Fading Czech Velvet
As I'm driven to the home of Ivan Klima, one of the Czech Republic's most internationally respected writers, the hand of fate slips in beside me in the taxi. Heading into the remote, hilly outskirts of Prague 4, I fumble to show the driver my scrawled address, but he tells me I needn't bother: He used to live right next door to Klima. They were neighbors almost two decades ago.
Has he read any of Klima's books? The driver shakes his head; he was a taxi driver then too, a relatively privileged position. Reading his notorious neighbor, one of the founders of Communist-era Czechoslovakia's samizdat press, he could have lost his position in a flash.
Has he read any of Klima's books since the 1989 Velvet Revolution?
"No, too busy now," he says, in halting English, a touch embarrassed.
He shows sudden pride, though, as we turn onto a street that's a sort of countrified suburb a half-hour's drive outside downtown Prague. He points to the slate-gray, two-story, semi-detached house that his family once shared with the Klimas--Ivan, his wife and their daughter.
Klima smiles when I recount the story. Sitting in his study, lined with books along the walls and a foot-tall pile of manuscript pages from his latest novel on the floor--finished the day before--he recalls the family next door as decent, "law-abiding" citizens. With thin hair hanging over his head in a bowl cut and eyes bulging behind spectacles, he wears a loose sweater--the uniform of Czech intellectuals--and comes across as a mischievous, grandfatherly figure. While widely known in the West for his novels and for sharp essays (smuggled out of Czechoslovakia) on the absurdities of Communism, Klima now faces, in his own country, the backlash of revolution. Once he was one of the country's most widely read unpublished authors; today, as the comments of my cab driver would imply, he is among the country's least-read published authors. After an initial efflorescence in the nation's cultural life, the downward trajectory in popular appeal of Klima and other former dissident writers has been dramatic as the literary marketplace adjusts to the vagaries of public taste.
The early nineties in this country were heady times. The president was a playwright; the unofficial cultural ambassador he appointed was Frank Zappa; Lou Reed was hosted in the presidential palace. Actors and writers were elected to Parliament. There was a powerful cultural dimension to the Velvet Revolution that made it the toast of intellectuals, bohemians and romantics around the world. French students had scrawled "Imagination Takes Power" on the walls of Paris in 1968; the Czechs, it seemed, were putting that principle into action. The country seemed to be inhabiting that rare historic space in which ideas, and the men and women who had them, animated the public sphere.
Immediately after the revolution, Klima's books, unearthed after twenty years in the underground, were a sensation. My Merry Mornings, a 1985 collection of lighthearted stories for each day of the week, had a press run of 155,000--enormous in a country of 15 million people (that was before Czechoslovakia split in two in 1993). Love and Garbage sold 100,000 copies; My Golden Trades, 80,000.