation can be achieved by choosing fragments of the given world and bringing them together rapidly in a plausible sequence.

Klíma gains the force of variety by introducing a special perspective, such as that of a hospital orderly or a street cleaner. Or by admitting fantasy or dreams, which are free from empirical requirements. Or by suddenly changing the rules, as in My Country , one of the stories in My First Loves (1986), where without warning or explanation he transcribes long passages from “the great master Maxim Gorky”, “the greatest master Maupassant” and “the great master Sholokhov”. Such disturbances of perspective are nearly impossible in a memoir, where there is only one point of view, and it is supposed to be held firm.

Klíma tends to stand aside from events, even to the extent of becoming an emptied presence, barely attending on them. He rarely claims any privilege for a public event; one of these is much the same as another.

Even the election of Havel: he seems to be just another chap – rich, unfortunately – who happened to be picked out to wear the medal and live in the castle. So it is a shock to find Klíma ending this part of the book with such full-throated ease.

“The most important thing, however, was that the heavens of freedom, imperceptible only a short time ago, had finally opened before us.”

Admittedly, if you spent your boyhood – even three and a half years of it – in a concentration camp, you would be likely to seize upon the first symbol of freedom as a divine gift, and to care for little else.

But the heavens of freedom opened 25 years ago. Klíma says nothing about Havel’s years in the presidency, his failure to hold Czechoslovakia together, the split that issued in the separation, peaceful indeed, of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He takes the presidency of Havel as the promise of freedom that will last forever.

Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor has just been published by Harvard University Press

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