My Crazy Century: A Memoir by Ivan Klima

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Reviewed by Max Dunbar

Dictatorship of the Average

This place’ll be a paradise tomorrow. And in every department there’ll be a supervisor with a sub-machine gun.

– from  ‘Mao Tse Tung Said’ by Alabama 3

There’s a famous saying upon revolution, the origin of which I forget, that goes something like: the revolution doesn’t come when the dictatorship is at its worst and has everything locked down. The revolution comes when there is a loosening, a relaxation, of state power, where there is a space, to breathe – to get perspective.

Ivan Klima, the Czech writer and playwright, was thrown into Theresienstadt as a child and was just thirteen years old when the war ended. ‘This is merely speculation,’ he writes, ‘but whatever the reason for my survival, I can take neither credit nor blame for it. In this abominable lottery, I had drawn one of the few lucky numbers’.

Among many other horrors, the twentieth century introduced the phenomenon of ‘survivor’s guilt’. Why should I live, the survivor asks, when many good and brave people died? When the question should be: why did these terrors even occur? Klima doesn’t ask it. His aim is to give an accurate record of a time where life was easily lost. There is a stoical feel to the prose.

Theresienstadt was not the only tragedy of the writer’s life, although it took the young Klima a while to realise it. Klima’s father was a doctrinaire communist who welcomed the Soviets as a liberating ally. Whenever friends or neighbours pointed out Stalin’s abuses, he raged and spun about English and French colonialism. Inevitably he was dragged in front of a people’s kangaroo court, accused of sabotage, double-agenting and all kinds of scoundrel things, and kept in solitary confinement for nine months. Instead of fighting the charge, he spent years trying to become ‘rehabilitated’. His son comments: ‘They certainly gave you an idiotic excuse.’

After Stalin’s death came the loosening. The 1956 Communist Congress brought something amazing: criticism of Uncle Joe’s legacy. The Klimas huddled around a radio in shock as Krushchev detailed Stalin’s murder lists and torture of prisoners. Klima’s aunt, who spent many years in the Soviet Union, began to speak:

When she was working in Czech broadcasting at the Moscow radio station, people she was working with would be there one day and then gone the next, and no one dared ask where they were or what had happened to them. No one dared even pronounce their names. And if one of the disappeared had happened to write a book or an article, not a word of it could be cited, and the book was immediately removed from the library and destroyed. Merely cracking a stupid joke or just laughing at it was enough for the security forces to come for the unfortunate person. Sometimes the police would come that very night and sentence him to ten years in a camp in Siberia. Or he would disappear completely, and at most his family would receive a package containing his clothing.

Why didn’t you tell us this, Klima asked.

Because I lived through it, the aunt said.

Klima’s main phase as a writer came at this time of slight loosening. The dictatorship had lost its peak and knew it, they couldn’t go back, but at the same time the authorities could not embrace total liberalism, and freedom of expression, because that would mean the unravelling of everything they had worked for. We think of censorship as something grand and inquisitorial. But the corrupt, sclerotic and exhausted satellite states, in their monitoring of writers and artists, could only manage a mediocre literalism where fictions were crafted by committee. The historian Keith Lowe writes:

One of [Klima’s] main themes is the huge gap between the way the state portrayed the world and reality as he experienced it. The much-vaunted youth brigades – groups of young pioneers sent to work the fields – turn out to be a bunch of disillusioned, depressed teenagers, whose only ambition is to get drunk and escape to the West. Party functionaries portray themselves as dedicated idealists, but all they do is travel the country chasing women. Construction workers spend their days drinking and playing cards, while state-approved authors are put up in an 18th-century chateau, where they eke out their days pretending to write.

Or as Klima himself puts it: ‘In all branches of human activity, the average has always prevailed over creativity or even genius, and there has never been a dearth of proficient frauds.’

Writers today pursue the perfect conditions for writing, through expensive courses and retreats; debates are had on how to balance the writing life with commitments to day jobs and families. Klima’s situation, where he needed to produce good work without getting arrested or murdered, was an even trickier balancing act. His play The Castle is about an elite who live in a fabulous castle ‘cut off from all hardships and worries. They hold empty conversations about the people they serve and the work they do, although it is clear they do nothing at all. One day a corpse appears on a table, and a stranger appears to investigate. The strange man summons a doctor who in turn calls in the police. The play is a sort of Czech An Inspector Calls and was performed at the Vinohrady Theater. It took a week for the authorities to catch on and the council banned all advertisements for the play, not understanding ‘that such a prohibition was the best kind of advertisement, and the play was always sold out’.

‘And yet there is something distant, almost dreamlike, about this book,’ Lowe says. ‘The Europe we live in today feels so different to the Communist world he describes: it seems almost inconceivable that totalitarian regimes like this were still in power, in the heart of Europe, a mere 25 years ago.’ But perhaps this dreamlike distance is something contributed by the reader – our sense that all this is ancient history and can never happen again.

Can’t happen again?

Can’t happen here?

You think.

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Max Dunbar blogs at Max Dunbar

Ivan Klima, My Crazy Century (Grove, 2014), 534pp.

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