Book Review: “My First Loves” by Ivan Klíma
No. Neither Tolstoy’s War and Peace nor James Joyce’s Ulysses would be my quarantine book. Despite being excellent suggestions for books I have never read—and the global fanfare behind their respective online book clubs as the world headed indoors to hide from a virus—I knew immediately two things: firstly, I would be re-reading; secondly, I remembered the vision of a shy boy from Bohemia who found strength living in the concentration camp in what is today the Czech Republic. I wish I could remember all of that brilliant, autobiographical essay called “A Childhood in Terezín”, just as I wish I could remember everything about the books that have become a part of me. Time passes and memory fails, however, leaving us with just vague sketches. Mine included how a little boy had not even known he and his family were Jewish until the Nazi invasion; I remember his desire to be free to go out to pick cherries; I remember his guilt over stealing; I remember his fear as others disappeared on the train from which no one returned; I remember his line on how tolerance of intolerance must never be tolerated; but mostly, I remember how he first fell in love.
It was in the queue every morning to get his two-fingers full of milk from the serving girl he found beautiful, despite her tattered and malnourished appearance in the concentration camp of Terezín. She started mysteriously filling his cup every morning in a secret conspiration he thought could only have been love.
It most certainly was, but it was hardly romantic. I won’t tell you what conspired, but I will say the story forever changed how I saw the possibilities of narrative. Ivan Klíma had verged on the profane when looking through the eyes of a child at the new world of imprisonment as one of wonders. Naturally, it wasn’t, which made the horrors of the holocaust even more vicious and profound than I had ever encountered, witnessing how the scars form in the child in all of us, and how we carry them for a lifetime.
I said I wasn’t trying either to remember or to forget; I believed that even the most terrible experiences, provided a person got over them, could in retrospect become their very opposite.
And if a person didn’t survive them?
I did not understand her question.“My first Loves” – IVAN KLÍMA
At home under quarantine, it was My First Loves in which I revisited that story from Klíma’s childhood in Terezín, as well as other autobiographical short stories about his youth, chasing skirts after the war was over, but not the war within him – a struggle to accept loneliness, to search for love despite the life-long insecurity that a soldier with a gun could appear at any moment to terminate it, to find the meaning of life within the frame of what had happened to him in an ever-present past.
That internal struggle flows in a stream of consciousness that certainly gave Czech translator Ewald Osers a hard time, because the narrative is at times clumsy, yet it fits with the protagonist, a gangly and pedantic youth who seduces mysterious women who are just as damaged by history as he is. His loves disappear amid his dreams and infidelities, love letters and carnations, while he studies philosophy and Stalin, and meditates on the beauty of the world around him in fulfilling his dream of being a writer.
Klíma had gone in the opposite direction of many of his famous contemporaries, including Milan Kundera. Refusing exile, he returned home where his work was banned for 20 years under the Soviet regime of Gustav Husak. He therefore spent a great deal of his life without freedom.
It was something I contemplated when deciding my next moves under lockdown. It came as no surprise that the first name to resonate in my mind was that of Ivan Klíma, a man who found freedom among words and meaning within the micro-experiences that filled days connected to love—his first loves—in a restricted, limited world that one does not control.