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Book Review : Jittery Truths From the Desk Drawer

January 13, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

My First Loves by Ivan Klima; translated by Ewald Osers (Harper & Row: $14.95; 164 pages)

When restrictions upon published writing made their societies into their straitjackets, some of the writers of Eastern Europe turned to what the Soviets call samizdat , or writing for the desk-drawer. They circulate their work privately in typescript, copied and recopied as it is passed along.

It is a paradox, this desk-drawer. It means a literary liberation, and some of its contents, reaching the West, shows us how vital the need to commit literature can be. On the other hand, a desk drawer is also a smaller prison.

Writing accomplished through censorship and the prospect of punishment can take on a primal urgency. There is a nerviness to it. It comes partly from the act of defiance, and partly from the hunger of readers to hear voices and messages denied them by the official monopoly.

Americans who listened to General Secretary Gorbachev deliver a 70-minute opening statement at his Washington press conference, while 300 journalists sat mute, caught a sense of this kind of hunger-pang. The need to hear another voice--any other voice--became overwhelming.

But restrictions restrict. They narrow the scope. The achievement in breaking through can become a value in itself. A cliche seems less like one if it comes by night and at risk. The boldness of writing at all may shade the boldness of the writing.

The best artists in Eastern Europe have written for the desk drawer, but a number of them have felt its constriction and, either choosing to get out or forced to, have found the uses of freedom. These are counterbalanced, it is true, by the artistic perils of exile.

Making Moral Choices

Among Czechoslovak authors, Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky wrote with an exhilarating buoyancy from abroad. Others, such as Ivan Klima, Vaclav Havel and Ludvik Vaculik, stayed home under a variety of constraints and moral choices. With Klima and Vaculik in particular, it meant a chosen artistic austerity; a narrowing of theme on the one hand, and on the other, a strength and tension that would not otherwise have been achieved.

Klima's short-story collection, "My Merry Mornings," published in English last year, is a work of jittery truth. It is gritty, passionate and starved. Reading it is like reading a radioactivity counter; the needle jumps wildly and sags inexplicably to declare the aberrant rocks in which it is placed.

The four stories in Klima's new collection, "My First Loves," are quite different. They are romantic in tone for the most part. They deal with more or less familiar crises of love along the successive stages of growing up.

At first glance, the tone is delicately nostalgic, even pastoral. It is only in subtle ways and through a network of implication that we sense the unfamiliar chemical adulteration of the soil in which the familiar seed is dropped. The longings, delusions and losses of young love become a code language for an alien and crimped reality. The code works sporadically; the result is writing that is haunting at times, but that can be cloudy and bland.

Most Successful Story

The first story, "Miriam," is the shortest and perhaps the most successful. A boy lives with his family in Prague's ghetto, whose population is steadily being whittled down by the Nazi death-trains. The boy notices that Miriam, who ladles out the milk in the soup-kitchen, is giving him not only larger portions but a special smile as well. Love is a refuge from life; it is also--the extra milk--life itself. The boy feels chosen; it allows him to ignore what is going on around him.

Soon, though, his aunt is deported, and not long afterwards, Miriam--who, no doubt, has acted mainly from sympathy and can't afford more--serves him the regular meager portion and withholds the smile. The boy collapses. Revived and asked why, he says it is because of his aunt. Love is the emblem of life; its withdrawal is the real deportation.

In "The Truth Game," the narrator is a young man, a bright student whose self-satisfaction in mastering his Marxist studies is shaken by the arrest of his father in a party purge. Against this background of internal conflict, he has an affair with a young woman he picks up on the tram. He gives her books to read, he has a sense of moral and intellectual ascendancy. This security is shaken when she suddenly leaves him and he comes to realize that she is probably working for the police. Once again, the pains of love bring home the larger wilderness of the world.

Small-Minded Seduction

The other two stories are less satisfactory. "The Tightrope Walkers" has the narrator--another self-sufficient intellectual--engaged in a kind of small-minded seduction of a young invalid, while being moved to nobler feelings by a display of tightrope acrobats. The symbolism is more ornate than effective.

"My Country," the longest of the stories, tells of a summer during which the adolescent narrator, a would-be writer, observes the nuances of life and love among the other residents of the holiday resort, and in his own feelings for a seductive older woman. It is an appealing story, but rather lushly written and quite reminiscent of a great many other stories about bittersweet golden days.

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