Sunday, February 05, 2017

An Unconventional Childhood

The Spirit of Prague: And Other EssaysThe Spirit of Prague: And Other Essays 
by Ivan Klíma

"A city is like a person:  if we don't establish a genuine realationship with it, it remains a name, an external form that soon fades from our minds.  To create this relationship, we must be able to observe the city and understand its peculiar personality, its'I', its spirit, its identity, the circumstances of its life as they evolved through space and time." (p 39, "The Spirit of Prague")

I read Ivan Klíma’s wonderful collection of essays The Spirit of Prague, in connection for a Basic Program class on the literature of Prague. Klima has a simple style of writing, with a wonderful clarity and quiet authority. 

The book is divided into five sections of essays.  The first section includes the titular essay but the longest one opens the book.  In this essay, entitled with characteristic understated irony "A Rather Unconventional Childhood", Klima writes of his childhood which coincided, in Eastern Europe, with the triumph of Nazism and his confinement (as a Jew) in the transit camp of Terezin. From an early age he was a reader:

"I read. Of all the books I owned, I was most excited by a prose retelling of Homer's two epics. I read them over and over again, until I knew whole pages by heart."(p. 15)

Later, when he has been transported to the camp he uses a wry, observational tone to devastating effect:

‘I also experienced my first real friendships at this time which , as I later came to understand, were really only prefigurations of the adolescent infatuations that transform every encounter, every casual conversation into an experience of singular importance. All those friendships ended tragically; my friends, boys and girls, went to the gas chamber, all except one, the one I truly loved, Arieh, a son of the chairman of the camp prisoners’ self-management committee, who was shot at the age of twelve.’(p. 20)

His experiences in the camp, and later under the communist regimes of the post-war years, lead him to the conclusion that "if we don't learn from catastrophes and if we don't accept these simple principles, the moment when we might have done something to decide the fate of mankind will pass us by."(p. 27)

Klima's observations in this essay are telling and are reminiscent of other books, including: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl; Night by Elie Weisel; Fatelessness by  Imre Kertész; Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg; The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprun;  and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.

The remainder of the collection includes further excursions into reading and literature, a commentary on Kafka as a source of inspiration, and a discussion of totalitarianism as seen from the perspective of Czech culture.  The erudition and intensity of these essays along with Klima's lucid style made this collection a joy to read.  I would recommend it to fans of Joseph Roth and other astute observers of mitteleuropean culture.


Brian Joseph said...

Great review as always James.

I want to read more essays in general. The kind of essay that this collection is comprised of is exactly the type that interests me the most. Reading a perceptive person's thoughts on life's big questions, as well as on things like government, books, etc can be so interesting and enlightening.

James said...


These essays are particularly poignant and persuasive -- literally from the heart, whether about Czech culture, reading, or personal experiences. Ivan Klima should be better known in the United States. His novel, Love and Garbage, is one of the best from a Czech author, including those of Milan Kundera, that I have read.