“You must admit: it’s hard to live with people willing to send you to exile or death, it’s hard to become intimate with them, it’s hard to love them.”
This is a quote from Ludvik, a character in Milan Kundera’s first novel, The Joke.
In Better You Go Home (page 175), my narrator and his Czech father visit the prison where the narrator’s half-sister, Anezka, is being held and very likely “interrogated.” Below is a passage in which I attempted to show the blunt, impersonal nature of the experience:
After walking through an arched iron gate, we approach a ten-foot high
wall topped with concertina wire. The prison wall is taupe, a scraped, peeling
stucco. We face two doors. A large brown set of double doors allows for
vehicle egress. We enter through a small metal door off to one side, a door
painted the blue of old enamel pots, and find ourselves in a room closed off
by a barred gate.
A ceiling mounted camera watches our every move while we drop our
personal items, including my daypack with my money envelope and insulin
kit, into a blue box and remove a key. A voice on an intercom tells us to use
the key and enter. When the bars close behind us we are instructed by a guard
to approach the reception booth. A grinning toothless granny, flanked by five
guards in the standard royal blue uniform, asks for our passports and the
letter from the court authorizing our visit.
We are shown to a wooden bench. We sit and wait to be admitted.
Nothing untoward has happened. It’s what they are anticipating that heightens tension. They are at the prison among other things to meet with the head of security. Jungmannn is a childhood friend of the narrator’s father. They haven’t seen each other in fifty plus years. Frantisek, the narrator’s father, is put in the absurd position of Kundera’s Ludvik. He must use the bond of friendship they once shared to appeal to Jungmann’s better nature, if such a thing still exists, despite that any intimacies that are revealed will only increase the shame and guilt Frantisek has thus far avoided.
Ludvik’s situation happened around the time of Prague Spring (spring and summer 1968, when Dubcek loosened censorship and writers and intellectuals, daring to trust this new permissiveness, brought their dissidence out in the open, only to pay for it after the crackdown in August). This was a particularly difficult time. Prior to Prague Spring, many leftists and intellectuals and even farmers and shopkeepers actually believed in the Marxist Revolution as the path to a harmonious life. Seeing Warsaw Pact troops and tanks invade and occupy Prague changed everything. What followed was a period of “normalization.” No one believed anymore in the ideal. But they understood the price they would pay if they did not at least appear to play along.
That “playing along” was not purely cynical. It seemed a legitimate response in a culture that had learned to be submissive, to accept, to endure. What this culture bred was a high degree of intolerance for anyone who refused to play along.
In The Taste of Ashes, Marci Shore tells a story that happened about the same time historically (a few years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution) as the event at the prison in my novel. Shore was teaching English at a Bohemian school. Some of her students were sent across town to an annex. When she arrived, she found the heat stove not working. The freezing students, huddling in coats to stay warm, had taken off their warm snow boots and were wearing only slippers on their feet despite the extreme cold. Shore told them it was okay to put on their boots. They hesitated. In Czech culture, there is an understood rule that when inside you take off shoes and put on slippers. This rule was enforced in schools. Unsure whether to trust their teacher, the kids eventually put on their boots. The response was anger from the headmaster. Anger from parents. Ostracism for Shore. Why? Because she had dared to put herself above authority. It was not up to her to decide. One of the parents, ostracized herself because of Russian roots, dared to go to the school board to request that until the stove was repaired, the kids be allowed to wear their boots inside the classroom. “The school board responded: it was impossible to do this right away. The proposal would be considered at the next meeting, which would take place in a few weeks.” Meanwhile, if the kids’ feet froze…
This was of course absurd. What Shore learned was that Czechoslovakia (in Soviet bloc times) was known as “Absurdistan.”
For an exile such as Frantisek to return meant to accept the inevitability of this absurdity, which did not go away simply because communism was gone. It was this labyrinth of the absurd that my narrator was forced to navigate if he was to stay true to his quest.
Can one enter such a labyrinth and not come out changed on the other end? In our world today, is it really that different? Look at what absurdities we routinely accept. (Just look at the news.)