Clean Sweep

Philip Horne

Klima’s fine, disconsolate novel is scarcely the cliché its blurb makes it out – ‘a moving account of the fate of the dissident artist under an oppressive regime’ – because Klima’s reason for joining a team of Prague street-sweepers is not exactly that he has been forced to do it by the state. ‘I needed to go somewhere in the morning, at least I’d now have a natural objective for a while: set out somewhere, perform whatever kind of activity and listen to whatever kind of talk, just so I don’t have to sit amidst the silence listening to the snapping of threads.’ Dissidence plays a fairly small part in Klima’s preoccupations, which are more existential, both more private and more universal.

The ‘threads’ to which he refers are those of the ‘net’ of relations which he, or his narrator, for ‘none of the characters in this book – and that includes the narrator – is identical with any living person’, regards as attaching every individual to the world. The encroaching consciousness of mortality can only be held at bay by illusions, distractions and an openness to ‘the grace of human contact’. Honesty, anyway, demands that this human condition be confronted; and the impulse to flight from it, which leads the narrator into the passionate adulterous affair with a sculptress that is the central ‘thread’ in the book’s weave of memories, plots and meditations, has to be sacrificed. The last imperative in the novel is to ‘cleanliness’ of ‘soul’, the upshot of a multiplicity of literal delineations and metaphorical interpretations of ‘garbage’.

The narrator actually becomes a sweeper in order to forget the sculptress, Daria, when he has torn himself away from her for the second and final time. Accounts of his new routine and of his assortedly unhappy fellow workers alternate with carefully measured episodes from the affair, and from associated passages of his life, so that we feel a certain suspense even while other interests are being entertained. The point of the tide seems to be that Klima revolts against the easy coming-and-going of modern sexual behaviour, with its readiness to discard people who have served their purpose, just as he revolts against the shortsightedness of a society of consumers indifferently voiding its refuse into a world which can only take so much.

Early on, he recalls an emblematic moment in his time as a hospital cleaner, loading an incinerator with ‘blood-soaked bandages, gauze full of pus and hair, dirty rags smelling of human excrement, and of course masses of paper, empty tins, broken glass and plastic’. For some reason, ‘the rubbish did not burn but the draught in the furnace sucked it up and spewed it out from the high chimney-stack, up towards the sky, and I watched with horror and amazement as all my refuse ... slowly descended to the ground, as it was caught in the branches of the trees, or sailed towards the open windows of the wards.’ The moral of this horrific return, for Klima, is that the waste remains. ‘No matter ever vanishes. It can, at most, change its form. Rubbish is immortal, it pervades the air, swells up in water, dissolves, rots, disintegrates, changes into gas, into smoke, into soot, it travels across the world and gradually engulfs it.’ The human elements in the hospital trash connect with the human beings refused by their fellows: ‘We remove discarded articles to a dump, and these dumps grow sky-high. And so do the dumps of discarded people who, as they grow old, are no longer visited by those dear to them, or by anyone except perhaps others who have themselves been discarded.’ For the narrator there has been a terrible experience which connects love and garbage in his own childhood: his imprisonment in the Nazi fortress ghetto in Prague, and the disposal, from there, of many of those he cared most about. His menial job in the Prague of the present, and the painful pressure he feels to ‘discard’ one of the women he is involved with, his wife or ‘the other woman’, tie him up with ‘that super-sweeper and sacrifice-master of Auschwitz, Hoess’.

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