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The Boston Phoenix Love Stinks

Lovers are thwarted at every turn in these stories from Eastern Europe

By Adam Kirsch

NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

Lovers for a Day: New and Collected Stories, by Ivan Klíma. Translated by Gerald Turner. Grove Press, 229 pages, $24.

One of the commonplaces of the Cold War, made even more seductive in retrospect, is that the pressure of censorship squeezed the coal of Eastern European writing into a diamond. In this view, the moral urgency of their situation, the need for subtleties and double meanings, drove the writers of the former Soviet empire to greater heights than are possible in the loose and indifferent West.

One of the most interesting features of Lovers for a Day, a collection of stories by Czech writer Ivan Klíma, is that it gives strong testimony against this sentimental myth. Here we find stories from the 1960s, when Klíma's work was banned in his country, and from the 1990s, after the Velvet Revolution; and almost without exception the later stories are better. What we witness is more than the natural development of a writer's talent: it is the blossoming of his sensibility as the stunting secrecy and unhappiness of politics are removed. In the atmosphere of freedom, there are still intractable human ills to grapple with, but also the possibility of a richer understanding of them and a more peaceful resignation to them.

Despite its subtitle, this book is not a complete collection of Klíma's stories; instead, it includes selections from three books, the first published in the 1960s, the second and third in the 1990s. The theme in both periods is love, particularly, as the title suggests, evanescent and unhappy love. In almost every story, a tormented man pursues an indifferent woman, or a dissatisfied woman negotiates her way out of an imprisoning relationship. The backgrounds of the stories change with their times: in "Heaven Hell Paradise," from 1969, a man who has escaped Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring sneaks back in, with evil consequences, in pursuit of his married lover; in "Long-Distance Conversations," from 1994, a Czech woman tries to convince her lover not to leave his home in New Zealand in order to pursue her. But the emotional foreground, as these two summaries suggest, is identical, as Klíma tries to unravel the tangled motives of lovers: why do we pursue those who don't want us? And why do the insufficiencies of those we love become evident only too late?

In these questions we hear echoes of Chekhov. And Klíma's technique, too, descends from Chekhov, at least in his stories; he has also published many well-received novels, including Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light (Picador) and The Ultimate Intimacy (Grove/Atlantic). This is especially true of the later stories, in which his spare, modernist early style gives way to a freer, more comic narrative voice. The mood in the earliest stories is unrelievedly dark, and Klíma seems intent on hammering home the impossibility of successful love. In "Lingula," a student succeeds in getting a beautiful woman to go on an outing with him, only to find that his fervent emotion is tiresome and banal to her:

He wants me to say I'm fond of him. And he wants to kiss me. I have to find some way of telling him I like him and for that reason don't want to kiss him. Not now. Not now, at least . . . How she hated all those clichés. They confined her. They merged with her. They were inside her. She was drenched in them. They were all she could come up with. She couldn't manage anything else. All she could do was kiss him!

The clipped sentences and shifts of narrative perspective now have a dated feel, and Klíma's "message" is all too insistently clear. This is most evident in the story "Execution of a Horse," in which a young woman in the midst of a break-up is thrust into existential anxiety by witnessing the bizarre killing of a horse: it is a contest of love against death, and of course death wins.

But in the later stories, the same themes are handled with much greater subtlety and a more attractive detachment -- that impartiality masking compassion that is Chekhov's hallmark. In "Rich Men Tend To Be Strange," an old miser, grown wealthy in Czechoslovakia's new capitalist economy, deliberates over whether to give his money to a poor, compassionate nurse in the hospital where he is dying. Here, too, death triumphs over love; the man's native greed leads him to postpone the generous act until it is too late. But the story has a note of bittersweet comedy, as Klíma seems to be diagnosing an eternal human frailty:

Then he tried to imagine how she would respond to unexpected wealth. Would she accept it? In his experience, people never refused money. Outwardly they hesitated, but eventually they succumbed. He couldn't just stuff several million into her pocket, though; he would have to ask her to call a notary.

With such cynicism and evasions, Klíma suggests, we all avoid the simple acts of love that might redeem us. All of the stories in Lovers for a Day are accomplished and insightful, but the later stories are even more: they are wise.

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