MY CRAZY CENTURY: A MEMOIR
By Ivan Klima
Translated by Craig Cravens
Grove Press, $30, 534 pages
Ivan Klima, the distinguished Czech author of numerous novels and plays (most of them translated into English), is a survivor of both Nazism and communism, and an eloquent witness to the immense moral, material and political damage both had done in his part of the world. Much of his work reflects these experiences and is an invaluable source of information and enlightenment for Western, and especially American, readers who never experienced and learned little about the horrors of 20th-century European history.
An idealistic young man born in 1931 who survived the Holocaust, Mr. Klima aspired from an early age to become a writer. His memoirs provide a vivid and detailed account of growing up under the post-World War II communist regime. The same volume also contains 18 essays on weighty political and philosophical topics such as "ideological murderers," utopia seeking, revolution, propaganda, dogmatism and fanaticism, "the betrayal of intellectuals," the nature of the Communist Party and others.
Both the essays and the memoir convey Mr. Klima's belief that Nazism and communist systems had much in common, both morally and institutionally. In particular, both were determined to impose social-political systems based on profoundly mistaken ideological premises that legitimated inhumane policies with horrendous results.
As a young man, Mr. Klima joined the Communist Party and thought, as his father did, that it was committed to creating a just and humane society. These beliefs did not survive the imprisonment of his father on spurious charges, and Mr. Klima eventually became one of the small number of dissenting writers. He was so attached to his homeland that he did not take advantage of a visiting professorship in the United States that would have allowed him to stay after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Predictably, upon his return, he lost his job at a publishing house and learned that the "entire print run" of his last book of short stories "had been confiscated and pulped." His passport was confiscated, he was expelled from the writers union and could only get menial, laboring jobs (such as street sweeping) supplemented by a fraction of the royalties from his writings published abroad that the government allowed him to receive. From time to time, he was summoned by the political police since the officials were anxious to discuss and discourage his writing projects he occasionally smuggled to the West.
Despite the large shadow cast by political forces and events on the life of the narrator, these recollections are more than a chronicle of the political aspects and determinants of his life. We also learn about his family, the various jobs he had, travels in Western Europe and the United States, as well as his extramarital transgressions. Mr. Klima writes: "During the time I am recalling ... [a]ll higher goals had been degraded and disgraced. Surprisingly ... immorality ... within personal relationships was acceptable to the reigning immoral authorities ... . At least in one area of our lives, we were free: men and women took lovers ... . Infidelity therefore, was often limited only by material circumstances: a dearth of apartments or money."
Notwithstanding his experiences, Mr. Klima avoided becoming a cynic while he also steered clear of the kind of idealism that is often anchored in ignorance of political and human realities. He distanced himself from some famous Western intellectuals whose idealism was nurtured by a sheltered life and wishful thinking. He was turned off by William Styron's complaints (on the occasion of meeting him in Prague) about capitalism "drowning" Americans in material goods and corrupting them by commercials and mindless television programs. Styron "thought that we Czechs, along with the entire Eastern Bloc, were different, he explained to our astonishment. For us, money was not the only goal; people were looking for meaning in their lives other than the accumulation of goods ... . It was bizarre that a writer, who everyone assumed possessed a heightened sense of perception could ... believe that platitudes concerning the construction of Communist society, could, after all the horrible experiences, offer some kind of higher meaning."
Mr. Klima's meeting Jean-Paul Sartre on his visit to Czechoslovakia was similarly disillusioning having heard him explain to a Czech audience how admirable and important it was to retain faith in socialism "with their convictions fortified" despite all the "horrific experiences," such as imprisonment under Stalin. Sartre also proposed that "the West no longer had anything to offer mankind. The only great topic for a novel of the twentieth century was man and socialism." Encountering Isaac Deutscher (biographer of Stalin and Trotsky) in London was also disappointing. He lectured Mr. Klima on the importance of "guard[ing] and ... preserve[ing] the idea of socialism and its undeniable advantages over capitalism ... Stalin was a criminal who had veered from the path, but the path still represented hope for humanity." Not surprisingly, Mr. Klima has taken a dim view of Western intellectuals who supported, or sympathized with, communist systems and confused their proclaimed ideals with the existing realities they created. Later in life he also came to question the ideals themselves..
A sense of humor, effortless integrity and sense of decency are communicated throughout the volume. Perhaps the most remarkable is the insight that enabled Mr. Klima to survive spiritually under dire conditions: "Most of my life up to now, I have lived without freedom ... . I gradually came to realize that there were two kinds of freedom, internal and external. One can behave unfreely even in free circumstances, and one can behave freely (with all the risks it entails) in unfree circumstances ... for almost my entire adult life I tried to behave like a free person; I wrote about the world not the way I was ordered to, but the way I perceived and experienced it."
Mr. Klima's life and work prove that human beings are not inevitably disfigured by the hardships they experience.
Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of 15 books.