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Book Review : Tales of the Underground by One Who Remained Behind

Times Book Critic

My Merry Mornings by Ivan Klima, translated from Czech by George Theiner (Readers International: $14.95)

Because we know it so largely through the voices of Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, perhaps we think of post-1968 Czechoslovak literature as endowed with wiry resiliency and a buoyant sense of the absurd. We may think, incautiously, art is not starved. Or even--more incautiously still--art is better starved. Recall Philip Roth’s self-gorged Zuckerman going off to Prague for some spiritual weight-watching in the literary underground.

Kundera and Skvorecky are splendid writers but they live abroad. Zuckerman went home after a few weeks. And we don’t really hear much from the underground direct. Readers International, which specializes in lost voices, has now brought out a collection of short stories by Ivan Klima, one of the writers who, like Vaclav Havel and Ludvik Vaculik, remained behind. Klima, in fact, chose to go back from abroad in 1970, two years after the Soviet invasion.

Underground is cold, damp and finally debilitating. It is a novelist sent to work in a chicken farm, a journalist who is a night watchman, a professor of philosophy sent to stoke a factory boiler and--philosophers require perfected systems--who has a nervous breakdown when the boiler cracks and he is blamed for it.

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The professor is one of those who wanders through Klima’s stories. Among other things signified by August, 1968, was this: the intellectuals, the scientists, the artists who had lived as a not unprivileged middle class before the Prague Spring, despite the constraints on their freedom, were given the choice of capitulating or finding themselves as part of a sub-proletarian, semi-vagrant underclass. And there the resisters have lived for 15 years now.

A Tale Each Day

Klima calls his seven stories “My Merry Mornings” and labels them tales, one for each day of the week. The title is ironic, but not as much as the word tales with its implication of something spry and neatly constructed stepping smartly out from point A to point B.

Klima’s “tales” collect and discard characters. They wander from the point and stop inconclusively. They submerge suddenly in details of day-to-day survival. They look for a meaningful pattern as someone might look in the rubble of a fire for bits of a photograph. As in a delusion brought about by starvation, a fragment will take on a sudden piercing significance and then slip away from it.

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Oddly enough, in this reimposed dictatorship the state has all but literally fulfilled Marx’s formula and dropped from sight. Society is run by invisible constraints and highly visible predators. They are profiteers, corrupt bureaucrats, policemen offering unfathomable propositions. Klima’s narrator--his own alter ego--drifts among them as an un-person under lackadaisical surveillance, sometimes idle, sometimes working as a hospital orderly or selling carp on the street at Christmas.

Illuminating the Dark

Each of the tales has some unassimilated spirit flashing out briefly though to no real effect, other than to illuminate the dark anarchy of the world around. The waif-like son of a black marketeer is locked in his apartment when his parents are out. He leaps onto the narrator’s terrace, breaking his wrist, the narrator takes him to the hospital where he spills out a reverie of killing his father.

In another tale, a hospital nurse takes the narrator home to look at old snapshots. In a third, the owner of the machine shop and a truck driver argue over a traffic collision while an old man who bills himself as a Private Doctor of Philosophy pedals up on a bicycle and makes love to a female shop employee.

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In their fragmentation, their tracklessness, their mixture of gritty realism and hallucination, Klima’s tales are not easygoing. They are closer to poetry, in a sense, than to fiction. And the translation by George Theiner is not always up to conveying their starved moonlight quality.

Still, enough comes across to capture and dismay us. Something has been crushed, Klima--uncrushed--tells us. The spirit of humanity can, if not quite die out, burn with a very low and chilly light.

The last tale brings together three outcasts. They are the narrator, a Gypsy girl who lives in a home for delinquents, and the professor who, recovered from his breakdown, carries copies of underground texts in a locked briefcase whose combination he keeps forgetting. It has been a season “rich in rainfall and police raids.” Their village is flooded and the three take refuge in a rowboat. As they row down the street, they pass the house of a local potentate. Out from his open window float his spoils: a painted wardrobe, an antique spinning wheel, a breadboard with mother--of--pearl edges, a jewel box, eddying and drifting in a flooded--out world.

It is an extraordinary image: a trio of spirits revisiting a dead land.

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