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Book Review: My Crazy Century

By (October 13, 2013) No Comment

My Crazy Century: A Memoirmy crazy century hc

by Ivan Klima

translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens

Grove Press, 2013

 

Among the many, many disappointments associated with the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, perhaps the most bittersweet is that it wasn’t awarded to the Czech writer Ivan Klima, whose long life has demonstrated the redemptive power of the written word about as thoroughly as it can be demonstrated. From his childhood spent surviving the Theriesenstadt concentration camp to his embattled years trying to carve out a literary life in the almost farcical madness of Communist Prague (as was quipped about another Czech writer, being disliked by two different dictatorships pre-disposes a person to significance), through his experiences with both the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, Klima has written indefatigably – and without the wider fame that found such friends of his as Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera.

“I never wanted to write history,” Klima told The Guardian in 2004, but the seed of doing just that had already been planted, and in 2010 he produced Moje silene stoleti in two hefty volumes. Those two volumes have been condensed into one still-hefty volume and translated into English as My Crazy Century, now in a lovely, sturdy hardcover from Grove Press. The book still splits its story into two parts, and the contents are rounded out with eighteen essays. The result is as long and intimate a conversation with Klima as readers have ever had, an utterly absorbing reading experience.

When he was a much younger man, Klima wrote a short story containing the mordant observation, “It is only in books that everything works itself out. Only there are pain and suffering cleared away as a housewife clears away dirt when she’s expecting guests.” But there’s none of that romanticism in Klima’s own fiction (especially his masterpiece, Judge on Trial), and there’s certainly none of it in this tough, honest book, which features one intensely human story after another from the author’s past, almost all of them possessing a strong flavor of that particularly Czech brand of optimistic sarcasm, as when Klima finds himself in London in 1968 when the Soviets invade Prague. Unbeknownst to him, his Czech newspaper colleague Igor Hajek is also in New York – Hajek has no idea where Klima is living, but he spots Klima’s car on the street and leaves a note on the windshield that includes his address and a very simple inducement: I’ve got a transistor radio and can get Prague. Come. Even after half a century, the memory is vivid to Klima:

I can still see the small room crammed with furniture. Everything was immaculate, and in the middle of the room a wire stretched from wall to wall, compensating for, or rather amplifying, the antenna. There we were, two men from a Prague newspaper that had once again been silenced. Against all odds we had met in this city of several million and were sitting by a small radio receiver that was, with variable signal strength and intermittent comprehensibility, informing us about what was happening in the streets of Prague: Tanks were headed toward the radio station, and there were the first dead.

I asked him if we should go back right away, and he in turn asked me if I was crazy.

A work that reveals the humanity of its author as resolutely as this one does will have its share of blemishes, and Klima doesn’t turn away from his own, including his infidelities. The regret over these illicit relationships sighs with honest sadness, although some of the rationalizations can be grating, none more so than “Communism Made Me Do It”:

A person enters adulthood with many resolutions, expectations, scruples, and prejudices. During the time I am recalling, almost everything in which one could place one’s expectations either had been made difficult or was forbidden. All higher goals had been degraded and disgraced. Surprisingly, it seem that immorality, or at least insincerity within personal relationships, was acceptable to the reigning immoral authorities. So it was easy to persuade oneself that, at least in this area of life, one was not restricted any more than anywhere else in the world, perhaps even less. At least on one area of our lives we were free: Men and women took lovers. The government tolerated it just as it tolerated the battering of its citizens. The gremlins in the cadre offices cared more about relationships within the collective than their relationships to their own partners or children. Infidelity, therefore, was often limited only by material circumstances: a dearth of apartments or money.

I loved my wife and children, but I fell in love again –

Cheating on one’s wife may be regarded with indifference by the cadre offices, but My Crazy Century bristles with scenes and sentiments they most certainly would not have ignored (there are several vignettes of Klima before one clueless state inquisitor or another – vignettes of such low-temperature hilarity that calling them ‘Orwellian’ would be selling them short, since they actually happened). Klima is by preference not a fiery writer – his sadnesses run too deep – but the condemnations at work especially in his essays can be ringing:

The party destroyed all traditional relationships. It introduced the cadre questionnaire and interviews in which those who wanted to continue their work were supposed to disown their relatives. It misappropriated history; it erased great personages and replaced them with people whose only merit was membership in the party. It misappropriated peace, since it labeled its confederation of dictatorships a camp of peace, which only with the greatest efforts was keeping the imperialists from starting a new world war. It misappropriated the idea of democracy because it called its dictatorships the highest form of democracy.

In fact the most distressing aspect of Klima’s autobiography is the hint that some of his own deepest literary impulses have been misappropriated. The sentiments that rumble closer and closer to the surface toward the book’s end are not, by Klima’s own tired-sounding admission, the ones that filled the book’s beginning:

I had left behind me the brief period of my life when I believed that the duty of each person who did not waste his own life was to try to save the world. The world did not need saving; humanity did not need the prophets who, until recently, had led it to unimaginable heights. It needed decency, work, honor, and humility.

I wanted to keep doing what I knew how, at least a little. To write.

The world might not need saving, but men and women and children do, and sometimes more is needed than decency, work, honor, and humility. Sometimes prophets are needed, and heroes like the men and women who risked their lives for a free Prague in which Ivan Klima could write unmolested. The hopeful reading is that these and similar sentiments are the distortions of truncation; My Crazy Century includes a Publisher’s Note expressing a hope that some day the full, unabridged version of this memoir will get an English-language translation – for many reasons, we can hope that unabridged version arrives before too many more years have passed.

 

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