An obscure object of desire

WAITING FOR THE DARK, waiting for the Light by Ivan Klima, trs Paul Wilson, Granta £14.99
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IVAN KLIMA's new book is a study of accidie, set in an unnamed Prague in an unnamed Czechoslovakia. Like his outstanding earlier novel A Summer Affair (1987), it is a novel of extra- ordinary unhappiness. It has an air of unconsciousness, as if its author doesn't quite know what he has done.

Klima's protagonist, Pavel Fuka, is a cameraman employed by state television. His dissident friends criticise him for collaboration, although he is debarred from advancement by a prison record (he once tried to leave the country illegally). He films an unspecified demonstration, an unnamed factory (the Semtex factory), an interview with the unnamed President (President Husak). His footage is good, but subject to censorship, and he is frustrated, in an etiolated way.

He works intermittently on an screenplay called ``Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light''. He is made miserable by the senility of his mother; he mourns the child he might have had; he perpetuates a blank affair. He wants to make his own film, but when censorship is lifted he is afraid to finish the screenplay. Unfinished, it provides a refuge - so he wastes his time making advertisements, buying a Mercedes, and failing to resist a job in soft porn.

Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is structurally ingenious, moving between three different times. The first is well before the unnamed ``Velvet Revolution'' of 1989, the second includes it (Fuka films the President's resignation), and the third is some time after it. But things are not so simple. Scenes from the earliest time cut abruptly into later times. They seem to break basic narrative rules - until it becomes clear that they are fantasies cultivated in the later time, fictional transforms of Fuka's real past life, inventions that refract into his evolving screenplay, which is itself presented as a story in four parts, and makes up more than a third of the novel.

There are, then, at least three levels of reality. They are all unstable, but there are thick connections. In the prime reality, Fuka loves Alice, whom he meets during the 1968 invasion by an unnamed foreign power. She becomes pregnant, he persuades her to have an abortion, he lets her down. In the quasi-reality of his inventions he loves Albina. She becomes pregnant, she miscarries, he lets her down. In the film reality he loves Ali or Alina. He fails her, and she is miserably killed by an escaped prisoner, an obscure morphing of himself. The reader is intricately confused. So is the protagonist, uncertain which life is his own.

At first the structural complexities seem tiresome. Then they acquire authority. Some of the book needs to be read twice, and it might have contained an instruction to this effect. Few would wish to act on it, though, because the story is so discouraging. It is the Alice-Ali-Alina-Albina sequences that release new meanings on rereading, but the effect is merely to multiply the sadness of the first reading.

It is puzzling, then, that Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is described on the cover as ``darkly humorous''. The phrase is astonishingly inappropriate. There is a kind of depression that is so deep that one is not even aware that one is depressed. This is how it is with Fuka.

Perhaps ``darkly humorous'' is an automatic blurb phrase for Eastern European novels. Perhaps the humour is meant to lie in the old President's clinical paranoia, as depicted in the film-reality, or in Fuka's mother's senility, or in the very large questions that Fuka keeps raising, picking up on the words and phrases of routine thoughts and conversations: ``What was tedium?'' ``What was faith?'' ``What was justice?'' ``What did it mean to be with someone?''

Greed, fear, victory, truth, life, death, wretchedness, dishonesty, dishonour - Fuka is more alive in his questions than elsewhere, but his answers are too thin. He cannot match them with action, and they are never humorous. ``How long can you suppress your own desires? Until you understand that in doing so you will destroy yourself.'' Fuka understands that he is destroying himself and does nothing. He shrugs, he is drained, he is inconsolable.

This book will be examined for its socio-political implications, but it is about the sorrow of love. Its achievement is its sadness, but its sadness is fully revealed only by a clear grasp of its structure. I would not have understood this if I hadn't had to review it. Like most of those who read it, I would have judged it to be somewhat disappointing.