BOOK REVIEW / Employment exchange: My Golden Trades - by Ivan Klima: Granta Books pounds 13.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE TITLE of Ivan Klima's book, which no doubt sits more happily in the original, refers ironically to the Czech proverb 'A trade is a handful of gold'. The irony resides in the contrast between this prosaic piece of folk wisdom and the complex surrealities of life in Communist Czechoslovakia. Like Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, Klima came to the West after 1968, but unlike them he returned to his native land in 1970. As a banned writer, he was not only unable to practise his own trade, but obliged to take the various menial jobs which were all that were available to those regarded as ideologically suspect by the authorities.

Although the six stories are related in the first person and draw on autobiographical experiences, Klima's concern throughout is to transcend the anecdotal towards the widest and most general implications of the theme. The form of the book thus offers a consistent celebration of man's freedom from the tyranny of circumstance. 'The Archeologist's Story', ostensibly about a dig at a Celtic burial ground, broadens imperceptibly into a meditation on death, history and the spirit of place. 'The Courier's Story' is not only about a largely redundant job (ferrying data by hand between two computers) but about communication breakdown of all kinds, both political and interpersonal.

'The Engine Driver's Story' is a sarcastic parable of life under Communism: the narrator is prevented from driving his car by the harassment of the security police, but fulfils a childhood ambition when a fellow-dissident nonchalantly lets him take charge of a 400-ton freight train. The longest and most complex of these stories is the last, which effortlessly opens out Klima's experiences as a surveyor's assistant, via echoes of the land surveyor K in Kafka's The Castle, into a bleak survey of a civilisation blighted - perhaps terminally, as Klima suggests - by the arid

abstractions of political, social and scientific


In a story about smuggling banned books, Klima reflects ruefully that 'people sacrifice their time, put their freedom and even their lives at risk just to cross, or eliminate, borders they know are absurd. And then - often soon afterwards - in a single instant . . . the border disappears without a trace.' Some of the borders discussed in these stories have indeed been swept away since, but it is a measure of Klima's achievement that their brooding, tragic power is unaffected by this happy twist of history. The ultimate irony of the title is that Klima has turned the various humiliating trades which he was forced to practise into the purest artistic gold.