A few years ago I discovered a remarkable writer while visiting Prague and have yet to find his equal. Ivan Klima is a renowned writer in the Czech Republic, but relatively unknown in the U.S. as he is often overshadowed by another Czech writer, Milan Kundera. While Kundera is brilliant in his own right, I find him a bit too cynical. Klima tends to be a little more optimistic in his exploration of humanity and his prose flows with an unparalleled elegance. He manages to transform the lives of ordinary people into powerful emotional experiences that often challenge readers to consider a different perspective. To this day, I cannot fathom why Ivan Klima is not more widely read.
Here is a partial list of Klima’s works along with summaries and some of my favorite quotes:
No Saints or Angels
A jaded older woman falls for a younger man who renews her faith in love and herself. At the same time, her teenage daughter lost in the vast fields of growing up learns that love must extend beyond herself. These two stories intertwine amidst the communist regime of Czechoslovakia wherein Klima creates the bold metaphor that a mundane existence can be just stifling as an oppressive government.
- What happens to people who spend their lives afraid to voice their opinions? They stop thinking, most likely.
My Golden Trades
A collection of short stories where each story centers around a different job. Everyday life is explored through various characters including a book smuggler, an archeologist and a land surveyor. Each trade offers a not only a unique perspective on the human condition, but also explores city and country life in Czechoslovakia. While wholly fiction, Klima infuses his own experiences into each story as he worked most of the featured jobs himself at one time or another. This creates a unique social record of Czech life that is often forgotten or ignored in the Western world. Furthermore, Klima again brings to light the danger of oppression and the damage it does to the human spirit. Each trade represents the important of freedom and self-expression no matter the outlet.
- People miss opportunities every day. One can only try not to miss them through laziness or fear.
- When compassion and the commandment that life should be lived in dignity have been lost, there are no stories, only cries of horror.
My Merry Mornings
Another collection of stories, but they are a slight departure in that they are more cynical and rough around the edges. Usually, Klima exudes undying hope for humanity to break free no matter the trap, but in this collection it seems as though pessimism is nipping at his heels. The darker, more poverty stricken aspect of society is explored through a narrator that is never clearly defined. There is much debate over whether it is one character or several. There is a story for each morning of the week that showcases life as it exists on the docks, the marketplace, and in other dark corners Prague. The grittier approach gives Klima the perfect avenue to offer a poignant reminder that life is a short journey that ends much too quickly.
The Ultimate Intimacy
Often considered one of Klima’s best works, The Ultimate Intimacy follows the story of a pastor who preaches about the importance of love, yet can’t truthfully say he knows the fullest extent of love. Daniel Vedra’s marriage is one of convenience held together by the need for comfort and the shared responsibility of children. Part of him does love his wife, but its out of respect more than anything else. While he would never admit it, he craves something deeper.
Daniel is a master of commitment when it comes to faith, the church, and his family. His world is firmly entrenched in a predictable routine until a new woman begins attending his services. She is married as well, but is lonely and frightened of her husband. Yet, she will not leave because she is bound to him by her commitment. She is drawn to the pastor because of his genuine belief in love and he to her because she stirs something in him he didn’t know existed: the ability to be intimate with someone on an emotional level. When the two meet, fate pulls them into a realm neither expected. Thus begins an affair that tears at the fabric of faith, loyalty, and truth.
Both characters evolve in surprising and heartbreaking ways. A woman discovers she capable of more love than she ever thought. She finds she has the strength to hold on, even when the rope is very short. She starts to believe in something bigger than herself, and even starts to have faith that her life is worth living. The pastor, so ardent in his faith, finds he has been hiding something from himself for far too long. His doubtless faith in God in which he built his entire life around is really just a security blanket he clung to as a means to experience unconditional love. In fact, he has always doubted the questions that couldn’t be answered by anything but faith. While he gains the exhilarating and intimate feeling of true love, he loses an entire life of faith.
Klima brilliantly leaves it up to the reader to decide if the trade-off was worth it. He challenges readers to define what love means in every context even when rules are broken or norms defied.
- Money, like power, deflects one from the essence of life. People who think about money tend to forget about the soul.
- . . . the moment you stop making up your own mind you risk being taken advantage of.
- The only thing we have to bind another to us is love and understanding. All other bonds can be broken or feel like shackles.
- Most people gaze neither into the past nor the future, they explore neither truth nor lies, they gaze at the television.
- Something is happening to people: they are turning outwards instead of inwards.
- Whenever the conscious mind is absent, anything can gain a foothold, and mostly it is something bad, not something good.
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While Klima is not easily found in most mainstream bookstores, his work sometimes shows up in used bookstores and is often readily available on amazon.com. If you can find him, Ivan Klima’s work is well worth the read.