Ivan Klíma’s work marked by “empathy”, says translator as author turns 85

Ivan Klíma, photo: archive of Czech Radio

The renowned Czech writer Ivan Klíma, author of novels such as Love and Garbage and the autobiography My Crazy Century, turned 85 on Wednesday. Klíma became a dissident in communist Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion and was one of a number of Czech writers who were forced to publish in samizdat at home while simultaneously enjoying international success. I discussed aspects of Ivan Klíma’s work and life with Gerald Turner, who has translated a number of the author’s works, including Judge on Trial.

Ivan Klíma,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“What I like about his work is an empathy with people’s conditions, a concern for human relationships, what makes up the web of human society, a concern for the goodness in people, looking for the goodness in people, and cautious optimism.”

I remember in the 1980s before I ever came here that his books were very popular in the West, as were those of several other Czech writers. Obviously they suffered under communism, but did they in a sense benefit in terms of their international profile from the fact that they were politically persecuted at home?

“I think they certainly did benefit from the fact that they were persecuted in their own country.

“It was a period in the 1980s when very little was known about Czechoslovakia and Klíma wrote in a way which was accessible to people in the West.

Gerald Turner,  photo: David Vaughan
“It was, I think, nice to read somebody who treated the situation of people in totalitarian regimes with a degree of humour. And I think Love and Garbage was successful for that reason.”

What did 1989 mean for Klíma’s career, and for his life?

“Interestingly enough, I remember Ivan saying to me that he had been taken by surprise by what happened at the end of 1989.

“I don’t think it changed very much for him at all. He continued to reflect on what was happening in society.

“And there’s no great change in his books from what he wrote prior to 1989 and what he wrote after. Because he’s dealing with human situations, and private human situations, which in a sense don’t change.”

You mentioned that you know him. What’s he like at the personal level?

'My Crazy Century' | Photo: Academia publishing
“Ivan is a very private person. Philip Roth described him as somebody who was solid, and I think that’s not a bad description.”

I guess he wrote his most recent book, My Crazy Century, at the end of the last decade. Do you know if he is still writing now, at the age of 85?

“I don’t know. I can ask him when I next see him.”

Do you know how he is?

“He sounded very sprightly when I last spoke to him about two months ago. And I’m looking forward to seeing him when I visit Prague in the next couple of months.”