A novel by the Czech writer Ivan Klima, written in the early 1980s: mostly garbage, actually. He’s very good on garbage: he describes well the environmental pollution of Prague and its environs by the communist regime, and how they also polluted people’s minds through their mendacious propaganda, which he (or his translator) memorably characterizes as “jerkish”.
But the trouble begins with the “Love” part. He – wait a minute, who is he? One could normally assume an ironic distance between middle-aged author and middle-aged narrator, except that there is a particularly shifty attempt at a disclaimer at the beginning of the book: “None of the characters in this book – and that includes the narrator – is identical with any living person” – celebrates infidelity, in this instance with a sculptress, maybe as some sort of escape from the grinding detail of life under communism. All I could think was “man, put it away, be fair to your wife and kids” – but he keeps going with it for over 200 pages before coming to the tortured conclusion that, er, having two women on the go at the same time isn’t worth it, so he has to ditch the mistress. Who by this time has descended (surprised?) from a paragon of virtuous musehood into a viciously angry and jealous monster. Is that the fault of the nasty authorities, or the i-couldn’t-help-it indecision of the narrator?
As a picture of daft manhood (or rather the failure of manhood) I don’t think, in detail, it could be bettered. But, although over-written (and occasionally poisoned by the “narrator”‘s unpleasant condescension towards those – e.g. football fans or enthusiasts of popular culture – whom he considers have lost their souls), it does have some insightful moments, including one where the narrator, reflecting on his own wedding, sees into the true depths of his own impulse to infidelity (quotation stripped of angst-ridden over-coloration in order to cut to the chase):
“What depressed me were certainly not doubts about the rightness of my choice, but the knowledge that I’d made a decision once and for all. I suspected that for me the most blissful prospect was not so much having the person I loved permanently by my side as… the hope that the real encounter was still awaiting me…Man is reluctant to accept that his life has come to a conclusion in that most important respect, that his hopes have been fulfilled.”
Dear me, tragic, but possibly one we guys all might have to struggle with. Too bad for us. And then at the death, after a final, post-breakup encounter with his once-idyllic mistress, he spots this one:
“paradise cannot be fixed in an image, for paradise is the state of meeting. With God, and also with humans. What matters, of course, is that the meeting should take place in cleanliness…Paradise is, above all else, the state in which the soul feels clean.”
Getting in touch with his conscience then…I guess we all figure things out in our own good time…
I shouldn’t be irreverent – he is an honored figure in Czech literature…