CRF Blog

Notes from Underground

by Bill Hayes

In Notes from Underground for the New York Review of Books, Paul Wilson reviews My Crazy Century by Ivan Klíma, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens.

In addition to telling his story, Klíma interleaves his chapters with twenty-three separate essays, eighteen of which have been included in the English edition, but gathered at the end so that in English Klíma’s story can be read as an uninterrupted narrative. Most of the essays are reflections on a controversial subject that is at the very heart of Klíma’s experience: the striking resemblance — despite their obvious differences — of German fascism to Soviet communism: their common history of mass murder, deliberate starvation, and genocide; their origins in utopian thinking; their reliance on mass political parties, state terror, and secret police; their use of lies and propaganda; their perverse appeal to intellectuals; and their exploitation of the ignorance and enthusiasm of young people. On this last matter, Klíma knows what he’s talking about, because he was one of them.

One of the many ironies of Ivan Klíma’s life is how, having narrowly survived the murderous intentions of the Nazis, he went on to become a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, which was responsible for imposing Stalinism on his country. Unlike many Jewish Holocaust survivors, however, Klíma seems to have embraced communism, not out of any deeply held Marxist convictions, but rather from a vague belief that the Party held the key to a better future. When he was recruited into the Union of Youth in high school, the fact that his father was a committed Marxist and a member of the Party and that two of his uncles were antifascist war heroes was enough to make up for what might have gone against him: his bourgeois background and the fact that he was, officially, a Jew. (To this day, Klíma does not consider himself a Jew, since he was declared one purely on the basis of the Nuremberg Laws; to accept that identity now, he has said, would be to affirm the validity of a racist edict.) He became a candidate for official membership in the Party in 1951, the year he graduated from high school.

A series of events that tested Klíma’s faith in communism, such as it was, followed in rapid succession. First came the infamous Slánský show trials, when many top Communist officials — including some Jews — were accused of being agents of Zionism and American imperialism and, after very harsh treatment, sentenced to death or long prison terms. [more]