by Ivan Klma
trans. Gerald Turner
Granta, pounds 12.99, 229pp
THIS IS one for the outright curious. Not only do the stories in this collection explore every aspect of the lover's ambiguities; they tell you a bit about the author too. The first five were written by the Czech author Ivan Klma in the Sixties; the last seven are from the Nineties.
So you could just read the book to find out what difference 30 years has made to Klima's craft. It's a bold book for that reason alone - as if the Rolling Stones relayed gigantic clips from their original gigs as backing visuals on a comeback tour. Does a writer inevitably mature with age, or does he degenerate before our eyes?
Bravery comes naturally to Klima, with his background of political rebellion. This too makes the reading interesting, for there is the question of the effect, if any, on a writer of the lifting of his dissident status. Born in 1931 in Prague, to Jewish parents, Klma is unusual among the Czech dissident writers, because he continues to live in Czechoslovakia.
For most of his career his work was banned in his own country, only emerging a few years ago. Does it matter? When I interviewed Klma's fellow dissident Josef Skvorecky, he told me the Czech writer is a pragmatic being whose job is to write. Only one negative vibe ever came between a Czech writer and his pen, he claimed - and it's not political. "Some may be envious of Kundera," he said.
The same wry truth-hitting underlies all these stories. The subject matter changes little. The dissident's lot means that he cannot write about the public realm, so the private one is examined minutely. In the Sixties, Klma's characters are younger, wilder, and their disillusion more garishly coloured. A girl looking to be picked up ends up being shown round a factory where minks are farmed, and a horse is slaughtered. In the later stories, the sadness is more muted; characters go quietly, crying.
The early stories cover the first stages of love: the search, the broken hearts. Adultery and divorce follow swiftly. In "It's Raining Out" (from 1987), a divorce court judge himself finds all of a sudden that one of the women appearing in front of him is more than a blur to be rubber-stamped. He heeds the call, starts the affair, but although you are never told, you get the impression it doesn't change the uncomprehending non-justice he dispenses.
That is the underlying frustration of all these stories - not that the characters can't find love, but that they do, repeatedly, and it still doesn't change the world. It is, after all, the dissident's tale. But the effect on the reader is transforming, because Klma's skill is such that with bare-bones language he draws little worlds that entirely convince for the length of their telling.