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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.
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