The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with the Czech novelist Ivan Klima
You might say that the Czech novelist, Ivan Klima, has been the victim of the famous Chinese curse, 'may you live in interesting times'. Born in 1931 he was a boy when Czech independence was in effect handed over to Nazi Germany in 1938. As a Jew he and his family were interned in the Terezinstadt Concentration Camp during the Second World War. Klima survived though most of his family did not. In 1948 Czechoslovakia fell under Communist rule, and the young writer soon fell out with the Communist authorities. In 1968 at the time of the Prague Spring revolt against the Communists Klima was banned from publication. Though he was out of the country in Britain at the time when the Prague Spring was crushed, he returned to Czechoslovakia to face life under the Russian backed puppet regime.
For twenty years Klima was banned from publication, yet he wrote, he published samizdat and became one of that group of writer intellectuals Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, that personified a Czech spiritual resistance to Communist rule, and when the 1989 Velvet Revolution swept away Communism Klima's novel 'Love and Garbage' sold a hundred thousand copies. Klima has endured as a writer, endured as a human being, writing of the great themes of freedom, honesty and love and politics, and gazing with an unsparing eye on the lies of Communism and the moral miasma of post Communist freedom. He writes about individuals torn between loyalties, personal and political, increasingly uncertain about how to deal with them in a free world, and he struggles with ascribing the responsibility for Communist oppression to particular individuals with a deep sense that anyone who lived through Communism was fatally compromised by it. Should I accept, he writes in 'No Saints No Angels', that life is like that, betrayal, desertion and forgiveness, and those that don't accept it suffer.
It's impossible to separate politics from your writing because life and politics have been inseparable for you. In fact wasn't your very first piece of writing inside Terezin itself?
I started to write some very short essays in Terezin as a boy which I didn't save, and my first published one was in the magazine for children which was called For Christmas in the Camp, in the concentration camp, which I was very proud I was less than fourteen when I wrote it, and I was very impatient to see it printed.
What made you write, what did you think you were doing as a child to put thoughts on paper?
So the real first reason was my mother mentioned that she will commit suicide. They couldn't suffer any more. So my first poem, I never wrote poetry but that was the first experience. I wrote a poem 'Self Murder', and I only remember that it started like a very famous poem by Erben which was the national poet in the middle of nineteenth century, who wrote nearly, it was very close to folk songs or folk poetry, very simply, very rich in metaphors, so that's what I remember but not the content, and then we had no school in Terezin. Anyway for some short periods we had some illegal school and we got homework. Probably we could choose the subject and I wrote about the park in Prague. I mentioned it in 'Love and Garbage', and the teacher enjoyed it and I had to read it loudly in front of the class, so I was very happy, I felt that it's something very important, and I remember I started something like a novel in Terezin also which was probably something horrible but of course it is a period from the, from the surface of the land, because we left Terezin without anything so I nothing brought with me.
Do you know how you survived?
I know one thing, I survived. It's, it's a mate of my father, and for the long time he was a member of so called A K Transport, A K was Arbeitskorner in German, and it was the first transport who went to Terezin to prepare it for the prisoners and for the camp.
So he was protected because of that?
And he was protected, all members of this transport were protected 'til I remember to the beginning of '44. So I had such a feeling that I'm nearly safe, to which my father who was a brilliant specialist in his profession was engineer, mostly specialised on big machines, and he was a real specialist and he was responsible for electricity in the camp, so he was a very important person.
Now there's one other literary experience in Terezin of course, the famous one that you read and re-read, 'The Pickwick Papers'.
Because that was the only book available, or the only one you were interested in?
I had only two hours to pack our luggage. I took one book by Jules Verne, 'The Children of Captain Grant', and somebody found who prepared our luggage 'The Pickwick Papers' and he put it in my, in my luggage, so I had only two books, and for a long time I couldn't get any other books so I was reading it many times and for a long time I really remember the content of page after page.
So you survived Terezin. Then there was three years of freedom post 1945, before the Communist Party taking over. How quickly did you realise after that that life was going to be hard for you as a writer once the Communists were in power?
I was a student in '48, and because my father was a Communist so I didn't recognise immediately what it means. I found it when I started to write my first articles I brought it to some magazines and newspaper, so I found they refused it because of the content, but at the end of fifties, it means after the death of Stalin the situation was improving and we could write some very critical articles, and mostly when it was in the form of short story, so it was accepted, so all of my first book of short stories which was mostly stories written between '56 and '58, and it was published at the beginning of year '60. So all of them are critical, some of them I am even now surprised that it was published.
So you were, you were known, you must have been known already as a writer who tended to be critical, who caused trouble?
Yes certainly I was from my very beginning I didn't publish anything which was connected with socialistic realism and which many of the writers of my age they are very ashamed of their beginnings.
They did it to survive or they would say yes.
They, all of them published some books praising Party and praising Stalin and Gottwald rather, so I didn't publish anything like that.
And much later, I mean in 'Love and Garbage' you coined the word jerkish.
I don't know what the word is in Czech, but jerkish which is a very good word in English for the, the really corrupted language of communism. Now for you, somebody who depends on words, the dishonesty of the language in communism must have been the worst thing wasn't it?
Yes official language of this period was something unbelievable, but it was mostly in newspaper and radio and TV. It didn't touch so much in literature. Literature could be written in I can say normal language.
And so this was the atmosphere you, you lived in, the language all around you, the official language was this language with a corrupted sense?
Yes it was, but it was not the language of common people. People are speaking their own language, which has nothing common with official language, but it drew the, the language of newspaper and of TV it's not a language spoken by people.
Yes well we'll, we'll get onto that corruption later. I mean there's just a, another phrase I'd like to put to you, I think it's from 'Love and Garbage', where you refer to 'language deprived of meaning amplified by countless loudspeakers pouring over the countryside, seeping into our homes, our spirits, our lungs until we stifled'. I mean that seems to me to catch the spirit of totalitarianism, isn't it? that it just blankets you with this dreadful language. Did you at the time, when you were starting to write difficult and unpopular articles did you ever think you would be banned from publication?
I expected that they would allow me to work in some publishing house maybe only to correct some manuscripts, or something like that. Nothing, we were entirely non-existing person in the sphere of culture and a sphere of spiritual life. I didn't expect they will more or less accept that we are publishing abroad.
So that I didn't expect also, so it was in some way worse and in some way better.
But before that you had two opportunities not to return to Czechoslovakia as it then was. Once when you were in England at the time of the Prague Spring and then in 1970, so did you ever contemplate staying in exile?
Not too much, of course that I had to discuss it because I was, it's, it's interesting in year '70 the whole family was abroad, me, my wife, my children, my brother and his family and my father and my mother they were in Switzerland, my brother was in Bristol, he was teaching at the University, and my father was a specialist in big factory in Switzerland.
You could have survived.
And the whole family came back, which is something probably you, you cannot find the second so stupid family to, all family came back. Mostly it was my decision. My brother asked me what do you think, and more or less we all of us survived these.....periods.
But why did you come back?
I came back, main reason was that in my opinion it was very difficult to continue writing as a exiled person. You can live in exile. For example my father no problem, he was engineer, his machines were everywhere. He was of course much better paid and he could teach on the University. My brother is a physicist as well, but for me as a writer with exception of Conrad and Nabokov most of writers who left their countries had real problems to continue. Maybe they published one or two books but not the good books, but not more because I found I was very happy, in England I was very happy, in the United States, but it was for me very difficult to write about it and mostly for American readers because I had the feeling they have quite different problems, which touching them not them touching me.
And in any case it's the language, you're Czech...
And the second, and the second, of course the second very important problem is language so they were two great problems - life experience, which is connected with some, some special milieu, really connected with the, with the communism, with persecution, with the ......... system, and understanding the way how the people are behaving.
And the second, and the second reason was language of course.
But you must have known that this was one of, maybe the most difficult decision in, in your life?
It was a very difficult decision. I was hesitating for some moment. They were offering me wonderful place in Bloomington, Indiana as a professor. Anyway I decided and more or less I never was really sorry that I have made this decision, and it's very interesting illustration of it - I had repeating dream that I am in the States. I am very happy there, I am, I can shopping, I can walk everywhere, and in one moment I found some message that say you are depriving me of Czech citizenship. I couldn't go back, and in that moment I was entirely in despair and it was repeating dream which explained entirely my feeling. I should be happy to be there for one, two, three years but have a possibility of coming back, and in some way my most known books were written in this period when I was here oppressed. I couldn't publish, I could write, even maybe I had more time for writing than I have, I had after the Revolution, because I was expelled from all organisation, I was deprived of passport, I was deprived of telephone, so what I could do I could only write and, and to meet some friends.
Let me just get one thing clear, did you know in 1970 when you came back, before you came back, that you were going to be banned or were you banned on your return?
That I, no no no, that I, that I knew because...
You knew you would be banned.
Yes because we were banned more or less since January '70 we disappeared, so I was in very well informed within three months what I could expect. I mentioned that I expect that I, I should be allowed to work somewhere in the publishing house and it didn't, that I was wrong.
Yes. How on earth did you keep writing? What made you write when you knew that as far as you knew you might never be published?
For me the writing was the most important, not the publishing. I was always surprised when I was published, and I was used even from the '60s that many books were refused because of the content and I was one of the people who really started the samizdat, so we very, very soon we, we started to public in this poor way, it means only on typewritten, on typewriter produce books but...
Fifteen copies I think on carbons wasn't it, fifteen pages?
Yes fifteen, fifteen it was the maximum and it was done three times, four times, maybe sometimes ten times, so it, it, it got about one hundred copies, but it had thousands of readers because it circulated and then it was sent outside and Skvorecky in '68 published and Tomsky in London they publish it in form the books and it was smuggled back to the country and it was again it circulated so we had maybe more readers in that time when we were entirely banned than we have today when we are entirely free, and our books appeared in the, my books still in about five thousand copies, which is above the norm, or normality. Anyway we have maybe five, six thousand, maybe ten thousands but in, in that time my books were broadcasted by BBC, the Czech broadcast by Radio Free Europe, the Dutch ........ nearly the whole year each.
And did you tune in to listen specially?
I, I could listen some parts of it but I was much more interested in the news than to listen my own things, anyway...
And was that what kept you going as a writer that you did actually have an audience?
And, and I have to stress that in my case I had from the very beginning of since '69 I've had contract with the Swiss publishing house German language.
How did you get the books out?
We, we had from the very beginning we had good contacts with some Western Embassies, mostly American, Canadian, Swiss, Swedish Embassy and Belgium Embassy, and we brought there our manuscripts.
Why didn't the secret police stop you?
If they stopped me somebody else would replace me so it, I was never stopped. I was followed by police when I gave it to some German, this German man, and they, my car was followed the whole time but they didn't stop me.
You've written about Kafka and his approach to writing, and you said for him, for Kafka, literature was not external, not something that he could explore or separate from himself, writing to him was prayer. One of the few statements he ever made about what literature meant to him. Was writing like prayer for you also?
Probably not so much like, like for Kafka. I, I guess I'm a healthier person than Kafka was, for him writing was only way how to survive, for me maybe also but not so much. It's really difficult to compare. I, I have such a feeling that I have not very much common with Kafka, so I cannot compare myself with him. Not only because he is a great writer, but he has, he has, he's quite different personality. He was so shy, he was so afraid of women, he, he more or less for him was the only inspiration was his, his real traumas and troubles much more than for me.
But although in a sense you're painting a rather active, almost enjoyable picture of samizdat, getting the books out, outwitting the authorities, again in 'Love and Garbage' you write, and this is the hero who after all could not be published, and the hero says 'I could hear nothing except a barely perceptible snapping sound as some of the individual threads broke and I longed to discover some hope I could attach myself to'. Now you must have felt that sense of hope disappearing mustn't you?
Maybe sometime, maybe sometime, but I was for most of my friend estimated like a great optimist. So of course I, I mention that I couldn't entirely identify with the hero of 'Love and Garbage'. Very often the readers identify me too much with protagonists of my novels. I am not..., I, I like to invent a lot of things even not only the events but also the characters and the feelings, so anyway there were some moments when I maybe shared these, these feelings.
But not the whole time?
And not the whole time. For me I explain it that for me after the experience from the camp and how I survived really for me it was miraculous after the War that I survived as a Jewish child, so for me nothing could be compared with this kind of persecution. So I was in comparison with my, my friends I was much more optimistic and I had a feeling it's okay, we are living and we, even we could publish abroad a little and, and in samizdat and why to be despair. And of course the thing was for me I was in easy position because I could live on my foreign royalties. I mostly depend....
They couldn't stop those?
They didn't, they maybe could, they tried to do it but in some way it was for them so complicated to, to stop this money, because somebody brought it, some, some person always came, unknown to them he changed the money, for crowns he gave me the, the whole amount of money, which was my royalties, mostly for my theatre plays, and because it was a wonderful rate of exchange so I could live on a relatively small amount of money, so I had no reason to be entirely despair.
Let's talk about style, your written style. In 'My Golden Trades', which is a collection of essays about the various rubbish jobs or stories, rubbish jobs that, that people had to do including people like yourself, any job that the regime said, and one of the characters there says, 'perhaps we would be better off if we worried less about whether we had expressed ourselves in a new way and more about whether what we've expressed is of any use to anyone'. Now that suggests that you're not terribly interested in literary forms as such, is that right?
Precisely, I am not a practitioner of post modernism. I always had in my mind the reader, that I am addressing somebody who is not a specialist in deciphering new literary forms. On the other hand I always for me the most interesting was to look for some interesting form to find some new ways how to address people. It's translated in so many countries with so different people and readers, so maybe I succeeded to combine this, this care for the reader and my effort to find some interesting way how to express myself, because in each my novel I try to find different ways.
Yes because in 'Ultimate Intimacy' you have the diaries, the recollections, the many characters and the, the reflections, the priest with his very, very deep religious thoughts. I mean that is, that, that requires quite a lot of thought and, and following. I mean it's not immediately easy to read. I can see why you do it in formal terms, but it's not a conventional form.
It's not form for form. It's form only to show how it's complicated the fate of this protagonist in, in no sense or, and it's written in the first form but narrated by a woman. So anyway it's something which is not very common for, for men writer, and for example waiting for the dove, waiting for the light, its combination of film stories and narration, so it's always something which, which was interesting for me this combination. Even the combination in 'Love and Garbage' it's such a collage of many motifs which they start jumping one from, to the other. Anyway I was told by many readers that it's very ... book, so that it's on the first side it's as complicated.
Yes, I think in 'Love and Garbage' there are at least five narratives, maybe you'll tell me there, there are more, and whether it is the hero who is the garbage man who happens to be writing essays about Kafka, or his mistress, or any of the people who, who were involved with him, and these come back paragraph by paragraph.
You, you have to be in the paragraph before you realise that the perspective and the time has, has shifted.
Yes yes yes.
Was that difficult to write, to keep control over that?
No no I enjoyed to write this book. Probably it's my, my easiest book because I got this idea, this, as I said this collage of motifs, it's a motif of catastrophes, of aeroplanes, it's motif of Kafka so it's motif of father and so and so on. I enjoyed the jumping and sometime it created something new for me this lightning, like lightning, so that I enjoy it.
Did you have to rewrite a lot because it is so complex, did you have to go back on it?
Each page I wrote so many times that I hated the book. Anyway probably this not so, not so much.
Do you rewrite at the time or I mean do you write...?
Always after time.
At the time?
Immediately but I write it next time and then a month later and then when its book finish again twice, three times, and I'm always repairing and I'm mostly cutting off and.
So when do you know that it's right?
When, when I start to hate it.
But you don't hate it so much that you reject it?
No, no I only hate to write anything more.
And of course we're talking as if these are technical exercises and the subject matter matters, and one of the recurring themes, a key one certainly in 'Ultimate Intimacy', certainly in 'Love and Garbage', the intense sexual and moral tension between a man and his wife, the dutiful decent wife, the man then falls head over heels passionately in love with somebody else and then the tearing of the relationships apart in this struggle. Is this because you feel, or you're exploring the thought that the freedom that may come from a sexual affair is not actually freedom, it creates more problems than it solves?
More or less, and of course I had some experience even in my own life and I guess it's most important problem for many people today, and of course I am called the moralist. I guess that we cannot evade this problem mostly if we have children and, and of course some responsibility to our partners who mostly spent years with us, so that's something which I tried to touch mostly maybe in the 'Ultimate Intimacy' when really it just happened to priest who's entirely destroyed by this problem, he couldn't solve it and it's nearly killed, it's his problem it's killing him and...
It destroys his faith, it destroys his marriage, except it doesn't quite destroy his, his marriage but, but he knows that there is no freedom in the sexual relationship...
No ultimate freedom.
For a priest it's, it's more complicated and I know even some priests who had to solve this problem, even some divorced priests because I'm speaking of Protestant priest. Anyway it's problem of anybody who, who takes life seriously.
In the 'Ultimate Intimacy' the hero who was a clergyman wrestles intensely with his belief and there's some quite long sections which are, as far as I can read, rather deep theologically. Now where does this knowledge, understanding of theology and engagement with Christianity come from. I mean you're Jewish but you were baptised Protestant, but you have to have some sort of special interest in theology to, to write that?
Yes I was very active in the Protestant Church. I, I had no Jewish education. I am much more educated in Protestant sphere, and interesting I had no Jewish experience because I didn't take part in any Jewish activity there, and when I came back so I was active in, in Protestant movement for a long time, so and I read many times Bible and for me it was something which of course interested me. I'm not a real believer. I knew many priests and I understood that it's problem for them and in some period of my life it was a real problem. I, I, I can admit it yes.
And then in Terezin, a remarkable statement, you said thinking back to those days it was clear to him that in spite of all he'd been through God's love had not abandoned mankind, he believes for that reason that he's spent the best or at least the most meaningful years of his life there, that was Terezin. Now I mean that's a, that's an extraordinary Christian statement isn't it?
When I was there I had no knowledge about any religion. I had no lessons in religion at all and, and also not any Jewish education. I heard that I am Jewish only when the Nazis came.
So that is, that is you the novelist speaking rather than you the autobiographer...
Yes, yes yes, yes yes.
Fine. Is there also a political dimension to this, that is there's an analogy with post communist freedom, that is the wish, the hope that the new relationship, whether it is post communist freedom or whether it is a new sexual relationship, will solve problems, will provide freedom, but as you have written many times even the freedom of the new democratic Czech Republic brings its own problems? They just happen to be different problems.
Yes of course I touch in, in many, many of my books. This new, new situation brought new problems and of course it brought some money are bringing always problems, because they are bringing some, something which is for many people a new freedom. I don't think that it's a real freedom but anyway for many people it is...
It's better than there was, than what there was before, obviously that, that's not the issue, the overall situation...
No no it's, I don't compare what is better. I only describing the problems, and of course there is so many now, so many problems. I am touching it in, I mention it in my last novel, which is called 'The Prime Minister and the Angel', it's a problem of corruption and, and problem really of so many immoral behaviour by so many people, by police and by, by ministers and by, by, by everybody, so that's something which is new.
But you're not disillusioned by it?
Disillusioned I, I cannot say disillusion. I, I was expecting it but it happened and of course I guess it's some demoralisation. It's very typical for the whole modern Western society. It's not, it's maybe more visible in these post communist countries because we have, we have nearly no tradition in democracy and in some limits and we have no, no people who are rich because the whole family was rich, the ancestors were rich so it's for many, many of them it's, it's a normal life, but here people who are overnight became rich so are not used to it and they're entirely upset and they are losing all contacts with the past, with the people, and it's, it's very interesting.
In 'No Saints No Angels' one of the characters, his job is to hunt down the people who tortured in the previous regime, and he then, he gives it up because he says 'the work I do is poisoning my soul. It forces me to concern myself with the despicable dealings of the past to such an extent that I end up seeing nothing else. Each of us has some connection with them, the torturers, either personally or via our fathers or mothers'. How long is it going to take for the communist experience to work itself out of the Czech political system?
One generation more, then it will disappear. We have now in our Government some previous communists who are quite open declared we were communists, it is better, and they are sitting everywhere still. They were very successful in how to keep power, how to get power, so that will survive I guess one or two generations yes.
I want to ask you some questions about Prague.
And what does Prague mean to you?
When I'm here I don't feel any patriotism, but when I was abroad I was homesick for Prague. Mostly for the places where I spent my first loves, first kisses, and when I thought that I couldn't visit it any more it was for me horrible. It's true that I never when I came back visited these places, and anyway I wrote not only a place, some of my books in the Prague streets and Prague City, and I published a book which is called 'Spirit of Prague' where it's some ... in Prague. I also wrote a book on Prague. Anyway I can be lost in, in new Prague because there are so many new streets and new quarters, so that...
But in old Prague what really matters to you, in old Prague?
In old Prague it's old Prague it's rather small. I spent my childhood in, in one quarter which is very close to old Prague. It's just on the frontiers with old Prague, and then when I was married so I lived on Smeehof which is just centre of Prague. It's just impossible to live there now. I just yesterday met my old friend who is now President of Senate and who has his flat just under the Charles Bridge and he said we, we have to move because impossible to live there because it's this million of tourists. You, you couldn't walk, you couldn't, you couldn't go, you cannot go out of our house.
So it's another aspect of freedom, well tourism, an aspect of freedom and it deprives you, you know in the end it almost takes your city away from you.
It's, I must say it's, it's, if you know the old Prague these, these streets for tourists there are only few and these millions of people are going the same way, and the neighbour street which is more beautiful is entirely empty, but if you have, have just this main, main street for tourists so it's, it's, it's hopeless.
All right, so here you are writing, do you miss the days when writers really mattered to society?
That's a very difficult question. I always accept.. how it is. I, I am, I am not very enthusiastic about contemporary society and, and their idols, their way of behaviour. I am the whole time criticising in many articles they have the only god and that it's entertainment and, and these sports fan, fans who are destroying everything and that's something which I, I really don't like, and it's step by step to the lower, lower and lower spirit, and if you now read newspapers so there are so many interviews with leaders, leading persons in football and, and golf and ice hockey, and if you read it it's so empty. So of course that it's better when the writers were, were giving interviews, because sometimes they have some remnants of spirits.
Something to say.
Something to say, and so that's something which, which is rather depressing. It's very dangerous for the society these new idols which are people are entirely empty and for them it's really their only goal is to, to get more money and, and, and to be famous by, by giving a goal and it's very interesting for, for contemporary newspaper. You never can read that some Czech orchestra played in Japan and that some book was translated in Korea, but each day not this year because there is a strike in national ice hockey league, but last year we had maybe sixty Czechs playing ice hockey league in Canada and the United States. Each goal each day is announced in newspaper - who gave against who, all goals, it's, it's so stupid because nobody takes care for it.
They just read it.
But probably they, and it's so empty because this goal has meaning only for one day because the next day are coming new goals and, and, and it's continuous. It has no sense, and that's content of our, our news.
I want to end with your view of, of people, and I think what you said, and I'm going to quote, was more about how people behaved under communism, but I think maybe it's throw some light on, on you, well you'll tell me if it does, and you summed people up you said, 'there are swines and there are people with two faces, one for work, one for private life, and there are people who are only cowards'. Well if the choice is between swines, cowards and people who are two faced who would you say are the, the redeeming types, because all those types are beyond redemption?
No I still believe there are some people who have one face and that are not swine, and mostly now they need, they needn't two faces because they're quite open be swine and they can be honest and if somebody is honest so I'm afraid that many people think about him like a stupid person. Anyway there are many, many honest people still, I believe it.
Ivan Klima thank you very much.
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