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by : Ray
Published 18 December 2004

"Love and Garbage", by Ivan Klima

An arresting title - always a good sign, in the way that a book with a memorable first line or paragraph generally tends to live up to the promise of that enticing beginning. But like much of this rather dense work, it needs to be read carefully: the author is not associating love with garbage - those are but two of the many diverse themes that are intricately interleaved in this work by one of the foremost modern Czech writers, first published in 1986. Kafka and art and language and the Holocaust and bureaucracy and the destiny of the soul are among the myriad other themes of this book, certainly one of the most interesting to come out of Eastern Europe in the last half of the 20th Century.

The setting is Prague in the winter of the communist regime.The narrator is a writer who has taken up a job as a street cleaner to get some exposure to how the other half lives, hence the Garbage theme. He is torn between his attachment for his wife and children and his passion for another woman, an artist, hence the Love theme. A theme which, as suggested by its place in the title, is the novel’s central and indeed obsessive theme.

Be forewarned: nothing much ever really happens in this book - perhaps that is also another of its statements. The narrator wanders around the bleak cobblestone-paved streets of proletarian Prague, manually sweeping up the city’s refuse into piles to be collected by another team (!) and then sitting around chewing the fat with his workmates in cafés and bars once the day’s quota has been met, waiting for the clock to get around to the point where they can go and collect their day’s wages. He is writing a biography of Kafka and is particularly interested by the links between that writer’s tortured life and his works. In between meditations on language, on love and hate, on religion and art, on the Prague wartime ghetto and on growing old and on the nature of the soul, he observes and listens to his fellow workers and recounts his complex, intense relationships with the two women in his life, his pulsions and passions and hesitations, and attempts to understand and to explain why he is what he is and why he behaves as he does.

This is thus an introspective book - I do not think that I have ever read a book with as many pronouns "I" in it. But it is interesting, full of stimulating ideas and thoughts. In one of the many striking passages for example, the narrator recalls having read about a new 225-word language baptised "jerkish", developped in America for communicating with chimpanzees and which has been successfully used for communicating with mentally handicapped persons. The theme of "jerkish" becoming universally used in an Orwellian world to which it is perfectly adapted, and of the appropriation of "jerkish" language terms in poetry and journalism and politics is recurrent throughtout the book, though not always with the same bonheur. Elsewhere he recalls his youth growing up in the Jewish ghetto of Prague and the countless people he, one of the rare survivors, saw taken away to be destroyed by their Nazi oppressors.

There is a certain Central European tone to the prose, appropriately enough: the phrases are short but, often, somehow heavy if not ponderous, they are about significant subjects, they read like a translation from another language. It is in itself evocative of the drab world Klima is writing about. And the mise en page is original, with dialogues being reported indirectly, and with constant switching from one mental scene to another in juxtaposed paragraphs.

Ivan Klima is a distinct voice from the heartland of Europe, a voice that can be listened to with much benefit.

Click here to read a selection of interesting texts from this remarkable novel.

Vintage Books, 222 pages, $19.95 CDN