Ivan Klima was born in Prague in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression to a middle-class Jewish family. During the Second World War, he spent three-and-a-half years in concentration camps. In the 1960’s, he was the deputy editor-in-chief of Writer’s Union Weekly, and in 1967, he gave an important speech against censorship at the Writer’s Congress, was expelled from the Communist party and joined Czechoslovakia’s opposition movement. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Klíma’s books were blacklisted in his home country, but they were translated into several languages and published in 29 countries around the world. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Klíma’s books were rushed into print in Prague and sold hundreds of thousands of copies as people lined up to buy them for the first time in his native language. In 1990, Klíma was elected president of The Czech Republic’s PEN Club. He has written over 20 novels and essay collections, in addition to several plays. His best known books include My Merry Mornings (1985), Love and Garbage (1986), Judge on Trial (1991), My Golden Trades (1992), Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light (1994), and No Saints or Angels (2001).
MY CRAZY CENTURY (November 5, 2013, Grove/Atlantic)
In his long awaited autobiography, Ivan Klima describes his life under two totalitarian regimes: Nazism and Communism. But MY CRAZY CENTURY is more than a memoir. Instead of simply revealing intimate details of his life, Klima uses the occasion to explore the ways in which the insane times he lived in and their dominating ideologies impacted the lives, character, and morality of people.
Klima’s story begins in the 1930s, and concisely captures the atmosphere of the Terezin concentration camp where he was forced to spend almost four years of his childhood. He reveals the way in which the post-war atmosphere supported and encouraged the spread of communist ideology over the next few decades and how an informal movement to change the system developed inside the Party. These political events fed into the author’s personal experiences including the arrest and trial of his father; the early literary revolt of young writers against socialist realism; the author’s journalistic forays into the desolate Czech borderlands whose original inhabitants had been forcibly expelled; travels to the most easterly regions of the republic, where despite the wildly exaggerated propaganda, people were still living in the 18th century; the young author’s first literary success; and his first journey to the free part of Europe, which strengthened his awareness of the colossal lie in whose midst he was still living. Volume Two captures the events of the brief period of liberation during the Prague Spring of 1968, in which the author played an active role, the Soviet invasion which crushed the political reforms, and the rise of the dissident movement. The narrative chapters are each followed by essay-like sections that form an important structural and intellectual element of the book on topics related to social history, political thinking, love and freedom.
MY CRAZY CENTURY was on the bestseller list for many weeks in the Czech Republic and received the prestigious 2010 Magnesia Litera Award in the non-fiction category.
Klima says he was prompted to write MY CRAZY CENTURY because, “I felt it was finally time to examine myself and the times I lived, including the absurd political situations of my era, having lived much of my life without freedom.”
Praise for MY CRAZY CENTURY
“In My Crazy Century the reknowned Czech writer Ivan Klíma masterfully recounts, first, what it was like for him as a Jewish child confronting with his family the inhumanities of the Theresienstadt concentration camp situated at the edge of their hometown, Prague. Then, more fully, he painstakingly recalls what it was like for him and his countrymen after the Nazis thugs were driven out by the Soviet Army and replaced for four decades by the Communist thugs.
How Klíma and his Czechoslovakian colleagues—among them some of the best writers in postwar Europe—endured the relentness infraction of their fundamental rights is chronicled here through the private history of one who steadily stood up to his oppressors and who has thought deeply about the degradation and deformation conferred on a decent society by the lawless thuggery of Europe’s 20th century ideological monsters, one who preached racial purity and the annihilation of the Jews, the other working-class purity and the annihilation of the wealthy, the bourgeoisie, and anyone capable of independent thought.
In its telling, forthright intimacy Klima’s book merits a place alongside such eyewitness accounts of the evils of totalitarianism as Eugenia Ginzburg’s Within the Whirlwind and Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
“My Crazy Century is the prizewinning memoir of a writer who, deprived of freedom for much of this life, never ceased to be free in his imagination, creativity, and art. Neither Nazi nor Communist rulers could rob Ivan Klíma of his amazing ability—and fierce determination—to distill drops of truth from the sea of experience. Klíma was a witness, and participant, in the most dramatic events in twentieth century Europe. This is his story, brilliantly, wittily and poignantly told.”
“[An] absorbing memoir . . . The author relates all this with a mordant humor and a limpid prose that registers both the overt fear that repression engenders and the subtler moral corruptions it works in victims and perpetrators. . . . Klíma’s searching exploration of a warped era is rich in irony—and dogged hope.”
“From the Nazi concentration camps to the communist show trials, Klíma (No Saints or Angels, 2001, etc.) shines a vibrant light on the machinery of oppression and the struggles of artists and intellectuals to subvert government control.
For decades, the author was one of Czechoslovakia’s most prolific and influential writers of samizdat, but he has never told his own story in such detail. After miraculously surviving Theresienstadt, he enthusiastically joined the Communist Party (“It was as if the walls of the fortress where I had been forced to spend part of my childhood had hindered me from seeing the world in its true colors”) and decided to pursue writing. The travails of his father, an engineer prosecuted for running a factory that failed to meet its production quota, and the growing sense of paranoia in the literary and publishing communities in which he was beginning to establish himself gradually opened his eyes to the futility of communism, “a nefarious confederacy that in the name of grand objectives stole the property of society and destroyed what it had taken generations to create.” More than a memoir, the book is the intellectual history of a city and a memorial to its inhabitants, who, laboring underground, kept the idea of democracy alive after the Prague Spring. Encompassing all the major journals, movements and personalities who shaped Prague’s cultural and artistic life in the latter half of the 20th century, the author also touches on some of the themes—tension with Slovakia, postwar depopulation and stagnation of the countryside, the ongoing struggle to integrate gypsies and other minorities—that continue to shape the Czech Republic’s identity.
A fitting capstone to a distinguished literary life and an exposition of one of the main flaws of communism—that ‘the betrayal of intelligence leads to the barbarization of everyone.'”
“A sweeping, revealing look at one man’s personal struggle as writer and individual, set against the backdrop of political turmoil.”
“Klíma has endured as a writer, endured as a human being, writing of the great themes of freedom, honesty, and love and politics, and gazing with an unsparing eye on the lies of Communism.”
“A very successful memoir, which could serveas a guidebook for the 20th century, especiallyfor the younger generation.”
“Klíma traces an arc from 1967 to 1989, describing the developments of the Prague Spring, the August occupation, and twenty schizophrenic years of ‘Normalization.’ He of course pays attention not only to the so- called important events, but heads off into a very intimate sphere of personal experience.”
“We find in this book an unaffected testimony of tragic and absurd experiences, of injustice, wrongs, and first loves, of ever more successful artistic attempts, and later, of the
fight against communist censors.”
Praise for Ivan Klima
“A writer of enormous power and originality.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A Czech genius.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Rather than become embittered by his country’s past, Klíma has come to a truce with imperfection—the imperfection of history and of love.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Ivan Klíma is one of the greatest writers of Czechoslovakia.”
New York City
Monday, November 11, 7:00pm
In conversation with Laszlo Jakab Orsos, director of PEN World Voices Festival
Czech Center New York
at the Bohemian National Hall
321 E 73rd Street
(between 1st and 2nd Avenue)
Tuesday, November 12, 7:30pm
In conversation with Peter Steiner, Professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Pennsylvania.
The Free Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine Street
Wednesday, November 13, 7:00pm
In conversation with Paul Elie, of The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Thursday, November 14, 6:00pm
Hosted by the Harvard Bookstore
The Brattle Theater
40 Brattle St.