Our book today – in honor of Translation Thursday! – is Ivan Klima’s bleak, masterful 1986 novel Soudce z milosti, translated into English in 1991 by A. G. Brain with the title Judge on Trial. Klima has the writing compunction and has been generating all kinds of prose for his entire adult, but to my mind this is his finest achievement. It’s the story of Judge Adam Kindl, who once dreamed youthful dreams of perfecting society and administering justice, but who’s now faced with the petty corruptions and subversions of the rigged legal system he serves in postwar Prague. Kindl still keeps the company of idealists like his friend Matej (whose story-line is one of the book’s most effectively done), but his inner life has become so wary and co-opted that even his own beliefs are often a source of pain and frustration to him. When we first meet him, he’s a classic hangdog Prague muddler, cleaving to the middle way with desperate consistency, trying not to give his life cause to crush him.
That cause comes in the form of a trial given him by his Presiding Judge – an open-and-shut murder trial in the state’s kangaroo courts, a trial that’s only supposed to take Adam a few days … and that will in the process test his party loyalty to the city’s Communist overlords. Adam sees his choices clearly: do as he’s bidden even though his poor defendant (another very satisfyingly complex character) might be innocent, or ruin his career – and jeopardize his safety and his wife’s safety – by adhering to his hidden principles. “The two are incompatible,” he says at one point, “power and a sense of disgrace.”
It would be a bit misleading to call Judge on Trial a comic novel, although – it being so thoroughly Czech – many parts of it are very funny. The comic zingers are here, but not the underlying gaiety. Rather, this is an almost unbearably wry novel, one in which even routine scene-setting is sharpened until all its edges cut, as when Adam is assigned a workplace roommate:
Adam had never had an office of his own, but this was the first time he had ever shared one with a woman. Dr. Alice Richterova might have been young and single (why would a woman rush into wedlock who so early in her career as a judge had already dissolved hundreds of marriages, and had heard so much evidence proving that married life is composed of deceptions, infidelities, backbiting and fakery, sexual nastiness and disputes over the washing-up and the car?) but she was definitely neither beautiful nor likeable.
Neither our main character nor most of the supporting figures around him are particularly likeable people (Adam in fact is a bit of a dull prig, intoning at one point “People who rushed to drown their senses at moments of affliction struck him as weak-willed”). It’s Klima’s great skill to make us care about what they do all the same, to hope that somehow the gloom all around them will spare them. This hope is made all the more forlorn by the fact that most of them are their own worst enemy, as in the case of Adam’s garrulous brother Hanus, who at one point writes him a long, indiscreet letter from England:
What, in fact, is essential to a feeling of freedom? People will always lack something and have to make do with what they’ve got. Who knows the right scale of values? It struck me not long ago that freedom is in fact an infinite set. If I try and compare your freedom with my freedom, for example, I am comparing two infinite sets. Or if I try and compare the limits of my freedom here with the limits of my freedom back home: I call the original factor of my limits here LF, then the limits of my freedom back home start at about LF + 20, or some such figure. Do you see what I mean?
Needless to say, such a letter is bound to make its recipient a bit uneasy in Communist Prague, although Klima’s ear for deadpan sarcasm usually cuts the tension a bit, as in Adam’s grumbly reactions to his brother’s letter:
He didn’t particularly see. He hoped that it would be no less mystifying to any possible censor and didn’t feel that the letter’s importance justified his seeking out an expert on set theory to explain it to him.
Judge on Trial is a dark and mesmerizing performance (at least if A Good Brain’s translation is to be believed! I’m guessing it is), and although it’s full of period details (the long sections – powerfully autobiographical on our author’s part – recounting the horrors Adam and his family experienced during the Second World War are beautifully harrowing), it’s really that most elusive of beasts: a universal story. What options are open to a good man when the forces of his society dictate that he do evil? Also, what temptations face such a man? Freedom may be an infinite set, but the number of novels about it that are this good is extremely limited.