Granta £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Under a Cruel Star: a Life in Prague 1941-1968, By Heda Margolius Kovály
Wednesday 18 January 2012
Heda Kovály, the Czech translator of Roth, Chandler and Bellow, had a tragic history. In 1941, the mass deportation of Jews from Prague was instituted by the Nazis. "We were not yet inured to sounds of gunshots followed by agonizing screams, to unendurable thirst, nor to the suffocating air in the crammed cattle cars." Before they reached the Lodz ghetto, many perished on the long march in the snow, naked and barefoot.
Kovály found a gentle intellectual she had befriended dead on a filthy mattress, lice crawling over him, surrounded by his books and the Botticelli Venus painting he cradled. The juxtaposition of innocence and beauty with the death of a decent man is shockingly painful.
Kovály's parents were murdered in Auschwitz. She escaped en route to Belsen. When she was reunited with her beloved, Rudolf Margolius, in Prague, they hoped communism would be kinder to them.
Not so. Margolius became deputy foreign minister, but their dream of a fair socialist state was blighted by the class element of communism: intellectuals and the middle class were loathed. Thousands were arrested. Margolius was hanged with others after the show trials of 1951.
Kovály's writing (translated by Franci and Helen Epstein, with the author) is brilliantly sharp. She vividly depicts the misery of the Communist era: food shortages; false rumours; moonlighting at many jobs; continuing anti-Semitism. But not only is Kovály feisty enough to avoid any semblance of victimhood, she also infuses her story with moments of dry humour ("the short, very fat wife of the President... waddled between rows of obsequious, bowing backs").
This is a brave, beautiful book about how humans can overcome atrocious abuse. At one point, Margolius and Kovály travel to a favourite spring in the woods and find it dessicated – a metaphor for the shrivelling of their country. The Prague Spring of 1968 saw the country rise against Russian totalitarianism, but tanks rolled in to crush the uprising. It is a comfort that Kovály, who died in 2010, lived long enough to see her country finally liberated from the shadow of communism.
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Howard Jacobson: Let's see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is
- 2 Instagram of US airport security chiefs: Lipstick knives and IED training kits among items seized
- 3 Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014: In defence of Mesut Ozil - the Arsenal midfielder works magic in the shadows
- 4 PornHub begs users to stop uploading video clips of Brazil getting beaten 7-1
- 5 Tony Abbott embarrasses Australia by praising Japanese WWII military, ‘getting on the sake’ and posing for ‘crotch-shot’ photo opportunity
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
There’s a nasty smell in the political air – and it’s coming from the Tories
Vanessa Feltz criticises 'vile' reaction to Rolf Harris allegations