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Freefall

THE ULTIMATE INTIMACY. By Ivan Klima . Translated from the Czech by A.G. Brain . Grove: 388 pp., $25

January 25, 1998|SCOTT BRADFIELD | Scott Bradfield is the author of the novel "Animal Planet" and the collected stories "Greetings From Earth."

In Ivan Klima's new novel, the Communist-free Czech Republic is finally ready to catch up with the fast-track modern world. Skinheads are advocating capital punishment in Prague streets. The health-care system has been privatized into a shambles. And now that freedom of religion is available to everyone, nobody wants to worship anything but money. It's a perilously liberated world in which the old walls are coming down in a torrent of rusty rocks. And the startled citizenry can no longer blame the state of their nation on anyone but themselves.

"The Ultimate Intimacy's" moody, dutiful protagonist is Daniel Vedra, a Protestant minister who no longer suffers from fears of political persecution and sudden tribunals in the night. A pragmatically good man who sincerely wants to do God's work and had been persecuted for it, Daniel has lived his entire life in a country where the divisions between good and evil have been pretty easy to make out. On the one hand, there was the government, which nobody liked. And on the other hand, there was the glorious abstract notion of the "people," which everyone pretended to prefer. For almost his entire career, Daniel has considered the church, like art, as some abstract alternative to government. But now that his suddenly democratized parishioners carry the responsibility for their government everywhere they go, things have gotten a lot more complicated.

In a series of interior monologues, letters and diary entries, "The Ultimate Intimacy" establishes its own special intimacy with readers. Bereft of his old certainties and lacking a single metaphysical hook on which to hang his surplice, Daniel eventually starts to question everything: his family, his faith and his political beliefs. He suspects that his devotion to God may be a way of avoiding intimacy with other people. His faith in the sacrament of marriage gives way to the growing realization that he may never have loved his present wife (his first and much adored wife, Jitka, died painfully of cancer while she was still very young). And though he works in a prison to help criminals find their way back into a liberated society, he's not quite so sympathetic when one of them starts dating his daughter.

Even the stories Daniel likes to tell himself about his own history aren't holding up anymore. His father may have been a double agent and, according to the one surviving government agent who knew him, he wasn't even good enough at it to merit remembering. Duplicity, Daniel begins to realize, isn't the exclusive domain of governments and secret services. Sometimes even the people you love harbor secret intentions of their own.

When Daniel falls for one of his troubled parishioners, it's not long before he betrays almost every moral tenet he's ever preached. And as he strays further and further from his long-held beliefs, he begins to suffer a sort of moral vertigo:

"Previously he had trodden paths that people had followed for centuries and now all of a sudden he found himself in the middle of an immense plain devoid of paths. He could set off in any direction. Admittedly he could not see the end of the plain but he knew that whichever direction he took, he would eventually confront an insurmountable, bottomless abyss."

Sometimes, Daniel discovers, a revolution can go too far. And once people have finished toppling their government, they go on to topple everything else they've ever believed in. Sometimes even themselves.

For many years, Klima's work was published almost everywhere except in Czechoslovakia. A survivor of the Terezin concentration camp, Klima worked as an editor for most of his life, emerging to prominence when he edited an influential literary journal during the Prague Spring of 1968, and though he is known primarily as a "dissident" writer, the most powerful aspects of his work aren't overtly political. At his best, he articulates how philosophical arguments are exemplified by human lives. And at his worst, his narratives tend to get mired in introspection; his characters tend to be swallowed up by their own rampant subjectivity.

"The Ultimate Intimacy," however, is too long. It tends to reiterate its arguments, and its central narrative focus gets lost in a series of unresolved diversions. But as in his previous novel, "Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light," Klima generates genuine human compassion for his characters on every page. And like John Updike's "Roger's Version" or Brian Moore's "The Color of Blood," "The Ultimate Intimacy" is an absorbing account of people seeking faith in an age of faithlessness.

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