My Crazy Century
A Memoirby Ivan Klíma
“Klíma has endured as a writer, endured as a human being, writing of the great themes of freedom, honesty, and love and politics, and gazing with an unsparing eye on the lies of Communism.” —BBC
Ivan Klíma, “a writer of enormous power and originality” (The New York Times Book Review), has penned an intimate autobiography that explores his life under Nazi and Communist regimes. More than a memoir, My Crazy Century explores the ways in which the epoch and its dominating totalitarian ideologies impacted the lives, character, and morality of Klíma’s generation. Klíma’s story begins in the 1930s, in the Terezin concentration camp outside of Prague, where he was forced to spend almost four years of his childhood. He reveals how the postwar atmosphere supported and encouraged the spread of Communist principles over the next few decades and how an informal movement to change the system developed inside the Party. These political events form the backdrop to Klíma’s personal experiences, with the arrest and trial of his father; the early revolt of young writers against socialist realism; his first literary successes; and his travels to the free part of Europe, which strengthened his awareness of living as part of a colossal lie.
Klíma also captures the brief period of liberation during 1968’s Prague Spring, in which he played an active role; the Soviet invasion that crushed its political reforms; the rise of the dissident movement; and the collapse of the Communist regime in the middle of the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Including insightful essays on topics related to social history, political thinking, love, and freedom, My Crazy Century provides a profoundly rich and moving personal history of national evolution. Ivan Klíma’s first autobiography and perhaps his most significant work, it encapsulates a remarkable life largely lived under occupation.
“[An] absorbing memoir . . . The author relates all this with a mordant humor and a limpid prose that registers both the overt fear that repression engenders and the subtler moral corruptions it works in victims and perpetrators. . . . Klíma’s searching exploration of a warped era is rich in irony—and dogged hope.” —Publishers Weekly
“A sweeping, revealing look at one man’s personal struggle as writer and individual, set against the backdrop of political turmoil.” —Booklist
“My Crazy Century describes how a man lived without freedom and fought for it. . . . [Klíma] offers a vivid telling of a courageous man’s life and times, something that can speak to all of us.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“My Crazy Century is the prizewinning memoir of a writer who, deprived of freedom for much of this life, never ceased to be free in his imagination, creativity, and art. Neither Nazi nor Communist rulers could rob Ivan Klíma of his amazing ability—and fierce determination—to distill drops of truth from the sea of experience. Klíma was a witness, and participant, in the most dramatic events in twentieth century Europe. This is his story, brilliantly, wittily and poignantly told.” —Secretary Madeleine Albright
“From the Nazi concentration camps to the communist show trials, Klíma shines a vibrant light on the machinery of oppression and the struggles of artists and intellectuals to subvert government control. . . . More than a memoir, the book is the intellectual history of a city and a memorial to its inhabitants, who, laboring underground, kept the idea of democracy alive after the Prague Spring. A fitting capstone to a distinguished literary life.” —Kirkus Reviews
“In My Crazy Century, the renowned Czech writer Ivan Klíma masterfully recounts, first, what it was like for him as a Jewish child confronting with his family the inhumanities of the Theresienstadt concentration camp situated at the edge of their hometown, Prague. Then, more fully, he painstakingly recalls what it was like for him and his countrymen after the Nazi thugs were driven out by the Soviet Army and replaced for four decades by the Communist thugs. How Klíma and his Czechoslovakian colleagues—among them some of the best writers in postwar Europe—endured the relentless infraction of their fundamental rights is chronicled here through the private history of one who steadily stood up to his oppressors and who has thought deeply about the degradation and deformation conferred on a decent society by the lawless thuggery of Europe’s twentieth-century ideological monsters, one who preached racial purity and the annihilation of the Jews, the other working-class purity and the annihilation of the wealthy, the bourgeoisie, and anyone capable of independent thought. In its telling, forthright intimacy Klíma’s book merits a place alongside such eyewitness accounts of the evils of totalitarianism as Eugenia Ginzburg’s Within the Whirlwind and Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” —Philip Roth
“A candid, illuminating memoir of a man who retained his humanity in inhumane times, and used the light of reason to resist an absurdist regime. Klíma’s account of living in the shadow of censorship and in the spotlight of Cold War events gives us intimate insight into the vicissitudes of literature in ‘the Other Europe,’ and the exceptional courage required of writers in repressive epochs to speak simple truths to capricious power.” —Eva Hoffman
“A very successful memoir, which could serve as a guidebook for the 20th century, especially for the younger generation.” —Respekt
“Klíma traces an arc from 1967 to 1989, describing the developments of the Prague Spring, the August occupation, and twenty schizophrenic years of ‘Normalization.’ He of course pays attention not only to the so-called important events, but heads off into a very intimate sphere of personal experience.” —Literární Noviny
“We find in this book an unaffected testimony of tragic and absurd experiences, of injustice, wrongs, and first loves, of ever more successful artistic attempts, and later, of the fight against communist censors.” —iDnes
I had a meeting at the writers’ club with a German journalist. He wanted to know if there had been an agreement among us before the writers’ congress and if I was worried I would be brought before a court or at least banned from publishing.
He was surprised when I told him I didn’t think I’d be arrested, nor did I think I would have much trouble finding employment. He said he wished he shared some of my optimism. We said goodbye and parted on the corner by the National Theater. I’m not sure why, but I looked around and noticed a young man wearing jeans and a checkered shirt who seemed to be trying to conceal himself behind a column near the theater’s entrance.
I set off along the embankment in the direction of my former editorial offices. When I stopped after a moment and looked around again, the same man in the checkered shirt, not far away on the opposite sidewalk, also halted. Then he pulled out a camera and began photographing the castle panorama.
I was suddenly curious and started wandering aimlessly through the streets of the Old Town. The man in the checkered shirt disappeared, but I was almost certain he was replaced by someone else, this time by a man wearing a short-sleeved shirt.
I’d never been followed before, or at least that I’d noticed. Even with all my optimism, I had to admit that I’d suddenly found myself in a different category of people—the category of the dubious and suspicious who are kept under surveillance—enemies of socialism.