Heartlessness

Neal Ascherson

  • Judge on Trial by Ivan Klima, translated by A.G. Brain
    Chatto, 547 pp, £14.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3349 X

The war was finished – and so was the regime of occupation. Its most hated representatives had either fled or wound up in prison while their victims had been proclaimed martyrs. But all that concerned just a tiny section of the population: most of the people had not died, fled or gone to gaol, but merely gone on with their lives. Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday’s laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday’s crimes to be acts of heroism. They naturally regarded this change as a victory for historical truth and agreed that guilt must be assessed, wrongs put right and society purged.

But what was to be identified as guilt and what condoned, seeing that they had all lived under the former regime, however hated and imposed it was? Seeing that the existence and actions of the regimes had also depended on their own existence and behaviour. Who was to be the defendant, who the witness and who the judge? At the trials that were to take place, would not those who confronted each other in the courtroom be equally guilty and equally innocent? The very will to cleanse oneself of evil and to atone for guilt conceals within it the risk of new crimes and new wrongs.

Ivan Klima must have written that passage in about 1985. Judge on Trial was finished three years before the revolution of November 1989. But today the theme of those two paragraphs is at the centre of Czech and Slovak consciences. This is the moral crisis over lustrace – ‘washing oneself ritually clean’. There is a desire to make a reckoning with the Communist past by some process of punishment which spreads far wider than the criminal trials of those guilty of formal offences. As far as trials are concerned, it is already obvious that the big fish who were ultimately responsible for illegality and repression are getting away with it, while the small fry are being flung to the gulls by the bucketful. There are calls for the purging from public life of all ex-Party members. On the basis of Security Police files, there have been denunciations of public figures, including parliamentary deputies, as past informers (though it is clear that many of these people did not know that they were confiding in police agents).

Behind all the outcry is a people which – just as in 1945 – feels guilty and dirty, and requires human sacrifice in order to purify itself. What Klima wrote about the Czech mood during and after the Nazi occupation is profoundly true again today. ‘The very will to cleanse oneself of evil ... conceals within it the risk of new crimes and new wrongs.’ Ivan Klima obviously sensed that in a not too remote future these words would once more become the heart of the matter – to read the passage in its context is to feel the prophetic emphasis he lays on it – even though, when he wrote, Czechoslovakia’s present leaders were in prison or disgrace and Gorbachev was no more than an interesting new Kremlin tenant.

Judge on Trial is concerned with this transmission of injustice from one generation to the next. As the English title suggests, it is about the failure of a judge who puts himself on trial before his conscience. But Klima’s subject is less the guilt feelings of the unheroic average person, although that sort of bitterness is a continuous background element in the novel, than the psychic wound done to the real victim: the kind of lasting injury which destroys a part of the victim’s humanity and, through the stunting of relationships, transmits the pain onwards down the years to more innocents.

Klima himself comes from an assimilated Jewish background, and as a child during the German occupation he was interned with his family in the fortress at Theresienstadt (Terezin). That place was sometimes used by the Nazis as a showplace, a Potemkin village in which Red Cross delegations could be deceived about the true fate of the Jews, but its real purpose was to serve as a holding-camp for Jews on their way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The Theresienstadt experience recurs again and again in Klima’s fiction, most recently in the novel before this one, Love and Garbage. In Judge on Trial, it is made to represent a sort of emotional castration. The boy Adam Kindl survives Theresienstadt, and so do most of his family, but he has been exposed to the black radiation of the place: to the regular posting-up of lists of names which consign friends to the next transport for Auschwitz, to perpetual fear and physical misery, to complete abasement before the men in black uniforms with the death’s-head badge.

The radiation burns something out of him. It is not precisely the capacity to love. It is rather the courage to risk relationships, and to accept other people as they are. Though his closest family survives, Adam behaves like an orphan. He takes refuge in the Communist movement, which provides him with a way of identifying and handling other human beings without having to face them individually and on their own terms. They are ‘victims of the bourgeois system’ or ‘comrades in the struggle’ or ‘objective enemies of the people’s democracy’. Adam Kindl becomes a schoolboy fanatic, setting up classroom tribunals whose verdicts the teachers are too frightened to reject, ruining the lives of some of the boys and girls around him. After that, he is admitted to the Party. He studies political science with the Party’s most select young cadres – a band of psychopaths and cunning lackeys – and is trusted to go as an ‘agitator’ and explain to Prague factory workers why the trials of the ‘anti-Party traitors and imperialist agents around R. Slansky’ are so splendid. They listen, but have no questions. Soon afterwards, his own father – a passionate Communist – is arrested on charges of sabotage in the factory he manages.

At this point, Klima’s novel departs from a conventional account of a Czech intellectual’s formation in this period, from that well-known story of how the young Stalinist hot-head begins to acquire doubts, repents, gets into trouble with the regime, then emerges as a warrior for democracy in 1968 and a persecuted opposition hero in the Seventies. Something like this does in fact happen to Adam Kindl. The difference is in the author’s treatment of his central character. Klima is interested in the persistence of heartlessness, and Adam Kindl does not become much more sympathetic as his political views migrate across the spectrum.

He is removed from the political science faculty, but becomes a law student and finally a judge in a backward, lawless town somewhere in eastern Slovakia. He knows now that the regime is evil at the top, but he still believes in its reformability: he gives in to local Party pressure and sends an entirely innocent ex-shopkeeper to prison as a ‘warning’ to other bourgeois elements. He achieves that subtle degree of distance from the authorities which allows him to become known as ‘decent’ and even ‘liberal’ without actually risking confrontation with the state. In his personal life, it is the same story. In Slovakia he meets Magdelena, the first of three women who will be important in his life, and becomes an affectionate, even passionate lover who never really takes the risk of finding out what she needs or of reading the emotional message she is sending. Magdalena’s message is that she – and he – will suffocate in this little country unless they recognise the richness of the world outside its frontiers. Later, the message of his wretched, lonely wife Alena will be that a life which has no room for God, forgiveness or an open heart is a sort of death inflicted on others as well as on oneself. Near the end of the story (when Kindl has become a senior criminal judge in Prague, some time during the dead years after the Prague Spring), he begins a love affair with the tarty young wife of a friend. Alexandra, in turn, exhorts him to escape to ‘somewhere where you would know you were alive’, to recognise the radiance and mystery of things and of human beings.

The mood of this novel is heavy – oppressed, rather than oppressive, but without much relief in its tone. This is Klima’s longest novel, but also his most austere. Love and Garbage, its predecessor (whose narrative is founded on some of the same events and dilemmas), showed his talents off more vividly. It was also better translated. Did young women ever say, ‘Sling your hook!’ when they meant ‘Piss off!’?

It may be that the structure is too plain for the scale of the book. Flashbacks alternate steadily with chapters of ‘now’ narrative, climbing up from the wartime years until they merge with Kindl’s present. The effect is of a crescendo inviting a climax, but Ivan Klima, a severe moralist, is not prepared to wow the readers with crashing final chords. At the end, the judge is cheated out of trying the murder case which has impaled his conscience for months, and which – for much of the novel – seems to promise a grand conclusion. Instead, he sees that his days as a judge are over, clears his desk and goes quietly. The difficulties which his wife and mistresses have with him remain unsolved. The supernatural, which has long intruded occasionally in the form of spinning lights which seem to be the eye of God, or as the spook of a long-dead clown from Theresienstadt who signifies the power of truth, refuses to decorate the bleak end. Poor Alena, a rather mawkish figure, prays on the last page for an apparition, a sign of mercy in the night sky. But nothing happens.

In the end, the heaviness comes from Klima’s melancholy theme of irreversible emotional crippling. Here, all too clearly, he is alluding not only to the fictional Kindl but to contemporary Czech society. Anyone who had accepted the morals of the mob invoked rights in vain ...’ Kindl had supposed himself to be fighting for freedom, but he had done so in such a way as to deny himself righteousness, even though his choice of weapon was not his own but that forced upon him by the injustice he suffered as a child. Adam Kindl means ‘first man’, ‘little child’, and perhaps first victim of original sin. If even he is disqualified from judging, when liberty returns, then Klima’s is the most merciless lustrace of all.