The Czech writer Ivan Klima may not yet be quite as well known as his compatriots Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, or Josef Skvorecky, but he surely deserves to be. Born in Prague in 1931 to Jewish parents, although brought up as a Protestant, he spent time in a Nazi concentration camp during the war. Under Czechoslovakia’s postwar Communist regime, Mr. Klima’s novels and stories were banned, and their disfavored author forced to find other employment while circulating his work via samizdat. Yet, although Mr. Klima is certainly a novelist of political protest, his concerns extend far beyond the political.
Mr. Klima’s keen sense of history, his deep compassion for the ordinary people caught up in its toils, and his abiding awareness of the fragility and resilience of human life all shine through the pages of his latest novel, “No Saints or Angels.” The setting is modern-day Prague, free at last from Communist oppression, but not from the burdens of history or the confusions attendant on newfound freedom. How to live, what to do, what to believe in, whom to trust, whom or what to love: These are the questions that hover in the minds and hearts of the novel’s three main characters, as they go through the motions of their daily lives.
Kristyna, a dentist, is a divorced woman in her 40s with a daughter who is causing her great worry. Jana, 15, has been using drugs, having promiscuous sex with low-life boys, and neglecting her schoolwork. Kristyna knows there’s trouble afoot with the girl, but she can’t quite bring herself to believe how bad it is. In what seems like a strange coincidence, Kristyna has just met a man with a similar name to her daughter’s: Jan, a former student of Kristyna’s ex-husband, is 15 years younger than Kristyna, but clearly interested in a romantic relationship. Kristyna, Jana, and Jan are the novel’s three narrators, and their three vantage points define, shape, and color the story.
The difficulty of forging and maintaining personal relationships is a central theme. Kristyna has never gotten over her former husband’s betrayal of their marriage vows. Men, she has come to believe, are simply not to be trusted. Though touched and flattered by Jan’s attentions, she can’t really believe a young man like him might genuinely be attracted to a careworn older woman such as herself. But in fact, as we see through Jan’s eyes, it’s precisely Kristyna’s history and her gravity that attract him. Unlike the young women he usually dates, she isn’t breezy and vacuous: She has experienced to the full what life has to offer, both joy and sorrow.
Although neither Kristyna nor Jan has strong political views, their lives cannot be completely understood apart from politics and history. The son of a man who heroically defied the Communist stooges, Jan has a job investigating the crimes of the former regime.
Inter alia, he also has some hope of tracking down the man responsible for his father’s arrest. Kristyna’s father, whom she disliked, was a Communist regime apparachick, a diehard believer in Joseph Stalin. Yet, as she also recognizes, her father’s blind devotion to Stalinism was rooted in his gratitude to the Communists for rescuing the country from Nazism, from his need to believe in something.
In his youth, Jan participated in the famous Prague Spring rebellion, but admits, “it worried me that we had no ideals. We were against communism, but not so much because it was criminal as because we wanted an easier life.” Jan now feels that the decline of religion may have created a spiritual void in which terrifying new forms of faith sprout like poisonous mushrooms: “The Nazis and the Communists alike presented their leaders as gods, whose images must be present at every celebration… .These new faiths also demanded obedience and discipline, but they were devoid of mercy and did not establish any inviolable limits. They revived human sacrifice in proportions without precedent in human history.”
Both Jan and Kristyna are decent people, saddened by what they know of history, grateful to be out from under the Communist oppression, but anxious and fearful about the lack of sound values they sense in themselves and the world around them. Very different from either of the adults is Kristyna’s daughter Jana, a defiantly obtuse girl who has latched onto all the worst blights of late capitalist youth culture. Nothing matters to her except getting high. Kristyna wonders where she has failed as a mother: Why was she unable to transmit the right values to her daughter? Did she indulge the girl with too many material gifts to make up for the divorce? Or was the problem the lack of a religious faith?
Kristyna’s maternal grandmother, whom she never knew, was a Jew, killed in the camps, and Kristyna’s mother, who has no religious beliefs, fears that she failed to provide Kristyna with enough of a heritage to pass on. Kristyna ponders her own values: “Not to lie and be lied to, maybe. To be of help to people. To live in love. All fairly trite; no lofty goals.” At least in her role as a dentist, she relieves pain: “Maybe deeds of love leave some trace behind.”
After a great deal of uncertainty and hesitation, Kristyna comes to realize the extent of Jana’s problems, and albeit with much trepidation, she consigns her to a drug treatment program. Jana’s eventual breakthrough contains the seeds of a value system accessible to anyone: a simple truth that is there all the time, but often lost in the welter of blind emotions and dangerous ideas.
Looking at the billions of stars, most of them probably without life on them, Jana realizes that “Life is the biggest miracle and it doesn’t matter whether you believe God created it or whether it just evolved, it’s still the biggest miracle that has ever happened. And if you don’t have respect for that miracle inside you, you can’t have respect for the life around you, and the tragedy is … that people don’t have respect for themselves and destroy themselves and everything around them. Our job is to carry that miracle of life forward.”
A simple enough point, it would seem. But the characters Mr. Klima has created are so believable and convincing so flawed, so vulnerable, so confused, so very alive that when they achieve their modest epiphanies or find ways of connecting with one another, we cannot help feeling that something truly important has happened. Like Anton Chekhov, Mr. Klima is a writer able to show us what’s extraordinary about ordinary life.
Merle Rubin is a writer and editor living in Pasadena, Calif.