World Literature

Ivan Klima

 

BORN: 1931, Prague, Czechoslovakia

NATIONALITY: Czech

GENRE: Drama, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Within Three Frontiers (1960)

My First Loves (1988)

Love and Garbage (1990)

 

 

Ivan Klima. Klima, Ivan, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Ivan Klima belongs to the generation of Czech writers who lived through two totalitarian regimes—Nazism and communism. Outspoken in his criticism of the communist regime, Klima was expelled from the Communist Party, and his works were banned from publication, following the suppression in 1968 of the Prague Spring reform movement. As a result, many of his works first appeared in German translation or by Czech-language publishing houses abroad.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood in a Concentration Camp. Klima was born in Prague on September 14, 1931, to Ing Vdem Klima, an electronics engineer, and Marta Klima, nee Synkova. Since he was part Jewish, he was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Bohemia in December of 1941 and spent three and a half years there. Millions of Jewish people died from starvation, disease, abuse, and systematic execution while being held captive in such camps. Few prisoners survived and many were sent to extermination camps, like Auschwitz. Klima was one of only 17,247 (of approximately 144,000 imprisoned Jews) survivors of the Theresienstadt camp. After World War II Klima went to secondary school in Prague and then studied Czech language and literature at Charles University. He submitted his thesis on Karel Capek in 1956; it was revised and published in book form in 1962. Klima worked as an editor from 1956 to 1963. On September 24, 1958, he married Helena Mala, a sociologist, with whom he had two children.

A Change of Heart. As a young man, Klima, like many of his contemporaries, believed that communism was the fairest political and economic system, but his father’s arrest and other experiences after the communists came to power in February of 1948 led him to abandon the ideology. His literary debut in the young writers’ journal May and his first books, the story collections A Perfect Day and Within Three Frontiers, bear witness to this change of heart. Instead of the oversimplified, idealized picture of the world current in Czech literature in the 1950s, in these works the characters are not merely representatives of an ideology or a social group but individuals with vivid inner lives.

A Platform for Political and Cultural Reform. Klima worked as deputy editor of the weekly Literary Newspaper from 1963 until it was suppressed in 1967; he continued in the same position with its successors, the Literary Gazette from March to August of 1968 and the Gazette from autumn of 1968 until spring of 1969. Far from being purely literary journals, these cultural and political papers were in the forefront of the efforts of Czech writers, artists, and intellectuals to liberalize the communist regime; they were also quite popular—their circulation never fell below a hundred thousand in a nation of ten million. Thus, they were the chief platform for the political and cultural reform movement that led to the Prague Spring.

Banned in Czechoslovakia. In 1969-1970 Klima was a guest lecturer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When he returned to Czechoslovakia, he found himself one of some four hundred writers who were banned from publishing their works and appearing in the media. His earlier works had been removed from the libraries, and his new books were distributed illegally in samizdat (secretly published) editions; they were also published abroad by Czech exiles and in translations, mainly in German. This situation lasted until the fall of communism at the end of 1989, although in the final months of the communist regime, negotiations were under way to allow Klima’s My Merry Mornings, which had appeared in samizdat in 1978 and had been published in Canada in 1979, to be published officially in Czechoslovakia. During the 1970s and 1980s, Klima held jobs as a hospital porter, postman, seasonal seller of carp (a Czech Christmas dish), and assistant surveyor.

The Fall of Communism. Klima’s works could not be published by Czech publishing houses until after the fall of communism in 1989, and only then was he again able to take part in public life and to travel abroad. In December of 1989 he became one of the founders of Obec spisovatelu (Association of Writers), and from 1990 to 1993 he was chairman of the Czech PEN club. He also began writing on current affairs for Prague newspapers, especially for the Literary Newspaper. Since 1991 he has been writing a regular column, ‘‘Letters from Prague,’’ for New York Newsday and the Swedish Svenska Dagbladet. He also writes articles for the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Klima's famous contemporaries include:

Philip Roth (1933-): American author who received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel American Pastoral.

Chinua Achebe (1930-): Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic, best known for his novel Things Fall Apart.

J. M. Coetzee (1940-): South African novelist whose works often address the serious problems facing South Africa in the postapartheid era.

Milan Kundera (1929-): Exiled Czech-born novelist most famous for his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Neil Armstrong (1930-): American astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon.

Nelson Mandela (1918-): This former president of South Africa was the first to be elected in a completely democratic election.

 

Works in Literary Context

The work of Klima is heavily influenced by his experiences of abuse and oppression. Within the confines of the concentration camp where he spent a number of years, Klima was exposed to the storytelling of Jewish women, including his mother, who were housed with their children. In his fiction and drama, Klima documents everyday life in a totalitarian society. He is praised for his use of satire and black humor to examine the effects of political and economic repression upon ordinary individuals. Within this framework, it is easy to see the influence of existentialism—which emphasizes the absolute necessity of experiencing life in light of the fact that there is no guarantee of an afterlife—and particularly absurdist drama and fiction on Klima’s work. But since Klima was himself a person living in a totalitarian state, he also relies on his own life experiences to inform his fiction and drama. In this way, the absurdist images and situations in Klima’s work become metaphors for the actual condition of life Klima himself experienced in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi regime and, later, the communist regime.

Existentialism. Existentialist and satirical motifs appear in much of Klima’s fiction. In the trio of stories collected as Lovers for a Single Night, he criticizes modern life as stereotyped and routine. The stories are primarily monologues by young people who are trying to escape the monotony of their lives by searching for an intense emotional bond to a partner of the opposite sex. Klima added to his critique of life in contemporary society in Lovers for a Day. In these texts, for the first time in Czech literature, eroticism and sex emerge as the individual’s way of achieving self-realization, counterbalancing a rigidly conventional and outwardly circumscribed life. The story ‘‘Klara and the Two Gentlemen’’ in Lovers for a Day is strongly influenced by absurdist drama: It includes circular, almost meaningless dialogues and horrifying props and effects such as cages and barbed wire in a wardrobe and a telephone that rings at night but is silent when answered—a terrifying occurrence in a police state. The drama The Castle aroused interest as an indirect reference to the castle at Dobris, where the state-sponsored Czech writers lived in luxury, and as a parable of relentless power, especially during the Stalinist years.

Autobiographical Elements. Love and Garbage is set in Prague at the beginning of the 1970s, but the reminiscences of the hero take the reader back to the German occupation during World War II and to the Stalinist 1950s. Judge Adam Kindl is faced with the dilemma of whether to join the powers that be or to adhere to his moral principles. There are clearly autobiographical elements in the character, including his confinement in a concentration camp, his joining the Communist Party, his disillusionment with communism, and his work in the reform movement of 1968. In the end, Kindl decides not to cooperate with the political establishment, refusing to send an innocent man to the gallows as demanded by his superior, and gives up his post. In so doing, in spite of his subsequent difficulty in earning a living, he becomes a free man. Love and Garbage, like novels by such authors as Alexander Kliment, Ludvik Vaculik, and Karel Pecka, describes the lot of Czech intellectuals who refused to submit during the neo-Stalinism of the 1970s and 1980s.

Although he remains less known than some of his contemporaries, like Milan Kundera, Klima’s writings continue to influence readers by reminding them of the horrors that exist within totalitarian regimes.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Artists in totalitarian regimes often try to express the human face of the suffering endured by the restrictive practices and laws of the government under which they live. Here are a few works that deal with the emotional and intellectual response to these kinds of governments:

1984 (1949), a novel by George Orwell. Written just after the end of World War II (consequently the end of Nazi rule in Europe), this novel envisions a world in which a dictatorship has taken so much control over the lives of its subjects that every citizen has lost all sense of privacy and freedom. The novel continues to serve as a warning against excessive, invasive governmental meddling in the lives of its citizenry.

The Telling (2000), a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this science fiction tale, Le Guin examines the conflict between a totalitarian government and a religious sect that attempts to oppose it.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), a memoir by Anne Frank. Perhaps the most recognizable account of living in fear under a totalitarian government, Frank wrote the contents of this memoir while in hiding from the Nazis.

Jakob the Liar (1999), a film directed by Peter Kassovitz. This movie depicts life in a ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust. The protagonist, in order to give hope to his neighbors, tells them that he has a radio and is receiving messages about the prospect that they will soon be saved.

 

Works in Critical Context

When discussing the works of Klima, one must always remember that he spent a good portion of his career working in a country that banned his writing. Indeed, some critics have focused their analytical powers on defining in what ways and to what extent this ban affected the work of Klima. Other critics focus on the author’s combination of autobiography and fiction in his work. Overwhelmingly, though, most critics praise not only the daring evident in Klima’s life, as displayed in his willingness to continue to write despite governmental resistance, but also the power of the writing itself.

The Samizdat Works. The critics Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times and reviewer Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times have discussed the effects that government bans can have on writing style. Eder observed that ‘‘writing accomplished through censorship and the prospect of punishment can take on a primal urgency. There is a nerviness to it. It comes partly from the act of defiance, and partly from the hunger of readers to hear voices and messages denied them by the official monopoly.’’ As an example, Eder pointed to Klima’s short-story collection My Merry Mornings, which he called ‘‘a work of jittery truth ... gritty, passionate and starved.’’

The plot of Klima’s A Summer Affair involves a research scientist who, in the words of Times Literary Supplements Lesley Chamberlain, ‘‘shamelessly and unreasonably... abandons his family and his work for a humiliating and temperamental sexual arrangement.'' Summing up the author’s treatment of his protagonist’s behavior, Chamberlain states: ‘‘Though Ivan Klima does not quite condone, these are facts, not matters inviting judgment. Love is a condition, not a controllable sin, and Klima writes about it with disconcerting Flaubertian wisdom.''

My First Loves. My First Loves, a collection of four stories, was published in the United States in 1988. ‘‘At first glance,’’ Eder remarks, ‘‘the tone is delicately nostalgic, even pastoral.... The longings, delusions and losses of young love become a code language for an alien and crimped reality.'' According to Eder, the author is not always successful in this regard, and ‘‘the result is writing that is haunting at times, but that can be cloudy and bland.’’ Jack Sullivan, writing in the New York Times Book Review, comments that ‘‘Klima is most compelling when he is willing to trust the power and odd lucidity of his hero's adolescent musing. He is least so when he occasionally... explains the work’s symbolism and significance. No explanations are necessary, for these stories carry the burning authority and desperate eloquence of a survivor.''

Love and Garbage. Klima’s novel Love and Garbage focuses on a middle-aged dissident writer in Prague who had lived in the Theresienstadt camp as a child. Unable to make a living at his profession because his work is banned, he becomes a street sweeper. The tales of his fellow laborers become part of the material for his fiction, along with memories of people who were close to him and an account of his present struggle to choose between his wife and his mistress. The book turns on many allegories, most of which are centered around the question of what is trash. In the London Times, Barbara Day explains that ‘‘Klima was writing before the ‘gentle revolution' which swept away the tainted ideals of his country's old government, and brought in a new one. Now he is amongst those who are working—a little less gently—to clear up the rubbish of the past.’’ In the opinion of Alberto Manguel in the Washington Post Book World, ‘‘Love and Garbage announces [the] world’s essential dichotomy: We create in order to destroy, and then build from the destruction. Our emblem is the phoenix.''

In the New Republic, Stanislaw Baranczak criticizes the author’s style, noting that ‘‘Klima does his thing with utmost seriousness, with heavy-handed directness; even his symbols seem to have a sign that reads ATTENTION: SYMBOL attached to them, lest we overlook their exfoliating, larger-than-life implications.’’ Eva Hoffman, in the New York Times, finds that the author’s ‘‘sincerity sometimes slides toward banality. The novel's fragmentary method makes for a certain stasis.’’ She concludes, however, that these defects ‘‘do not substantially affect the import or the impact of Mr. Klima’s work,’’ which ‘‘affords the experience, rare in today’s fiction, of being in the presence of a seasoned, measured perspective, and a mind that strives honestly to arrive at a wisdom sufficient to our common condition.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read Love and Garbage. Can you tell which elements of the book were taken directly from Klima’s life experiences? In your opinion, is it ‘‘cheating’’ when fiction writers use events and characters directly from their own lives? Why or why not? What difficulties might this cause for the writer?

2. Read The Castle and Frank’s Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. How do these authors represent in their respective texts the totalitarian governments under which they lived? What aspects of the regime concern them? How do they convey this concern? Which text is more moving? Why? In your response, make sure to cite specific examples and passages from each text.

3. In Love and Garbage, a banned Czech writer must take a job as a street sweeper in order to make ends meet. In your opinion, which is the more important job—writing works that cannot be published or sweeping the streets? Why? Imagine an unemployed, unpublished writer living in New York and compare this to a sanitation worker in the same city; does your view on the subject change? Explain your opinion.

4. During the 1960s, many writers in Czechoslovakia were banned from publishing in their own country. Using the Internet and the library, research the government’s rationale for banning these authors, paying special attention to Klima’s case. Then, in a short essay, describe the circumstances that led to the practice and express your opinion on the subject.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Periodicals

Hajek, Igor. ‘‘Profile: Ivan Klima.’’ Index on Censorship (April 1983).

Hausler, Pete. ‘‘A Strange Kind of Exile: Hope and Despair in Ivan Klima.’’. Agni (1998).

Ward, Ian. ‘‘Ivan Klima’s Judge on Trial: A Study of Law and Literature.’’ Scottish Slavonic Review (Spring 1993).