His friend Philip Roth once described Czech writer Ivan Klima as “a much more intellectually evolved Ringo Starr.” The photo of a youthful Klima that appears on the cover of his memoir, “My Crazy Century,” portraying the author with a Beatle-esque mop top, invites the same comparison.
Newly translated into English, Klima’s book is hardly a romp through strawberry fields. Rather, it’s a harrowing yet often uplifting account of living and working under totalitarian rule, first imposed by the Nazis and later in Soviet-run Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ’80s, during which Klima and his family lived in virtual exile in their own homeland.
Now 82, Klima, who recently made his first visit to Boston in two decades, is an enduring symbol of artistic and intellectual resistance in politically repressive times. His shaggy hair has grayed and his energy flagged somewhat, as he admitted during an interview in the offices of US District Court Judge Mark Wolf, whom he’s known since the late 1990s. While in the Boston area, Klima also participated in a discussion of his life and work at the Brattle Theatre.
His gray hair notwithstanding, Klima’s historical perspective remains sharp as he bears witness to an era of suffering and resilience among Eastern European intellectuals living under Soviet domination.
“Most of my life up to now, I have lived without freedom,” writes Klima in his memoir. In Wolf’s chambers, he elaborated on the dangers courted by Czech intelligentsia under communist rule, and how vital it was to have the support of literary allies like Roth during the worst of times.
“We did risk arrest, yes, though not being sent to Siberia,” said Klima, who was accompanied on the Boston trip by his son, Michal, a journalist and publisher. “I was warned more than once, though, that what I was doing was against the law.”
Why keep writing and publishing, then?
“Because it is what I do, my profession,” he replied with a shrug and smile.
Wolf, who frequently travels abroad to meet with groups concerned with international justice and free-press issues, calls Klima “a writer of great personal courage” whose work raises fundamental questions about human behavior and moral choices when people are denied their basic freedoms. He keeps a copy of Klima’s novel “Judge on Trial” in his office, a novel about a Czech judge confronted with a death penalty case that tests all the deeply held values he believes in.
“It does for me what literature at its best does: crystallize these issues and illuminate their complexity,” said Wolf, just back from a trip to Istanbul and Prague, where he visited with Klima and his wife, Helena, a psychotherapist.
However, Wolf added, “Ivan gives you no easy answers. At what cost will you make these compromises? We face that as judges all the time.”
While little of Klima’s writing is overtly political — his oeuvre includes more than 30 novels, plays, and essay collections — his actions could be, and once were, considered subversive, he said.
Not only did he smuggle his own and others’ writing out of the country, but he also distributed unpublished editions to like-minded countrymen, activities for which he risked even harsher punishment. An estimated 300 works were published in this fashion between 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, and 1989, when the Velvet Revolution ended two decades of Soviet rule.
Following the ’89 uprising, playwright Vaclav Havel, Klima’s friend and colleague, was elected Czech president, an office he held until 2003. In 1993, Czechoslovakia was divided into two countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Klima voluntarily chose to return to his homeland — twice — during the early phases of the Soviet occupation: in 1968, while living in England with a girlfriend; and the following year, after a teaching stint at the University of Michigan, where his family had accompanied him. Both times, he was drawn back by love of country and by a sense of solidarity with his fellow writers, journalists, professors, playwrights, and poets.
Once back in Prague, Klima did not escape the authorities’ wrath, by any means. He was kicked out of the Communist Party, then the Writer’s Union. His passport was confiscated, his phone cut off. Routinely subjected to interrogations, he saw his personal property seized and like many was forced to take on menial jobs — window washing, street cleaning — simply to survive. Teaching and publishing were forbidden.
Having writers such as Roth, William Styron, and Arthur Miller championing their cause “was a great help, morally and otherwise,” Klima recalled. Because of their public support, Soviet authorities were wary of cracking down even harder, he said.
Roth made several trips to Prague in the ’70s, before security concerns kept him away. In a phone interview, he recalled being introduced to other dissident Czech intellectuals through Klima, many selling cigarettes on street corners or working as janitors to make ends meet.
“Primarily what they were doing was keeping Czech literature alive, the language and culture,” Roth said. “We’re looking back now, but they didn’t know how long it was going to last. Many like Milan Kundera thought it was going to last 100 years. Some thought they wanted to stamp out Czech culture altogether.”
Added Roth, “It would be impossible for any American writer to have visited in Prague after ’68 and not have been shocked by the conditions under which one’s Czech colleagues wrote. Given the job we did, there was a natural empathy” that inspired Western writers to lend their support, individually and through organizations like PEN International.
In 1990, Roth returned to Prague after a 13-year absence. He subsequently published a lengthy interview with Klima in The New York Times, drawing further attention to Klima’s work. A winner of the 2002 Franz Kafka Prize, Klima has earned a worldwide readership with titles that include “Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light,” “Love and Garbage,” and “My Merry Mornings.”
Many of his fictional works draw directly upon his own life story.
Born in 1931, Klima grew up in Prague as the son of nonobservant Jews. In 1938, occupying German forces dispatched his family to Terezin, a concentration camp from which Jews were regularly shipped off to death camps such as Auschwitz. Family members remained in Terezin, jammed into crowded living quarters with barely enough food to eat, until liberated by Soviet forces in 1945. To have survived the war years was something of a miracle, writes Klima, who as a child entertained himself by reading books (Dickens was a favorite) and writing stories.
At first, Klima writes, he and others looked upon the communists as saviors. But as Soviet proxies began to clamp down on a free press and muzzle dissident voices, Klima joined a burgeoning writers’ revolt. For this he paid a heavy price.
Klima was expelled from a party he’d come to see as “a nefarious confederacy” that “falsified history, mocked the act of voting, and transformed a free country into a colony,” as he writes.
At 40, Klima had published only one novel. While continuing to write, he worked as a hospital orderly and a street sweeper, the latter experience novelized in “Love and Garbage.” Its protagonist, as was true for Klima, wrestles with conflicting emotions about his love for his wife and an affair he’s having with another woman. As Klima later writes, “Love and infidelity and reconciliation seemed to affect almost everybody” living through such tumultuous times.
Klima is doing little writing now, he says, save for a few short stories and perhaps a foray into children’s literature. “If you’re over 80, you have a feeling everything’s already written,” he said with a knowing grin.
Last April, Roth (himself now 80), who remains a steadfast champion of Klima, was honored with PEN’s Literary Service Award. In his remarks, he recalled his many meetings with Klima and how he, Roth, had been shadowed by security forces until, in 1977, he left Prague in haste after one particularly unsettling encounter.
Later he received a letter from Klima. He had been detained for questioning — again — Roth was told, and grilled about the nature of Roth’s yearly springtime visits. When Klima asked if they’d read any of Roth’s books, “As might be expected, they were stymied by the question,” Roth told the PEN audience, laughing. “But Ivan quickly enlightened them.”
‘‘ ‘He comes for the girls,’ Ivan said.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.