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Theater of the Absurd in a Czech Prison : MY COMPANIONS IN THE BLEAK HOUSE Novel by Eva Kanturkova; introduction by Vaclav Havel (The Overlook Press: $19.95; 314 pp.)

November 22, 1987|Rose Styron | Stryon is a poet and journalist who has worked extensively with Amnesty International and the Helsinki Watch Committee . She has made frequent trips to Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia.

Captivity is consciousness, So's liberty

wrote Emily Dickinson in the 1800s. From the walled garden she chose to dwell within, she observed nature and interpreted society, illuminating the mind, emotions and mysterious spirit of the universal individual. Eva Kanturkova, dynamic Czech activist and brilliant prose writer, could be Dickinson's 20th-Century heir.

Denied permission to travel abroad or publish at home, Kanturkova, "at liberty," chooses to live in a provincial gardened cottage. But as a Prague signer of Charta 77 (the remarkable 1977 civil rights document Czech intellectuals conceived to insure their government's compliance with the Helsinki Accords), she was harassed for years. In 1981, Kanturkova was arrested and sent to prison at Ruzyne, near Prague. Her intriguing, prize-winning novel, "My Companions in the Bleak House"--her first to be translated into English--is set within Ruzyne's walls.

Kanturkova's stage is her narrator Eva's cell and corridor. The characters are a dozen cellmates--abandoned girls, women of the streets, Gypsies, petty thieves, would-be murderers, village housewives lured to Prague to escape hard times, only to run afoul of the law because they had lost their totalitarian-required ID or had tried clandestinely to visit their children or a marked lover. These off-stage lives unfold serially to give significance to the bizarre dramas of a prison day. They tantalize the reader with glimpses into windows across Czechoslovakia. In closer focus, the heightened consciousness thrust upon sensitive Eva, shut from her gorgeous Prague, captive in the shocking Bleak House because her banned writings have been published abroad, makes every horrible, humorous, tender scene come achingly to life for the reader.

It is almost impossible not to identify with her, not to react claustrophobically to the lack of oxygen, to the stale cigarette smoke that cannot escape the barred, meshed little cell windows, to the prison smell that clings to skin, hair, clothes, mattress, floor, walls. One is incredulous, amused and as compassionate as Eva witnessing the acting out of her fantasies through a toilet-pipe telephone devised to communicate with the men's prison section below theirs, or letters tied to a string pulley and passed outside, window-crack to window-crack. Women in jail, the writer reveals, keep going on fantasies, yearnings, lust, lies. "In prison you easily become obsessed by what you cannot have." "Prison . . . heaves with repressed passion. . . . "

As the months drag on, Eva the Observer becomes involved with the wildly complicated, beautiful-grotesque, fragile-tough generous-mean, honest-sneaky Denise, Lucy, Nancy, Maddy, Fanny, Fair Helen and Andy Rum Candy. (Are their names anglicized because American readers are presumed to cherish the chummy over the slightly exotic? Too bad.) Eva's lasting attachment to this society of women with nothing in common except gender and powerlessness is quite moving, though we are secretly pleased on an occasion when anger supersedes her objectivity and she strikes out.

The clarity, the imagination, the wit, the odd detail, the light-filled corners of Kanturkova's darkest observations are in the best Czech literary tradition: I think not of Kafka so much as of the contemporary Ks--Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima. Admitting she has added nothing that did not happen, Kanturkova has woven a fine piece of fiction from her own experience. In this she swells another international tradition, that of prison literature.

Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's foremost playwright and human rights spokesman, frequently detained at Ruzyne himself, comments in his laudatory introduction to "My Companions in the Bleak House" that this strange prison--"time/non-time" seeming "denser" than "human time"--offers sharp insights that reconnect and revaluate everything the writer experienced outside in the "peculiar light" cast by prison. Havel, prevented from writing anything except letters to his wife, thought productively about the problems of man's identity, responsibility and horizons. It has informed his strong essays and satiric plays ever since.

This stop-time phenomenon is addressed variously by sophisticated survivors of the world's prisons. Breyten Breytenbach, for example: the Afrikaner poet caught when he reentered South Africa to assist underground black resistance portrays in the stunning "Confessions of an Albino Terrorist" his inner/outer nightmare captivity. Its frames are past love and future spiritual triumph. Scholar and ex-officer Lev Kopelev, in "To Be Preserved Forever," begins a critical self-examination just as the huge door of the Gulag clangs shut. Argentine publisher Jacobo Timmerman ponders social prejudice as he inhabits his "Cell Without a Number."

But none of the aforementioned volumes is fiction. Kanturkova's is, and it may indeed be the best novel of its genre since Solzhenitsyn's far bleaker "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch." Havel declares that "My Companions in the Bleak House" abounds with scenes that would also qualify for the Theater of the Absurd. Its vivid, touching final chapter, wherein certain women are moved without explanation to a cell filled with air and light, seems a perfect example. Logic failing them in their uncertain stay, the women exploit superstition and hold weirdly improvised seances, summoning the spirits of the dead for questioning. Released, Eva tries in the same way, from her garden, to summon the spirits of her "dear departed" still inside Ruzyne. She asks, finally, "Do my friends think of me sometimes?" This reader, bucking to be a friend, certainly does.

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