The Spirit of Prague
by Ivan Klima
Klíma’s The Spirit of Prague consists of a series of essays by one of modern Czech literature’s heroes. His early writings, like many others’, were published in samizdat editions – a sort of pyramid scheme of copying books, in order to avoid the oppressive thumb of the governing regime. Klíma, survivor of Nazi occupation and the Holocaust – and endurer of the later Soviet occupation, begins this collection with a description of “A Rather Unconventional Childhood.” To drive home this incessant calculated cruelty inflicted on civilians, he uses a substantial amount of repetition of events and themes. This repetition borders on melodrama and an abuse of literary devices until the reader takes a step back and contemplates the utter horror Klíma experienced as a boy – melodrama it most certainly is not.
The profound effect of the experience is reflected throughout the book: in every self-analytic moment lies an attempt at cold objectivity. These attempts at objectivity are ultimately thwarted by Klíma’s strong belief that people want human life to continue; this is not manifested as hope, but as some sort of survival instinct ingrained in at least part of the populace. His essays range from the mundane to the intellectual with one broad corresponding theme: basic, inherent human morality is the sole earthly savior of humanity.
It is apparent that totalitarianism has shaped Klíma’s consciousness irrevocably, especially his concept of “human morality.” Much of The Spirit of Prague tangentially explains what he means by a generalized morality – since World War II, Klíma has sought out that which may affect basic human decency in culture – Klíma meditates on garbage, Kafka’s sources of inspiration, culture and totalitarianism, and the exploitation of the powerless. Klíma’s intellect is wide-ranging in his laments for the growing lack of respect for the dead as a bellwether for the breakdown of society, his attack on global sports superstars as abusers of the masses, and the brief history of the Czechoslovak Republic.
As a total work, The Spirit of Prague is flawed; the essays lack segues or obvious linking themes. It appears disorganized. Supposedly, the book is divided into three sections: personal works, feuilletons, and political pieces. In reality, it has five sections, with the last two reserved for discussion of literature - Klíma’s strong suit. As a collection of essays, though, The Spirit of Prague succeeds. It provides a reader with ample topics to peruse and study. Klíma’s insights into the problems facing modern literature and modern society in general are well-thought out and worth digesting.