Ivan Klíma – My crazy century

9-10 2010 Knihy English
obálka čísla

Klíma is one of the most popular and most translated contemporary Czech writers. His books were translated into thirty three languages. In the Czech Republic his two volumes of memoires became the most read books; therefore we picked two short excerpts from these rememberances.

The Victors and the Vanquished – Immediately following the coup d’etat [of 1948] all newspapers printed even the manifesto: Onward, Onward, Not a Step Backward. The propaganda-filled text, full of phrases about the people and progress, undoubtedly created by the ideology department of the communist party, urged – in an affected way – the whole creative intelligentsia to support the new regime...

This text, already composed in a new language, where the supporters of democracy were called ‘forces of darkness’ and ‘reactionaries’, while the representatives of dictatorship were presented as honest patriots who were working diligently for society’s progress, announced the end of democracy in the land. In spite of all that, the text was signed by hundreds of scholars, writers, actors, singers or artists. Many of the signatories were certainly devoted members of the communist party, opportunists or people with a bad conscience, but there were more of those who truly believed, at that time, that the future belonged to socialism. Enraptured and bewildered by an illusion that lived only in the minds of dreamers, demagogues and false prophets, they were prepared to sacrifice (for a short time as many tried to believe) their own freedom as well as the freedom of the whole society.

For years thereafter, at each anniversary of the February uprising, people were shown on their TV screens film shots of enthusiastic crowds on Old Time Square. It is possible to make people look enthusiastic in various ways. One can feign or organize enthusiasm, but one can assume that the enthusiasm of the crowds on that late February day was not yet forced or simulated. It was not at all difficult to bring the supporters of the revolution to the square by the conspirators in the background...

When looking back at those revolutionary times and cheering crowds, we usually forget or at least do not realize that we see only a part, sometimes even a rather negligible part – even though a noisier one – of the contemporaries. Because every revolution produces not only the victors but also the vanquished, there are usually more of the latter ones…

When the communists accomplished their well-planned takeover, there were – in addition to the cheering enthusiasts on Old Time Square in February of 1948 – some misled proletarians and a few hundred crazed, naïve, crafty or partydisciplined artists signing the document of cultural enslavement. There were also many of those who believed in democracy, who fought for it in foreign legions, and who refused to believe that human knowledge reached its zenith in the writings if Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin. There were those who believed in God in the heavens, and not in the palaces of Kremlin. There were hundreds of thousands of those who owned some property and who feared that the new regime would steal everything that had often been earned by the labor of many generations. There were those who were not fooled by the allure of beautiful but false illusions, who could clearly see, or at least suspect the goals of the communist leaders, carefully camouflaged until the last moment. They were, however, caught off guard by the swiftness of the changes, immobilized by the roaring of the victorious crowds and by the reckless decisiveness of the new rulers. Some of them decided to wait, others decided to escape, and still others joined the victors because of fear or opportunism...

Charter 77 *) [Charta 77] published within a few weeks from its origin several thoroughly executed documents (there were several excellent lawyers among the Chartists). The documents called attention to how the right to education was being limited for some young people, or to how the state institutions were trying to persecute those who believed in God, or to unlawful law suits or to tampering with the employment laws. (When my friends were preparing the text concerning freedom of speech, especially in literature, they even turned to me to help prepare the document.) In January State Security arrested Václav Havel, who was one of the three spokesmen. They correctly assumed that in him the Charter had a man with an unusual political talent. Professor Jan Patočka, the second spokesman of the Charter, died on March 13 after being interrogated for a whole day in the gloomy offices of State Security.

The death of this outstanding philosopher who had been treated as a common criminal by State Security was inopportune for our new leaders, but they remained true to their resolve to demonstrate that whoever attempted to expose the truth about their iniquities would remain an outcast even after death.

In spite of the spiteful propaganda against the Charter thousands of people attended the funeral of one of its spokesmen. Those of us who already were familiar with the faces of our cross-examiners spotted most of them as they struggled through the funeral congregation in order to remember as many as possible of those who dared to mourn publicly. Because the funeral took place in Břevnov [a Prague quarter] where there was a motorcycle route nearby, State Security ordered a group of bikers to arrive and rev up their engines. Helicopters were flying above the heads of the mourners so that any words said at the gravesite were drowned by engine noise.

The spies actually turned their backs to the grave while the funeral ceremonies were taking place and photographed us who had come there. These expressions of obstinacy which would not diminish, even in the presence of death, clearly revealed the wretchedness of those who ruled our land – even more than any critical document could have done.

My home address which appeared in the newspaper Rudé právo was noted by many people. (It was the only published information how to get in contact with the Charter.) From time to time I would receive letters of support (generally unsigned) and also a bunch of vulgar and insulting notes (signed but without an address and probably using false names). There was one letter signed by a certain Matuszka from Frýdek-Místek. The writer gave his address and asked me for further information about the Charter because he wanted to sign it. I replied that I would not give out any written information, but if he could travel to Prague to please visit me at my home.

A few days later a lanky and skinny young man with glasses rang my doorbell. He could have been the same age as my son Michal. He introduced himself shyly while standing in the doorway and explained, that he had been here already yesterday, but that I was not at home. So he had spent the night in the park, the weather was warm. And then he told me his whole story: He is a student at the gymnasium in Frýdek, and right now he is in lots of trouble. He was asked by his teacher to write a paper expressing his opinion about the Charter. He wrote that – as far as he understood the document – he thought that it was useful and therefore he agreed with it. His paper caused an enormous amount of uproar. He was called to the principal’s office and was told that he might not even be allowed to graduate, and if he did, he certainly would not be admitted to the university. In addition someone at school tore down some pictures of [president] Gustáv Husák and now they blamed him for being the culprit. A friend gave him a golden dollar. He had it pierced and is now wearing it on his neck.The principal screamed at him that this act was unnecessary provocation. It seemed to him that everything was rotten in this country. Everybody was pretending, the radio and television were lying. At home he was being yelled at that he was causing trouble, even though his folks basically agreed with him. He does not want to live here any more, and he decided to run away from all of this crap... However, it was not as easy to leave the country as he thought...

I started to talk him out of his intention by saying that there were a lot of decent people living in our country, that one should not be disgusted by some stinker even if he was the principal... I did not know whether I had changed his mind. But he thanked me and left...

Selected excerpts and following texts by Jarmila Lakosilová Translated by Marie Dolanska

How do you evaluate this extracts of a Czech book or the book itself, if you‘ve had an opportunity to read it in Czech? Please send your comments either by e-mail to: cesky-dialog@seznam.cz – or by post to the address Český dialog, Sokolovská 179, 190 00 Praha 9, Czech Republic, EU. Three selected contributors will be rewarded by a book or CD. You can express your opinion either by a few sentences or just giving a grade, from one to three: ONE: an excellent subject, gripping story, would like to read the novel in English. TWO: a good subject & contents, an English version might interest only those who come from Central Europe. THREE: it didn´t captivate me, the samples suffice. – It should be noted that the English translation is only a working version and may not do full justice to the literary qualities of the book.


(Praha, Academia, 2009, additional printing 2010, 528 pages +8 pages of photographs, recom. price 395 Kč, ISBN 978-80-200-1697- 3, www.academia.cz).

This volume contains the author’s reminiscences, reflections and contemplations starting with the second half of the 1930’s until the rebellious writers’ congress in June 1967. Fifteen of the sixteen chapters are complemented by short essays that elaborate on the preceding narration; we read here e. g. about revenge, vengeance, utopias, wasted youth, need of faith, dictators and dictatorships, but also about the betrayal by the intelligentsia.

This particular volume received second prize in a reader’s poll entitled The Book of 2009 organized by the paper Lidové noviny. This year the book won the competition Magnesia Litera in the category Literature of the Facts [Literatura faktu].

Ivan Klíma (*September 14, 1931) is a publicist, prose-writer and playwright. He belongs to the most translated Czech authors. He was born in Prague where he also resides. During World War II he was jailed for more than three years in the Jewish ghetto of Terezín together with his mother, younger brother and for some time also with his father. After graduating from the Department of Philosophy at Charles University in Prague he worked as an editor of the weekly journal Květy, and later in the publishing house Československý spisovatel (1959–1963). Thereafter he became the editor of Literární noviny. This paper was twice renamed and finally banned altogether. He also contributed to other periodicals. In the years 1953–1967 he was a member of the communist party from which he was eventually expelled.

After Czechoslovakia had been occupied by the armies of the Warsaw Pact he succeeded to leave his country legally with his family and travel to the USA. Here he worked for six months as a visiting professor at the


(Praha, Academia 2010, 372 pages +16 pages of photographs, recom. price 330 Kč; ISBN 978-80-200-1854-0, www.academiaknihy.cz).

This volume is the continuation of the unusually successful Volume I. In it Klima talks about the events starting with the summer of 1967 and ending with the fall of the communist regime in November, 1989.

Eight of the nine chapters are followed by essays. These tell a lot about the contents of the book: Dreams and Reality, Nonviolent Opposition, Emigration and the Life in an Enslaved Society, Occupation, Collaboration and Intellectual Rabble, On Self-criticism, Secret Police, Solidarity, The Elites.

Both volumes contain excerpts from the author’s writings, from his diaries and quotes from timely press releases. Many people believe that Klima’s memories belong to the best of his writings.

University of Michigan. After returning to his homeland in 1970 he was doomed to live the life of forbidden writers who did not succumb to the pressure of political power. His work is voluminous and quite varied. It includes prose, drama works, reports, essays, feuilletons, and books for children. He received the Franz Kafka Prize (2002) and the Karel Čapek Prize (2010). The publishing house Academia will soon publish a new edition of his seventeen prose works.

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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jeja.cz 2012