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Art Needs Its Enemies : I AM SNOWING: The Confessions of a Woman of Prague, By Pavel Kohout . Translated from Czech by Neil Bermel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $27.50; 308 pp.)

March 06, 1994|RICHARD EDER

The collapse of totalitarian communism in the nations of the former Soviet bloc has left their literature almost as rudderless as our foreign policy. Their great dissident writers produced a renaissance under the fertile sign of the third-person plural. Images of humanity took shape in apposition to the ever-present and abominable "they." In Europe's new or newly re-established democracies the crisis for the writer is to find that suddenly "they" have become "us"; and where do we find the shadows that once made our light so bright? By itself the light is only so-so.

Pavel Kohout's "I Am Snowing" takes these new uncertainties and makes mordant and exuberant use of them. His novel is a portrayal of the great unraveling that began with Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. If at night, as the phrase goes, all cats are black, by dawn they are all gray and it takes a keen eye, a joyful sense of paradox and a considerable ethical purposefulness to figure out which cat was which an hour or two earlier.

In "Snowing" we glimpse a crusading "Communist-hunter" journalist who for years wrote the party line. We meet a former dissident painter who is now a cultural bureaucrat and wears a necktie, which he hastily yanks off whenever one of his old friends visits him. And many more such metamorphoses.

Kohout was prominent among the artists and intellectuals in the 1968 Prague Spring. Nine years after the Soviet invasion Kohout, along with Vaclav Havel, was one of the authors of the Charter 77 manifesto that again challenged the official repression. Havel was jailed and Kohout was exiled to Vienna.

Kohout shares with Havel a quality of moral spaciousness, along with a sense of the particular and the absurd that the latter--now that he is a president and not a playwright--is less free to indulge. "I Am Snowing" is a novel of ideas but of ideas that refuse to be dull. It is a novel of extraordinarily well-managed suspense whose question is not who done it or who will get done; but what was it they did and what was its meaning. And finally it is a novel about a charmingly expansive woman who bumbles and plate-smashes her way through the ambiguities of the day to find out the truth about two former lovers; and whose erratic trail sketches the picaresque portrait of a post-Communist society.

Petra Marova is approaching 50 with her fires only partly banked. A former husband and at least a dozen lovers lie--or lay--in her past; and a weedy young colleague at the newspaper where she works is conducting a calf-like siege. She has a punk daughter for whom she tries to set a good example, and she is a devout if not exactly docile Catholic. None of this is proof against her real passion. Victor, a former lover who was exiled to Canada, is back as a high-level economic adviser to a government that is energetically restoring capitalism. He is her "king" and they make ecstatic love, but only once or twice since he is terribly busy and has, besides, brought his wife Vanesa with him.

Much to Petra's embarrassment, Vanesa, mousy and plain, comes to her for help. Victor's name has turned up in the newly disclosed files of the security police as a collaborator; a shocking thing since he has always been known as a man of humane principles and intellectual integrity. Surely it must be a mistake, Petra and Vanesa agree. In reality, police files have proven to be the most damning and the most suspect of sources in the wake of the Czechoslovak revolution, and decidedly vulnerable to manipulation. The names of a number of dissidents have turned up in them, and there is no possible way of establishing either their innocence or guilt.

Petra, however, was once the lover of Jozef, himself a former police official though seemingly--almost everything is "seemingly" in the book, which is one of its points--one of the decent ones. In fact he was jailed by his superiors after putting his own signature on the Charter 77 document. Petra goes to see him; he reveals that it was he who entered Victor's name in the files, but for a good reason. Victor, a friend, was near breakdown; listing him as an agent seemed harmless at the time and made it possible for him to get a passport to emigrate. In any case, Jozef--now a flourishing agent for Austrian investors--will be glad to absolve him.

It is not so simple, though. Besides politics, there are passions. Throughout "Snowing" the trail of political and personal motives is hopelessly entangled. Jozef still loves Petra, he is jealous of Victor and finally he is stung by Petra's lofty condescension about his former police status. (Her break with him, years earlier, came when in the course of a marriage proposal he revealed his identity.) Spitefully, perhaps--always perhaps--he tells her that although Victor's dossier is a fake, he was in fact an informant for another security agent, now dead.

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