Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


My First Loves, by Ivan Kl'ima, translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers. New York: Harper & Row. 165 pp. $14.95 Ivan Kl'ima is a leading voice of the Prague samizdat, which publishes the work of banned authors by circulating typed copies of their manuscripts. (An earlier book of his, ``My Merry Mornings,'' was published by Readers International.) ``My First Loves'' is a collection of four linked stories, in which the narrator grows from boyhood to manhood. In the first story, the scarcely pubescent hero is more upset by a disappointment in puppy love than by his aunt and uncle's forced departure to a concentration camp. In the second, the scene is postwar: a family vacation in the country. The narrator measures his father's idealistic communism against the cynicism of a worldly doctor and measures the doctor's disparagement of women against the clear frustration of the doctor's pretty young wife, who flirts with our hero, now an engaging adolescent. Kl'ima's distinctive talent, his ability to entwine in a straightforward narrative the divergent strands of politics and romance, is still more striking in the third story. Here, the young man ponders the shocking implications of a smuggled typescript claiming that the great Stalin was really another Hitler. At the same time, he falls in love with a woman who can't seem to tell the truth, while offstage his innocent father is being held in prison for ``crimes'' against the state. Romantic illusion and disillusionment are again the theme of the last story, but this time, betrayal comes from within. The Gourmet and Other Stories of Modern China, by Lu Wenfu. London: Readers International, dist. by Consortium Book Sales, St. Paul, Minn. 243 pp. $16.95 cloth; $8.95 paper.

Lu Wenfu's literary career suffered three major setbacks, each more serious than the one before. In 1957, he and some friends planned to publish Explorers, a magazine in which they hoped to venture beyond strict socialist realism. The would-be ``explorers'' were broken up and sent to work on farms and in factories. Rehabilitated in 1960, Lu Wenfu was denounced again in 1965 for writing about the ``dark side of society'' and ``humanism'' (a vaguely defined, heavily loaded term used by ideologues of various stripes in the attempt to pin a label on any thought more complex than their ideology can cope with). In 1969, no longer permitted to function even as a factory worker, Lu and his family were sent as ``peasants'' to the Chinese equivalent of Siberia. All this is described in the author's brief but poignant account of ``A Writer's Life'' that introduces this volume of six stories and one novella. Dating from the late 1970s and the '80s, they are the work of a mature, highly accomplished storyteller. The charming simplicity of these stories, the limpid style in which they are told, renders their subtle ironies all the more incisive. In ``The Man from a Peddlers' Family,'' we watch the tragicomic spectacle of a food vendor's home being destroyed as a ``capitalist den'': ``Zhu's house had become a battleground. Inside, the din was deafening. Outside clouds of dust were blowing. The willow wicker basket was tossed and hacked to pieces by the great knives. This was because it had been an instrument of crime. It had been used to sell chestnuts and lotus roots.'' Blended with bitter truths, pungently expressed, is an affectionate regard for the genuine ``makers,'' whether they are workers, craftsmen, peddlers, cooks, or even good organizers, like the cheerful hero of ``The Boundary Wall.'' Conversely, the antihero of ``The Doorbell'' is a man whose ``self-protective instinct became so refined, he became a shadow.'' Observes the narrator, ``When a person changes from being someone to being no one, the aim is usually to get something for nothing.'' In ``The Gourmet,'' the transformation of a once-elegant restaurant into an egalitarian eating-house is obliquely subverted by the persistence of taste itself. In all these stories, the ability to enjoy and appreciate good deeds and good things is presented, if not as an active virtue, then as the beginning of wisdom, whether it is a doctrinaire intellectual's admiration for the peddler's wonton carrying-pole (a kind of portable, miniature kitchen) or a baby's decided, unshakable preference for chocolate. Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, by Robert Musil, translated by Peter Wortsman. Hygiene, Colo.: Eridanos Press, dist. by Rizzoli International, N.Y. 145 pp. $21 cloth; $12 paper.

About these ads

Following the death of an important literary figure, there is a rush to gather whatever scraps of writing remain and make them into a book. The author of the ambitious, unfinished, perhaps unfinishable masterpiece ``The Man Without Qualities,'' Robert Musil (1880-1942), chose in his lifetime to republish this selection of very short pieces written (mainly during the 1920s) for the transient medium of magazines. The irony, so typical of Musil, gains a deeper resonance because this collection appears for the first time in this country only now, posthumously indeed. Musil's originality of mind and perfectionism of temperament are evident throughout these pieces, which range from delicately enameled miniature portraits of the natural world - the struggles of a fly caught on flypaper, the eye of a mouse, the religious significance of sheep - to casual yet trenchant little essays and parables on art, culture, kitsch, psychoanalysis, and even feminism. His fables on the last subject build up to a picture of a room where women argue brilliantly, while eminent men sit ``stiff-backed, like so many little women, who, faced with a man's attempt to teach them the overpowering magic of logic, can find no other weapon ... than to reply ... But I don't want to!'' On the charms and follies of psychoanalysis, the Austrian-born Musil is even more inspired: ``From the hustle and bustle of everyday life you step into your friend's chamber, and if the world outside explodes with all its mechanical energies, here you find the good old time gently flowing. With solicitous care, you are asked how you slept and what you dreamed. The sense of family, otherwise so sadly neglected nowadays, is once again given its natural significance, and we learn that what Aunt Gerda said when the serving girl broke the plate is not at all ridiculous, but rather, if viewed in a proper light, more telling than one of Goethe's recorded remarks.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.