Writers as protectors of freedom. A review – my thoughts on Ivan Klima’s biography – My CraZy Century.

I have been fortunate to live in “Free” countries. I was born in the UK and 30 years later moved to New Zealand in 1989 – a significant year in world events…but I’ll come back to that. Both countries have free and democratic elections and yet I have taken to the streets with thousands of others – in both the UK and NZ – to protest political policy – both domestic and foreign.

Although as a protester I came into conflict with the police – I was not arrested and was certainly not “disappeared” – a fate that befell many dissenters of political policy in other, less lenient, countries.

I have just finished reading Czech writer Ivan Klima’s biography titled My Crazy Century. On the cover of the book the C and the Z in the word Crazy are in red. A reference to the many years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone reads this book.

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The book gives us a clear insight into not only the conditions imposed on the Czech people under the Nazi’s……concentration camps and all….during the German occupation in world war 2, but also those enforced by their communist liberators – who in turn became their dictatorial masters during the post war era – right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Block in 1989.

The people in power, both Nazi and Communist, feared the influence (on public opinion) of intellectuals, artists, writers, anyone who held political opinions other than theirs, so did all they could to silence them. This was done – in the extreme – by killing them, imprisoning them, exiling them or putting them under constant fear of their lives by harassing them day in, day out. Writers like Klima and his contemporaries who dared to have ideals other than those of the ruling party were banned from publication. Their previously published works were confiscated and burned and their scripts for plays etc were not allowed to be performed. They would be subject to sudden searches by the secret police who would ransack their homes and take away any written materials….and then they would be taken away to be “interviewed”….interrogated.

Under the control of Nazi Germany they suffered the horrors of not only living in an occupied country but also of being hauled off to concentration camps for extermination. Their jubilation of being “freed” by Russian troops at the end of the second world war was short lived as they came under the rule of the Czech Communist Party – who were little more than puppets, controlled by Stalinist Moscow. Anyone who didn’t fully accept the new regime and tow the line were punished. In the case of Klima it meant losing his job, being put on a list of banned writers, being constantly followed and harassed by the secret police and more. His father was also imprisoned for several years under the communists. Others were tortured, murdered or simply disappeared. Their fate unknown.

This treatment and further threats and mind games did not stop Klima and his circle of friends, meeting to discuss the political situation, writing essays, articles, novels and plays expressing ideologies in direct conflict with those of the ruling party – and smuggling these works out to be published in the UK, Germany, Holland and Switzerland.

Being a writer – particularly one who does not tow the party line – as ridiculous as it seems in this day and age, was a very dangerous occupation. The fact that these writers persisted for so long in such restrictive and dangerous circumstances to continue to produce their work is admirable to say the least….and ultimately contributed to the overthrow of the Communist regime.

Only 3 months before he took over as president of the country, Vaclav Haval was still in prison, being persecuted for his political beliefs. It’s amazing how, after so many years of ruling with an iron fist, a dictatorial regime could be overthrown, so quickly and without bloodshed.

The whole “revolution” happened in a period of 6 weeks. It earned the name the Velvet Revolution due to the relative ease that the transition took place. It had been unthinkable that a former banned and imprisoned poet would become leader of the country – and yet….it happened. You should never under estimate the spirit of the people, the right action, at the right time, in the right place, by the right person/people, or the power of the written word.

Klima’s book spans six decades that include war, totalitarianism, censorship and the never ending fight for democracy. He looks at the way that “this crazy century” has led mankind astray and impacted not only Klima’s generation, but also today’s generations still struggling against totalitarian societies around the world.

Klima recounts first hand what it was like to be of Jewish heritage, confronting along with his family, the inhumanities of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the treatment dealt out by the Nazi thugs….who were replaced by four decades of Communist thugs….and finally after years of harassment, persecution and censorship, the sweetness of the Velvet Revolution – when the time was right for such an ideal to thrive.

Personally for me, the events of this book are recent history – having been born in 1959, I recall many of the main points in the book, but I did not at the time realise the full horrors of what was going on “behind the iron curtain”. The official channels and the media only provided a sanitised version of the news….and to this day continue to do so. As the number of independent news organisations disappear and are swallowed up by larger conglomerates – the easier it is to control the news. When the TV news comes on in the evening and the presenter says “Here is the news”…..what they really should be saying is “Here is the news that we want you to know about…and this is OUR version of it”. We are being digitally lobotomized.

Although the so called “Free World” was not directly responsible for the suffering of the Czech people, we were guilty of complacency….of inaction….of doing nothing but raising “an official protest” in the United Nations at the time of such atrocities. As Klima and his fellow banned writers proved, when governments fail to act it’s up to writers – ALL of us – to get the word out there, no matter what the personal cost.

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