Slice of Czech life/Ivan Klima: alienated yet bound to his homeland
My Merry Mornings, by Ivan Klima. Translated by George Theiner. Columbia, La.: Readers International. 160 pp. $7.95. Ivan Klima is a contemporary Czech writer who has been banned since 1968 by the Czech government from publishing in his own country. Before 1968, he worked for a number of years on the staff of a famous Prague literary journal, Literarni listy. The author of several works, including short stories, plays, and novels, Klima is well known not only in Czechoslovakia, but also in Germany and Switzerland, although he is less familiar to British and American readers.
``My Merry Mornings,'' published this past spring, is only his second book to be translated into English. The first, ``A Ship Called Hope,'' was published in 1969.
The seven short stories that make up his latest work depict slices of daily life in post-1968 Czechoslovakia. Klima's presence in the book is more that of an observer than a participant. The narrator is Klima the writer, the idealist, the persona non grata. Yet despite the autobiographical flavor, these stories transcend autobiography.
There is a sadness that permeates the book, something not at first apparent because of Klima's light, ironic style. It is the sadness of someone who realizes that despite being rejected by and alienated from his own society, he is nevertheless irrevocably bound to it. Loneliness -- that of the narrator and of the people he describes -- is a byproduct of the dulling, dehumanizing atmosphere in which they all live. Yet the narrator had the option to leave the country -- as did Klima himself. Many of his c ontemporaries, such as Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, took that option.
In one story, he explains why he did not leave. The narrator is speaking to a former lover, who left several years before, and who, on a visit back, cannot understand why the narrator has chosen to remain. ``The freedom that exists out there, which I have played no part in creating, could hardly give me satisfaction or happiness, just as I couldn't hope to feel the sorrows of those people. . . . It so happens that life often presents you only with a choice between two kinds of su ffering, two forms of nothingness, two varieties of despair. All you can do is choose which you think will be the less unbearable. . . .''
Unable to earn a living by writing, the narrator supports himself and his family with odd jobs -- stints that bring him into contact with those who, more often than not, live by a different code of ethics. His world is populated by operators, wheeler-dealers, people who know the score and the ropes, cynics who are bemused and more than a little bewildered by the likes of the narrator and his contemporaries.
The state, the secret police, the censorship apparatus, do not figure prominently in these vignettes. They are a fact of life, acknowledged but not dwelt upon. Klima focuses attention elsewhere. He writes of his own would-be audience, and their often seeming indifference to his own destiny and to those like himself. The narrator meets these people daily. They are the fish-peddlers who teach him how to cheat customers when selling carp. They are the hospital orderlies who steal everything from bedsheets to radiators to toilet doors. They are old acquaintances who acquire building permits for cooperative apartments and bribes from hopeful occupants.
After one experience with such an individual, the narrator writes: ``It came to me that in this world of ours there existed real conspirators, that there was far-reaching conspiracy of those who had seen through the futility of all ideals and the deadly ambiguity of all human illusions, a resolute brotherhood of true materialists who knew that the only things that mattered were those you could hold in your hand or put in your pocket, that money could buy anything and that anyone could be bribed -- excep t Death, which they preferred to ignore, and a few foolish individuals who could be locked up in prison, exiled out of the country, or at the very least into subterranean boiler rooms, there to stoke furnaces and think their wayward thoughts.''
While all seven stories are well written, not all are equal in quality. Some are interesting for the description of contemporary Czech daily life; others for how deftly Klima describes human reactions and adjustment to ``the system.'' But the strongest stories are those in which Klima allows his narrator to become involved with the people he encounters. These are the moments when the reader can feel as well as intellectually understand why he has chosen to remain in Czechoslovakia. His affection for and
his commitment to his fellow countrymen come through.
In one story-within-a-story, the narrator writes a tale of the last few days of an old woman's life, as experienced by her husband. The setting is the hospital, where the orderlies steal whatever they can, and the tale is written for a lonely nurse assigned to the dying woman's ward. In this piece, Klima drops his usual ironic tone and writes with a clean, spare emotion that makes this story the most moving and powerful in the book. It is the story that makes Josef Skvorecky's comments about ``My Merry Mornings'' ring true: ``One of the lovely and significant works of fiction that fade from the memory very, very slowly.''
The excellent translation of ``My Merry Mornings'' is by George Theiner, editor of the London-based journal Index on Censorship. The book can be purchased for $7.95 through Readers International, Subscriber Service Department, PO Box 959, Columbia, La. 71418.