I was asked why I’d write a novel about repressed people in depressing circumstances. There’s enough torture in the news. Who wants to read about it in a novel?
What we choose to read is of course a matter of personal taste. But why write it? Who knows. Maybe a deep-seated fear of torture? Maybe a sense of moral outrage over the social injustice that characterized life behind the Iron Curtain(which, in the interest of full disclosure, did severely impact my wife’s family whereas the Czech side of my family missed that fun by two generations)? But why? Was I there? No, I was not there.
At the age of twenty-one I took a bus tour from Munich to Istanbul that included an overnight stay in a hotel in Prague a half-dozen years after the Prague Spring crackdown. That night I was struck by the grandeur of the nearly empty hotel, or rather, by the black and white contrast between that grandeur and the gloomy wait staff in the hotel restaurant. Our tour group seemed to be their only customers. The female staff wore thick stockings and heavy shoes made for support, but without a nod to fashion. The male staff wore waist jackets, white shirts and black bow ties, as if this were a fancy gala, which it clearly was not. All staff hovered in the kitchen, smoking, only rarely coming out to take orders or bring a dish to the table. A perpetual scowl is the only expression I recall. At first. After dinner, waiting for coffee that never materialized, bored, I took my M. Hohner harmonica out of my coat pocket and began to eek out the few harmonies my untutored tongue could master. I will not claim to have produced entertainment. That said, hearing the harmonica, the wait staff abandoned the kitchen and came to our table. Translating between their Czech and the tour’s German and my English, we told brief stories of our desires. What I sensed they heard in the harmonica was a tune called freedom: the freedom to own your own destiny and not hide your desires for fear of prison. A few were daring enough to attempt playing my harmonica. Not daring musically. Daring in what this gesture exposed. Their encounter with my little harmonica had briefly opened a very small window on a world beyond their reach. The pressure on their situation, the danger inherent in small gestures that might be observed by the secret police, the consequences if turned in, combined to lend small objects and gestures enormous importance. This is the quality that struck me, and many years later, this is the quality I wanted to write about.
Below is a brief excerpt from my novel in which I steal material told to me by my Czech friend in which he recounts an experience he had as a result of a youthful protest:
“What about you? You enjoy his Party protekce?”
“Ne, ne! I was thrown out of university and they put me in jail.” He tosses this out with a wry smile, as though it were a badge of honor.
His story takes us back to the
24th of January, 1983. Biting cold, driving snow. Brezhnev in Prague visiting. Josef was a forestry grad student at Charles University. That Sunday in January, the day Brezhnev arrived, caving in to an impulse to join a few hundred other foolish—depending on how you choose to see it—student protesters, he ripped down Soviet flags. Josef was caught and held in jail for the usual five days. He was married at the time. Jitka, his wife, also a student, was pregnant and not feeling well and had decided to stay home. Until his release the following Friday, she had no idea what had become of him. A trial resulted in a three-year prison sentence. Jitka’s mother contacted a former lover, a highly regarded swimming coach, who petitioned the court on Josef’s behalf. Upon appeal, his sentence was reduced to two years’ probation.
“Mind if I ask what they did to you in jail?”
Picture, he says, a freezing cell with no window. You’re only allowed to wear underwear. They gave you nothing to sleep with except a torn piece of blanket. “Food, my God! Thin soup, it taste like dirty water. Something is wrong with bread so I am sick with diarrhea and shivering.” He refused to rat on his friends. For this he was beaten repeatedly. It was then he thinks that he became sterile.
His arrest was only the start of his trouble. Josef was kicked out of the university. Couldn’t find a job. Jitka was allowed to continue her studies, but was harassed, her study group disbanded. He was watched by the
Statni Bezpečnost , the secret police. There were knocks in the middle of the night. Jitka couldn’t take the stress of living with a target of police surveillance and she lost the baby and then she left him.
In telling me this part of his story, he showed no sign of anger or outrage. He recounted events matter of factly, as if he were telling someone else’s story and had no feelings about it one way or the other. I wanted to know why, considering that what would happen to him was no secret, he’d joined the protest. He shrugged, then said, “It seemed like the right thing to do.” That’s what I wanted in my story, a character who would make that kind of choice, who would take such a risk, not because to do so would result in a positive outcome, but because it was the right thing to do.