Conversions

Gabriele Annan

  • No Saints or Angels by Ivan Klíma, translated by Gerald Turner
    Granta, 267 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 1 86207 448 8

A parable, says the OED, is ‘a fictitious narrative (usually about something that might naturally occur), by which moral or spiritual relations are typically set forth’. Klíma’s new novel fits the description exactly.

There are three main characters, who take it in turns to tell the story and do a lot of thinking about ‘moral or spiritual relations’, each in his or her own voice and idiom. The central one is a lonely, depressive woman called Kristýna. She might be one of Anita Brookner’s heroines, except that she is too beautiful. Klíma writes extremely well about women; and if he is not quite as subtle as Brookner, that may be because he is so very keen to put across his message, that what we all need is self-knowledge, humility and forgiveness. The first quality is preached by a wise psychiatrist (they are quite rare in fiction), and the other two by a Catholic priest, Father Kostka; he has no part in the story, but pops up occasionally as a patient in Kristýna’s surgery (she is a dentist). Like almost all the novel’s characters, he is most engaging.

Kristýna is divorced. Her schoolmaster husband left her years ago. She can’t think of him without venom, and it is clear he was an insensitive martinet. Kristýna drinks too much, though never to the point of being drunk; and she broods a lot about suicide, though never to the point of seriously contemplating it. Her loneliness peaks one Saturday when she is bullied by her 15-year-old daughter, Jana, into letting her go on a protest march against racism, and afterwards spend the night at a school-friend’s country cottage. ‘The remains of the day now leer at me,’ Kristýna thinks as Jana leaves the house. It’s Brookner’s dreaded affliction, ‘weekend syndrome’.

Jana is a pain and a problem and, Kristýna fears, probably on drugs. She also sleeps around, but Kristýna doesn’t seem to suspect that. The drug problem turns out to be real, and leads to the novel’s denouement. The girl’s aggressive teenage cynicism is expertly caught (and translated into English teenage jargon, by Gerald Turner); it can be very amusing.

Finally there is Jan, a young man who has admired Kristýna since the time when he was her husband’s pupil and saw her waiting with Jana’s pram outside his school. When he happens to catch sight of her again 15 years later, his infatuation revives, and he begins to waylay her with bunches of flowers. They start an affair. She worries about being 15 years older than he is. He is very tender towards her, but the relationship has its ups and downs.

Kristýna was born on the day Stalin died. Her father refused to celebrate the birth: ‘How could I celebrate at a moment when the whole progressive world is in mourning.’ He was a member of the People’s Militia and in charge of political screening: he interrogated people like Jan’s father, who was sentenced to five years’ labour in a uranium mine. Jan, a sweet-natured, naive and idealistic university drop-out, now works for State Security and investigates the political past of people like Kristýna’s father. ‘My Dad,’ she says, ‘would have considered your father his enemy.’

‘And would you have agreed with him?’

‘I couldn’t stand him. I couldn’t stand my father.’

Among other things, this was because he had abandoned her and her mother, and fathered an illegitimate son. ‘In your father’s eyes, mine was also unacceptable,’ she says, ‘and now the two of us are lying here together. Neither of them would have approved. Your mother wouldn’t either.’ ‘It’s great we’re lying here together, since we love each other,’ Jan says. ‘And don’t drag our parents into it.’

When Kristýna discovers that Jana really is on drugs, she packs her off to a detox unit miles away in the country. It has been recommended by Kristýna’s sister Lída, a pop singer whom she considers conceited and unfeeling and resents; until – apropos of Jana’s predicament – Lída confesses that she herself used to be depressed and on drugs. So the sisters draw closer. It’s the first of several reconciliations.

Jana hates the clinic, runs away, and is brought back. Kristýna, very upset, rushes to see the girl’s wise psychiatrist, who is sitting beneath a portrait of ‘the great Freud’. He comforts her with the words of the novel’s title: ‘None of us are saints or angels.’ Kristýna, meanwhile, has stopped sleeping with Jan, partly because she feels ashamed of being so much older; and partly because she believes that he’s bound to ditch her sooner or later. They see each other occasionally and edgily; Kristýna can’t forgive him for a one-night stand she guesses he had with a former girlfriend. Then, on an impulse, she invites him to come along one day when she goes to visit Jana.

On the way, they stop at a disused chapel. There are no statues or paintings inside, ‘simply a mouldy patch on the wall’, and two empty vases which remind Kristýna of an incident in her childhood, when she accidentally broke a vase and her father wouldn’t forgive her. This triggers a change in her attitude to Jan: she forgives him, hugs and kisses him, and they resume their affair.

Next time she visits Jana, the girl is making good progress. It is Sunday and, unusually, they go to mass. The church is dilapidated, with a dripping roof, as symbolic of the decline of religion as the chapel was. The young priest is ‘really, really tiny’, Jana notices, and so is the congregation of old people and Gypsies, and all of them sing out of tune. The priest does too, and she feels sorry for him because he is so alone and can’t get married. ‘Mum looked touched somehow in that church, even though she didn’t sing or cross herself; but when the rest kneeled down she did too and bowed her head. Mum’s got a lovely head and neck. I’m not surprised that ginger bloke who’s been going out with her since the spring is gone on her. I’d fancy her too.’ On the last page Kristýna takes Jana to see the deserted chapel. ‘I couldn’t figure out what Mum wanted to show me there,’ Jana reflects. ‘Look,’ her mother says. ‘There are no saints or angels.’

Everyone in the novel is good at heart, except possibly Kristýna’s father and husband. The father dies alone in an old people’s home at the beginning of the novel. Halfway through, the husband dies, equally alone, of lung cancer; Kristýna has to call the police to break down the door of his flat. Nearly everyone apart from these two men experiences some kind of change for the better, either in their understanding of life or in their circumstances. Jan gets the sack from State Security but is promised a job in radio instead. Kristýna’s mother, a nice Jewish schoolteacher, suddenly feels guilty because she has never spoken to her children about the Holocaust, in which all her family were gassed. That is her conversion.

Jana is converted too, and decides that when she leaves school she will work with people in need, preferably drug addicts. The wise psychiatrist tells Kristýna that her daughter is doing very well and will soon be allowed home; he also shows Kristýna the way to know herself, and as a result, Jana reports, Mum

said that she now knew that it’s up to people to learn how to hear everything that speaks to them and above all themselves; that was the most important thing. And she also said she knew she’s been awful and yelled at me, but in fact she wasn’t yelling at me but at something inside her, because she couldn’t come to terms with the fact that life is the way it is and she is the way she is.

That really knocked me out. Plus the fact that she looked so cool.

They are still in the chapel at this point. Jana

wanted to tell Mum I love her, but when I glanced at her she looked really moved and she was whispering something to herself, as if she was praying, only she never prays. Maybe she was singing something to herself, such as the song about . . . how great it is to be alive. I didn’t want to disturb her so I didn’t say anything.

You can almost hear the sound of swelling music as all the main characters emerge from the story happier and more virtuous than they were at the start. Leaving aside the sexy bits (sex is licensed, though abortion is not), the novel might be the work of a Victorian vicar’s wife. But until the end, it is not too naive or soppy. In fact, it’s very professional, straightforward, unexperimental. Klíma’s plot works, in spite of a few culs-de-sac – like Kristýna’s rather cool (not in Jana’s sense) reconciliation with her crippled, illegitimate half-brother who has been sending her threatening letters. There are comic moments, and the characters are vivid and sufficiently complicated to be credible. But the novel’s chief appeal is the insight it gives into how people in post-Communist Czechoslovakia think they should live their lives.