Books: Christmas - file under `Communism'

Lovers for a Day by Ivan Klima translated by Gerald Turner Granta pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Ivan Klima's own potted biography already reads like a candidate for the most implausible novel to span the last half-century. A child in Terezin (for reasons too complex to detail, his Protestant family had earlier converted to Judaism to avoid persecution), he grew up under the Stalinist purges of the 1950s. He was editor of the Czech Writers' Union journal during the Prague Spring and its violent suppression, became a founder and advocate of Charter 77, continued publishing through the Velvet Revolution and the secession of Slovakia from the Czech Republic. He has consistently refused to convert any of his invitations to lecture in the West into a permanent home.

Known here for a prolific succession of novels and short stories and for his political writings in magazines such as Granta and Index on Censorship, he is as rooted in his native Prague as his literary heroes Kafka, Hasek and Havel were. Yet he chooses to focus on the little things of life in order to explore the larger realities.

In this latest anthology, drawn primarily from stories a generation apart - from the 1960s and 1990s - it is the setting that gives a political dimension to his minute explorations of aspects of intimacy. Some read more as recorded interludes than stories: his "Long- Distance" and "Conjugal Conversations" reveal - or betray - as much by their context as by their content.

In a universally familiar argument over the definition of "conversing", the husband, intent on avoiding genuine interaction, informs his wife that "talking means opening one's mouth and saying words". But little differences appear in the meanings given to words as applied to key concepts such as "home" and "work" - even "Christmas" and "competition" (under Communism, where such a capitalist concept was abhorred, translated into Soviet "emulation").

A long-distance conversation takes place over the phone, where misunderstandings only multiply, between a bored Czech housewife, whose trips to the dressmaker render her worthy of a 19th- century novel, and her married Australian lover. He strives to identify with her by behaving like a cvok (a lovably crazy loon) when what she admires and desires is his autonomy as a cosmopolitan naval captain commanding the high seas furthest from her landlocked homeland.

The sense of mismatch and mutual misuse is palpable from the earlier stories where female students pick up older Party members for a taste of a good time, to the latter ones, where the literary cliche - along with the age gap - intensifies as the woman pursues the myth of a world beyond the narrow constraints of her life, and the man pursues the energy of a lost or wasted youth.

Klima's characteristic dreamer of the early stories, where the contrast between reverie and reality is explored in the setting of a factory assembly line, a knacker's yard or a dilapidated housing estate, gradually gives way to the forfeit of dreams in the face of life's one inevitability - its end. In "A Baffling Choice" a woman trades her active, handsome husband for a crippled bookbinder, losing what was most dear to her - her son - in the process. In "Rich Men Tend to be Strange", Alois Burda gives his all to ambition and loses all aspiration: if getting-rich-quick is the substitute for uniform poverty for all but the Party cadres, then it proves at least as disillusioning. The irrevocability of personal choices leads to the permanent exclusion of what once survived even the most aggressive repression. Perhaps if communism failed to deliver on its promises, then capitalism has done so doubly by forfeiting the hope of a better alternative.

These are moral fables, a La Fontaine for our time. "Fate offered everyone a moment when they could shine, the chance of some deed to transcend their own emptiness. But when that moment passed, what then? What should follow?" Paradoxically, the optimistic way forward is just another step along the path, which in turn means the openness to continuing new discovery. In Klima's stories, it is at the point where mutual dependence becomes unexpectedly explicit - a youth's sudden and overwhelming need for the blind lover he has been on the point of abandoning; the elderly judge's discovery that he has taken his own advice and relished the banality "that when I come home in foul weather like this I can say to someone, `It's raining out'." It is found at the point when reality and its transcendence triumph together. In that, after all, hope can reside.

These are previously untranslated stories from the anthologies Lovers for a Day and About Love and Death. Gerald Turner is most confident in his renderings of the original when most descriptive. Characterisation tends to translate weakly in all but the longest conversations, and dialogue can be cringingly out of place and period. What, after all, can be made of a factory worker who tries it on - even in his wildest imaginings - with: "Babe, you're fantastic, I'm really gone on you" ... ?