Ivan Klíma: A humble giant’s wisdom

He is one of the most widely translated Czech writers, yet one cannot help being struck by his modesty. A small man with a quiet voice, he will win you over with his clearly formulated, original opinions.

Throughout your life you have always been involved in public issues – either as a former dissident or today as a member of various committees and associations. What moves you in this direction?
In my opinion a writer must not abnegate his responsibility to the world. I was greatly influenced by Karel Čapek, who claimed that a writer or any member of the intelligentsia is responsible for the intellectual and moral state of the world. Today, with morals rather on the decline, this approach is appropriate.

Your credo, which is presented in the Czech Who’s Who, is “Humanity needs more tolerance, solidarity, and humility – i.e., self-limitation.” How did you arrive at this notion?
Tolerance is a very substantial principle. Again we go back to Čapek, who constantly repeated that truths and opinions can stand in opposition to each other, but people should not stand against each other, they should strive for common ground. This applies in any era, and it is important to see a person in front of you, not an enemy. Humility is no less important. A person should be aware that he is insignificant, both in today’s vast sea of humanity and in history. The program for humanity that makes sense is a program of humility and self-limitation. Otherwise the result will be a catastrophe caused by exhausting our resources, pollution, water shortages, etc.

Do you think it’s realistic for people imposing limits on themselves to the benefit of the future the earth and humanity, in an age when, as you pointed out, a lifestyle based on consumption predominates?
Perhaps a small catastrophe may need to occur, causing, for example gasoline to cost three hundred crowns a liter instead of twenty-five. Then people will realize that they can ride bicycles or use mass transit. Thirty years ago I read American studies to the effect that cars actually cost people time. They added everything up – from repairs, filling the tank, looking for parking places, and traffic jams – and the result spoke clearly of the benefits of mass transit. But it seems to me that our young people are more and more opposed to consumerism. I think this trend could slowly but surely grow.

In a column for Xantypa magazine you mentioned that people gravitate towards individualism and try to draw attention to themselves in any way they can. And it is the opponents of globalization, the anarchists, who display such attributes. But in the end they all appear the same: “globalized”. What do you think about globalization and anti-globalization campaigns? It almost seems like a business today…
[Cuts in] It’s not a business, it’s a certain stereotype, a superficial ideology, and in principle it’s not individualistic at all. Globalization is an inescapable trend, because it is the result of economic, technical, and, mainly, telecommunications developments – the internet has completely erased borders. The collapse of communism was due mainly to the fact that the Iron Curtain could not stand up to such technological development. It makes no sense to protest against history. I think that anarchy is just another type of totalitarian thinking.

So how can a person support his own individuality these days without becoming just another face in the crowd?
You can act individually, as long as you don’t become a part of any movement or conform to any external characteristics. There are many civic initiatives that have so-called smaller goals, most of which are very substantial. For example, such goals relate to endangered communities or to help for social underclasses, refugees, etc. Such movements make sense, and they do not result in conformity.

Before this year’s parliamentary elections you wrote that, due to our socialist past, you choose parties according to the flow of their opinions, not those relying on an iron fist. What do you think about the communists’ results in this year’s elections? Do you feel like you’re one of the few not to have forgotten?
Why did the communists receive so much support? There are plenty of reasons. Some people are doing badly, they have no jobs, and the communists pointed out through their demagogy that when they were in power there was zero unemployment. And then there’s another group of people who liked the old regime – all party, police, and army officials, public security volunteers, and bosses of companies that no longer exist. Those were the people who had material security, and they didn’t have to work too hard. Millions of people got by with few problems, and now they look back on those times with nostalgia.


In your writings you display a very sophisticated style and use of Czech language. What do you think about the current development of the Czech language, which is absorbing many foreign words, mostly from English? In the business world people practically speak in jargon, a mixture of Czech and “Czechified” English words.
It’s horrible. Another field like that is the universe of information technology. It’s the jargon phenomenon, but literary and colloquial Czech are deteriorating, too. I recently read a book by a young writer whom I won’t name, and I was appalled by how shoddy her language was and how many clichés she used. The language is impoverished, so people’s internal lives are impoverished too, as is their ability to converse with each other. I don’t like the word communication, because these days we don’t talk to each other, we communicate. When language becomes that superficial, you can’t discuss more complex, deeper matters with others. Still, language really remains a tool for mutual understanding.

Isn’t the development of simplifying language a result of the IT trend?
Certainly. People realize that diacriticals aren’t necessary. I get e-mails from Czechs who don’t use them. You hardly notice, because you don’t expect anything else. An American magazine published a story of mine, and then we exchanged e-mails, and I was struck by how nearly incomprehensible they were, because they used so many abbreviations. In America even ads are written phonetically. Where there used to be four phonemes, now they use only two, reflecting the word’s pronunciation.

A life in numbers
1931 Born in Prague on 14 September
1956 Graduated from the Charles University School of Philosophy, majored in Czech and Literary Science
1963 Deputy editor-in-chief of Literární noviny magazine
1969 Visiting professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
1970 Upon his return, his publishing activities were banned and he was excluded from all organizations. He spent the next twenty years working as a freelance writer, and his books were published as samizdat here, or abroad.
1984 Published a book of short stories, My First Loves, for which he received the E. Hostovský award in USA
1989 Published a book of short stories, My Golden Crafts, for which he received the George Theiner award in Great Britain
2002 Received a reward for merit from President Havel and the international Franz Kafka award for literature. During his life he wrote over 30 prose and dramatic works that were translated into 29 languages.

But where will such a trend lead us? Do you think we will arrive at a global language?
I wrote about that in one of my novels, Love and Trash. I once read in Newsweek that people at a university in Atlanta are making up a language that could be used for communicating with chimpanzees. Unless I’m mistaken it has about 225 words. At the same time they discovered that this language is perfectly suited to communicating with idiots…from a medical point of view. So I thought it all over, and I wrote that it is the language of the future, and soon we’ll all be using it to communicate.

But speech is a manifestation of intelligence and thought, so might a consequence of this be that we will stop thinking?
Of course. The one affects the other. The less we think, the more simplified the language becomes, and the simpler a language becomes, the more difficult it is to think.

You received two major awards this year. Havel presented you with an award for merit, and then you received the Franz Kafka award for literature. Do you see this as the apex of your career, or do you still have some goals you want to achieve?
My goal has always been to write a good book, not to win any awards. Of course I was pleased, but for a writer the greatest reward comes when readers appreciate his work. On the other hand, I think I should probably stop writing. The art of leaving is important in every avocation, and I’ve already overstayed my time. Surprisingly, I’ve written more than ever in the last ten years. My last two books have met with astonishingly positive responses around the world. It’s unusual, because the high point of a writer’s career ordinarily comes around the age of forty, and then his career declines. I have plans for two more books. I’m already working on one, and it will be followed by another, a large work of non-fiction, some cogitation about the last century. No memoirs, just a reflection on the crazy century I lived through,

How would you describe yourself in three words?
I stayed true to myself.

How would you like people to remember you? What would you like them to think of when someone says Ivan Klíma?
He was a writer I’ve not only heard of, I’ve read something by him too.

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