Ivan Klíma: a sceptic in the era of entertainment culture

Ivan Klíma

The 78-year-old novelist, Ivan Klíma, is one of the best known and most widely translated of all Czech writers, with novels like “Love and Garbage”, “Judge on Trial” or “No Saints or Angels” acclaimed worldwide. Nearly all Klíma’s work focuses on human relationships, in particular between men and women, but at the same time he offers far broader insights into modern Czech society. In a recent interview for Radio Prague Klíma spoke about his latest book “My Crazy Century” in which he looks back at the first half of his life including his years in a Nazi concentration camp and his later flirtation with communism. But when I went to see Ivan Klíma last week at his house in a leafy suburb of Prague, it was to talk about the more recent past. I was interested in how he perceives the years since the fall of communism. The Velvet Revolution came suddenly, but did it take Ivan Klíma by surprise?

“It was very fast. We didn’t expect that the communists would disappear – or collapse – within a few days. That was surprising, we were very happy and of course the new freedom meant that we are living after so many years under free conditions for writing and for freedom of speech and so on. Many times I was asked how our writing has changed. Not too much. From the very beginning I tried to write very openly about reality, about my own way of thinking and evaluating things and relations between people, and I never considered myself a political writer.”

Ivan Klíma
At the time of the Velvet Revolution, were you in the middle of writing a book? Did it change your train of thought?

“I don’t think it changed so much. The political situation was only a background. It was not so important for me. Maybe it was for some of my heroes, because it influenced their lives.”

In the communist period reading and literature were very important in Czech culture. These days there’s so much entertainment around, there doesn’t seem to be the strong impulse to read that there was before. Do you find yourself feeling frustrated at this?

“I’m very sceptical about our whole civilization, which is preferring entertainment in the first place. People are sitting and watching very stupid TV series, or science fiction or horror and so on. That’s frustrating, and it was always frustrating, I guess, for the writer.”

We’re sitting here in your study and behind us are your bookshelves. I notice that there are quite a lot of novels by younger Czech writers, writers who are a generation, or even two generations younger than yourself. How much of an interest do you take in what the younger generation of Czech writers, and are there any writers you particularly like or dislike?

“I like some of them: Mrs [Tereza] Brdečková and Mrs [Irena] Obermannová, for example – there are several women among them – also Petr Šabach, Jáchym Topol. There are some very interesting writers, very different in their style. And sometimes I find something that is very inspiring for me, with a touch for contemporary language, which I also hear from my grandchildren, of course. When I was writing ‘No Saints or Angel’ – it’s about a teenager – I really used the services of my granddaughter.”

“No Saints or Angels” deals with very modern subjects – the question of drug addiction and growing up in the contemporary Czech Republic – and I was impressed by the way you managed to shift your language between the older and the younger generation.

“Of course, I’m in touch mostly through my grandchildren, which is quite enough to catch the colour of language. Sometimes I phone the oldest one, and I ask her how would you express this or that, and she is very helpful.

There wasn’t a tram for half an hour. Mum was going to leap up and down and yell at me again, but me and Ruda couldn’t afford a taxi; we were completely broke. Anyway we wouldn’t have taken one even if we had some money left. We’d sooner try to get a joint. But I didn’t want any more today. I’m spaced out enough as it is. When Mum eventually cottons on, there’s going to be hell to pay. But that’s her fault. She still hasn’t realized that I’m not her little girl any more running around like a trained monkey. (From: “No Saints or Angels”, trans. Gerald Turner)

There are quite a lot of novels being written at the moment in slang Czech – in colloquial language. It seems to be quite a fashion. Are you a bit worried, given that you were talking about the influence of TV culture and entertainment culture, that this might actually be bringing about a decline in Czech writing and in the use of the Czech language by writers?

“Some people are using this colloquial language, but the language of TV series is really a poisoned language. It’s not a real language. I describe it in my novel ‘Love and Garbage’ as ‘jerkish’, which is a language invented for communication between chimpanzees and people. It has about 225 or 227 words only which is quite enough for TV series. So that is something which is really dangerous. Maybe it’s easy to read, but it’s always dangerous, not only for the Czech language, but also for the content. It’s very simplifying.”

It occurred to me immediately that at last a language had been found in which the spirit of our age could speak, and because that language would spread rapidly from pole to pole, to the east and to the west, it would be the language of the future. (From: ‘Love and Garbage’, trans. Ewald Osers)

There is a huge gulf of experience between your generation of Czech writers – people who went through the traumatic experiences of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Stalinist period after the war, the Soviet invasion of 1968 – and today’s younger writers, who have very little of that shared trauma. Do you find it difficult to identify with them?

“It’s not difficult for me to identify with them, but it’s difficult for them to find interesting subjects for their writing. It was our advantage, in some way, as writers, because, if you survive, the more difficulty you have in life, the better it is. So they are lacking this kind of experience. But it doesn’t mean that we should prefer the war, the Holocaust and invasions and occupations. It’s only a side effect for writers that it offered some subjects. I didn’t use them so much, but I did mention my experience of the concentration camp in a short story, in one chapter in ‘Judge on Trial’, in some small parts of ‘Love and Garbage’, and of course in some ways it’s much more attractive to write about such difficult times.”

One Czech writer who as a child had very similar experiences to yourself is Arnošt Lustig. He seems to feel a very strong impulse – again and again – to write about the experiences that he had of the concentration camps in the Second World War – partly in order to keep reminding his readers of what really happened. Do you not feel that same impulse to come back to your traumatic experiences of the war?

Arnošt Lustig
“No. For me the era of Stalinism and socialism is much more important, because in my opinion Nazism is more or less entirely dead. But that is not true about so-called socialism and communism, which is much more vivid still, much more attractive for people. So it’s very important to show the features of it.”

There is an emerging generation of Czech writers who don’t seem particularly bothered by the communist past. It almost seems like ancient history. Do you think that’s quite healthy?

“Of course they are speaking about subjects that are attractive for them. That’s typical mostly for women writers – they are writing about their own lives and their own problems, which are not connected with the past – love affairs and so on. I agree that it’s healthy not to speak too much about the past.”

To what extent do you think that the actual language used by writers has changed in the years since the fall of communism?

“Of course, the language is developing. If you talk about the language in literature, it doesn’t change so much, but what is changing a lot in the language used in the newspapers and in the colloquial language, is the invasion of English words into Czech – unbelievably stupid! It’s poisoning the language. If somebody likes to write in English, it’s possible to write in English. Nearly everybody now among the younger generation understands English. But this poisoning of the language! It happened also a little with Russian under communism – that we used some Russian words – but because the Russians were hated, it was not on such a scale. Now, English is really used a lot. The second difference is that the language is a little simpler than it was before.”