Defying Death in Absurdistan: An Interview with Ivan Klíma

By Stephan DelbosOctober 1, 2016

Defying Death in Absurdistan: An Interview with Ivan Klíma
ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS FIGURES in contemporary Czech literature, Ivan Klíma is the author of some 34 books, including novels, collections of short stories, plays, and essays. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages. Born in 1931 in Prague, where he lives to this day, Klíma is not only a beloved craftsman of the word, but is also a mirror of his country’s political and intellectual life, having experienced and chronicled many of the triumphs and tragedies the Czechs faced during the volatile 20th century.

At the age of 10, Klíma and his family were forcibly relocated to the Terezín ghetto, where they lived until the end of World War II. When Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Klíma happened to be visiting London. He decided to return home, but left Prague again the next year for a six-month visiting professorship at the University of Michigan. His teaching was cut short when the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic unexpectedly canceled his visa. Choosing life at home under the odious communist regime over exile, Klíma returned to Prague, where he was forbidden from publishing. He became a pillar of underground literature, maintaining close ties with Václav Havel through the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Klíma found himself an international spokesman for the Czech dissident movement.

Shortly after Havel’s election as president of Czechoslovakia, Klíma withdrew from public life to focus on writing. He has remained prolific and his work is as popular as ever. His recent memoir My Crazy Century (2011, English translation in 2013) was a best seller and was awarded the prestigious Magnesia Litera Prize. Today, Klíma lives with his wife near a forest on the southern edge of Prague. Thoughtful yet direct, he spoke to me in his book-lined study about the current state of his country, his former life as a dissident writer, and the crossroads of literature and politics.


STEPHAN DELBOS: What was the most dangerous moment for you as a dissident writer under communism?

IVAN KLÍMA: I did have troubles, but they were just normal troubles for those living under the regime. I was interrogated many times, the police searched my house, they deprived me of my passport, and of course I couldn’t publish. But it was an absurd regime. Once they came to search my house early in the morning and my wife told them to take their shoes off when they came in, and all of them did it! Seeing policemen stand there without shoes on was rather funny. That’s why we called it Absurdistan. But you could never really be sure what they were going to do.

My most dangerous moment concerned my friendship with a West German diplomat. He was our contact for smuggling manuscripts. A wonderful man. I would go to visit him in his villa and I’d bring him the manuscripts. He would smuggle a car full of manuscripts out and a car full of printed books back in. Once he rang my doorbell and the moment I opened the door he said, “Come quickly!” and brought me out to his car, where he handed me two big bags of books. He drove off and I ran into the house. I remember hurrying to distribute all the books among my friends, because if the police came and I had all those copies of just a few books, it would be very difficult to make up an excuse. But in the end, nothing really happened to me. As I said, normal troubles.

You once wrote: “History can be seen as a series of bloody acts to which entire nations often fall victim.” Do you feel like a victim of history?

I have always been a skeptical optimist. But most of my life has been spent in a totalitarian system. Communism was the longest, from 1948 to 1989, though it was not one single period. There was tough communism, liberal communism, and tired communism. But generally I’d say I was 90 percent free in my writing. I could even criticize the regime if I was very careful not to attack it directly. And even when I couldn’t publish in my own country I was known well enough abroad to live on royalties. Some of my friends had it much worse.

You were in London during the 1968 invasion and you returned to Prague. The following year you were in the United States and again chose not to stay. Were those difficult decisions?

I had to decide whether to be an exile or not. In my opinion there’s nothing worse than exile for a writer, because it’s important to be connected with your language and your people. At nearly 40 it was too late to start writing in another language. And to write in Czech in the United States seemed ridiculous. So I decided to come back and I’ve never regretted it. My friends were really surprised and rather happy when I came back, because they considered it an act of solidarity, and in some ways it was. It felt important to fight for something.

One way you fought was through underground self-publishing, known as samizdat. How did that come about?

It started with a literary salon my wife and I held in our house. We met regularly once a month for about two years. Then the StB [the Czech secret police] were informed and they began to follow the people who were visiting us. So I stopped the salon and started samizdat. This was in the late 1970s. We published more than 200 titles. Even the best pieces of Czech poetry and prose were published only in samizdat, because the best writers could not publish officially. [Czech dissident writer and journalist] Ludvík Vaculík’s girlfriend would type the texts. At first she made eight or nine copies at a time. Then we bought her an electric typewriter so she could make 14 copies at a time. She would stack the pages on top of each other with carbon paper in between, and the pages at the bottom were nearly unreadable. The books were bound and sold for the price of the paper plus a little money for her. There were other places around the country that would make copies of these, so the full print run was about 40 copies.

Were there any repercussions?

The police confiscated many of these publications and they invited me in to discuss them. They asked me to sign a paper saying I agreed that they would be destroyed. I refused. And to my surprise, they gave me about half of the books back! The rest of them I got back after 1989, in a package from the Interior Ministry. It was interesting: simply because I refused to agree with the destruction of the books, they didn’t destroy them. In the ’70s and ’80s, they had regulations and they followed them.

Would you say the challenges of life under communism were actually good for writers?

It was a very good time for friendship and solidarity and many more or less secret meetings, the kind of activities that brought satisfaction. It’s wonderful that today we have no totalitarian system, but these things did give writers very interesting subjects. For me it wasn’t such a bad time overall, compared to some of my friends who had to do very difficult jobs that were rather depressing. Cleaning windows for three or four weeks is a wonderful experience for a writer, but to do it for 20 years is a waste of time.

What was the atmosphere for writers and intellectuals in Prague during the Velvet Revolution?

It was an exciting time, and I was very busy giving speeches and talking to journalists from abroad. In 1989, our nation of readers insisted that writers and intellectuals should solve some political problems and be active on the political stage, but really that’s not the writer’s place. A writer should write, not oversee politics. Writers are generally too naïve about politics to play a useful role, so I’m happy no one expects us to replace politicians anymore. It’s healthy for literature not to be involved in politics. That’s simply not the role of literature.

Is that why you withdrew from public life?

The only thing I really like to do is write. Once we achieved the important goal of removing communism, I felt my job was done. Writing is a specific profession, which is interested mainly in the fate of human beings. Of course human life is connected with political and economic conditions, so you cannot be entirely apolitical, because man’s life is influenced by politics and other forces.

But fiction should concentrate on human life and relationships, not politics. I admit that during communism all of us were a little involved in politics, and this is reflected in our prose. We lived under a regime, and if you opposed it you were automatically involved in politics. But novels aren’t about ideas — they’re about characters and people. It’s risky to have too many ideas in a novel.

Looking back on the events of 1989 and the Havel presidency, are you satisfied with the current state of the country?

Generally, I am satisfied. We are now a democracy, functioning just as well as Italy, for example — which is obviously not saying much! It’s a problematic democracy. We have a free press which is on a level with the free press everywhere else, discussing nothing, or discussing things that look important but aren’t. It’s quite a normal life here these days.

Your definition of a literary work is “something that defies death.” Have your books achieved that?

Each of my books opposes death because I have written about life. My books insist on life and therefore they defy death.


Stephan Delbos is an internationally published poet, translator, and essayist based in Prague. He is a founding editor of the web journal B O D Y.

LARB Contributor

Stephan Delbos is a writer living in Prague and Plymouth, Massachusetts. His poetry, essays, and translations have been published internationally. He is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). His play Chetty's Lullaby, about trumpet legend Chet Baker, was produced in San Francisco in 2013. His play Deaf Empire, about Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, was produced by Prague Shakespeare Company in 2017. His co-translation of The Absolute Gravedigger, by Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, was awarded the PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2015 and was published by Twisted Spoon Press. He is the author of the poetry chapbook In Memory of Fire (Cape Cod Poetry Review, 2016), and the poetry collection Light Reading (BlazeVOX, 2019). He is a founding editor of B O D Y.


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