Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light
A Novelby Ivan Klíma Translated from Czech by Paul Wilson
A powerful, important novel about the struggle between the ideal and the temptations of freedom.
A New York Times Notable Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is the story of Pavel, once a promising, award-winning documentary filmmaker, forced to survive under communism by working as a cameraman for the state-run television station. Now middle-aged, he dreams of one day making a film–a searing portrait of his times that the authorities would never allow. When the communist regime collapses, Pavel is unprepared for the new world of supposedly unlimited freedom, unable to make the film he has always wanted to make. Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is a powerful, important novel about the struggle between the ideal and the temptations of freedom.
A CROWD HAD begun to gather at the lower end of the square. Most of the people were young. Some of them Pavel remembered from earlier demonstrations. He had a good memory for faces and even thought he recognized some of the onlookers lounging on the pavement. Like him, they were fixtures on these occasions. They were probably here on duty too, though it was duty of a different kind. Not far away, in front of a large display window full of shoes, was a man with a small movie camera. He didn’t recognize the man, though he knew most people in his line of work; perhaps he was a curious tourist, an amateur photographer or someone taking pictures of the demonstrators for the archives of the security police.
But what was he doing here himself? Why were he and his crew filming these events? For television? The network wouldn’t broadcast a thing he shot, or rather what they did broadcast would have little to do with what actually happened. Perhaps he was working for the future.
But what was the future?
The future was a time that called into question everything that came before it.
Several uniformed policemen were standing around on the pavement. As usual, it was a peaceful demonstration. No one was shouting slogans, or getting ready to throw stones through shop windows, overturn cars or attack the police. Yet in most of the faces he observed through his viewfinder, there was tension, the nervous anticipation of the inevitable clash that would take place according to precise, though unwritten and not exactly high-minded, principles.
Why had the demonstrators come? What were they trying to prove, or change? What did they believe in that made them willing to endure being beaten, locked up, dismissed from their jobs? Was their protest for some higher cause, or were they there only because there wasn’t enough else to interest or motivate them–were they simply bored?
He wanted to ask them, but knew there was an impenetrable barrier between himself and them, a barrier symbolized by the logo on the transmission van and by his camera, a barrier as blatant as the double row of barbed-wire fencing that isolated this country from its neighbours, or at least from the country to which he had once foolishly attempted to flee. Sometimes he felt a vague uneasiness about being on this side of the barrier yet, at the same time, he felt safe. No one would beat him or interrogate him or try to blow him off the street with a water-cannon.
The crowd closed ranks, although there were still no more than a few hundred people in it. A young woman raised a piece of white cloth above her head. It bore the inscription LESS SMOKE, MORE AIR. He took a shot of the banner, studying the woman’s face and hands as he did so.
Her hands were small, almost childlike, with unpainted nails, and they were quivering slightly, perhaps because of the wind straining against the banner. Her face too was childlike, guileless and innocent. For a moment she reminded him of Albina. Where was she and what would she be doing right now? She might be somewhere here on this square holding a sign above her head. He’d put her out of his mind for so long. What would he say to her if she appeared? What would she say to him if she saw him on the pavement, trying to capture her and her presence on an Ampex tape?
She would say: how could you bring yourself to do this? Or she would say nothing at all. Why should she talk to him?
He looked around at the crowd, partly out of professional interest–in case he saw a new banner–but he also wondered if he might not actually catch a glimpse of her. She wasn’t here, of course; there were only more uniformed men on the pavement and a lorry with a water-cannon mounted over the cab which had begun moving slowly down from the upper regions of the square. In the same instant the crowd came together and acquired a voice of its own, a low rumble like a swarm of bees or a looming thunderhead. He felt its agitation grow in anticipation of the coming clash.
The clash would be as absurd as all the others before it, but there was no stopping it. Everyone knew this: those who would administer the beatings and those who would be beaten. This utter certainty transformed the raw determination on both sides into movements that almost seemed preordained. Even Pavel found himself hoping that the clash would soon start, not because he was eager for violence, but because he wanted the inevitable to be over with so that he could do his job and leave.
A yellow-and-white car with a large loudspeaker on its roof moved slowly down the square. The amplified voice, sounding more bored than threatening, announced that the gathering was illegal and ordered everyone present to disperse peacefully. The clamour around Pavel grew.
He took a shot of the car with the loudspeaker and then looked back at the woman with the touchingly na’ve banner. The white cloth in her hands was trembling more obviously now.
When it was over he walked down one of the narrow side-streets to where he had parked his red sports car. He looked at it, as he always did, with affection, then got in and drove off. The road and the pavements were still wet, and the buildings were spattered with water, but anyone who happened to come this way now would be unaware of what had happened here only moments before. He drove as fast as he dared through the narrow, winding streets. He would love to drive somewhere far away, as far away as possible from people, demonstrations and water-cannons, but he’d promised to visit Eva that evening, and had promised her son that he would stop off at the stadium to watch his game–he was the goalkeeper of a youth soccer team. He was a sweet kid, and Pavel felt a fatherly concern for him. It was certainly more pleasant to demonstrate his interest in the kid by watching a game than by talking to him about school in the evening. First, however, he had to drop in at the studio, look at the tapes and hand over his material.
The news-room secretary told him the boss had asked where he was twice that day. She supposed it was because of the president’s birthday. They’d talked about it at the meeting, she said; it was a big event, they were going to have to shoot a special report at the castle, and he and Sokol were naturals for the job.
He didn’t respond. It gave him some private satisfaction that they would trust him, of all people, with such a responsible job, but publicly he liked to say that the only thing he had in common with the head of state was that both of them had been let out of prison the same year.
As usual, the small editing room was hot and stuffy and stank of smoke and bad coffee. To make matters worse it was crammed with people who wanted to know what had really happened on the square. Two bottles of wine and some glasses stood on the mixing desk. Someone must have been celebrating something; you could always find something to celebrate. He pulled a banknote out of his wallet, tossed it in the kitty and poured himself a drink, then handed the tape to the executive producer, a churlish man named Halama, who slipped it into the machine.
Pavel watched the monitor intently. There was the young woman who wanted to breathe less smoke and more air, but now he noticed a young man standing near her. He was tall and thin, wearing a check shirt, and had a pale, dreamy face that looked briefly and sullenly into the camera. He has blue eyes like me, Pavel thought. In fact, he’s very like me twenty-five years ago. Would I have been out there too, demonstrating, if I were twenty years younger?
The young man moved out of the frame. The car with the loudspeaker crossed the screen. The crowd roared and stood its ground. A squad of riot police with truncheons poured out of one of the side-streets. The crowd began to break up and retreat, chanting: “Why can’t you be human? Why can’t you be human?”
“All of that’s got to go absolutely!” said Halama irritably. As if the rest of it could stay.
He tried to spot the girl with the banner again and couldn’t, but he noticed the young man in the check shirt holding his hands over his face. Truncheons thumped and thudded against bodies; there were shouts and curses. Someone behind him sobbed. He turned around, surprised. Halama’s secretary was wiping her eyes. Then she quickly shook her head: “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” she apologized, as though she’d done something inappropriate.
A precisely aimed stream of water came pouring out of the water-cannon. More shouting and running, then a rather good close-up of a face streaming with water, hair drenched, eyes blinded.
Pavel looked at Halama, whose narrow lips were drawn tight, his grey face expressing distaste. Was this a response to what had happened? No: more likely to the fact that it had all been captured so clearly on tape. ‘don’t even think of using any of this!” he said.
“Why do they do it?” whispered the secretary behind Pavel.
Her question was not directed at him, but it was one he had asked himself. Only now, when someone else asked it, did an answer occur to him. “They want something different,” he said.
“But they won’t get it that way.”
“Maybe they’re not after anything in particular at all.”
He turned back to the monitor. He’d managed to take a wide shot of the fleeing crowd. The retreat was so well executed it looked staged.
Almost thirty years ago he too had wanted something different, wanted it so badly he had tried to escape from the country. It wasn’t that they’d gone after him with truncheons, like this. Back then, it would have been futile to demonstrate; no one would have turned up. Why had he tried to get out? It was a question he still found hard to answer. Perhaps because his father had left his mother and he couldn’t stand living in a half-empty house. He had also wanted to travel. To see Indians, the Yucat”n and the Mayan pyramids. He’d gone to the Mexican embassy and offered to work for them for nothing. They asked him what skills he had. He was good at photography and knew a little Spanish. Unfortunately there are many people like you, they said. If you were a doctor, we might consider you. So he decided to run away, and Peter decided to go with him.
He’d met Peter by chance. They were both taking pictures at the zoo, in the reptile pavilion, when they got talking. Pavel said he’d like to make films about wild animals–lions in the desert, tigers in the jungle, kangaroos in the bush, rattlesnakes or sand vipers sunning themselves on rocks. Peter was more interested in the snake as a symbol. “The serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made,” he said, quoting the Bible. The snake had seduced man into curiosity, made him long for omniscience, and so it had become a symbol of evil and satanic will, though not everywhere and not to everyone. Peter loved to display his knowledge. Some Egyptian pharaohs wore bronze headbands representing a snake, which they believed would protect them from evil. Some African and Indian tribes thought of the snake as a divine being. Peter wanted to study theology. He was fascinated by every facet of the relationship between man and God, by anything which suggested superhuman power. There was something pontifical in his manner of speaking, as though he were always trying urgently to communicate something. His voice was unpleasantly shrill. It would be a handicap were he to become a preacher, but in the conversations he had with Pavel it didn’t matter. The important thing was that he too longed to travel, to visit the Holy Land and Rome, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and the temples in Luxor and Palenque. The very first time they met, they shared their secret wishes and tried to outdo each other with their knowledge. But neither of them had the slightest hope of seeing what they longed to see, or even of getting beyond the border, for the border was sealed with barbed wire. The wire was a symbol, like the snake. How could you possibly live your entire life, learn anything, or achieve anything in a country fenced in with barbed wire?
They began to fashion plans to escape. At first it was a game, but gradually they surrendered to the allure of their own longings, those perfectly integrated steps that would take them to their goal. Who had been the instigator of this act that had changed the course of both their lives? He was the more pragmatic and had far more practical ideas. But he also had greater misgivings. Peter was more casual, and besides, he firmly believed, sacrilegiously perhaps, given the implications of what they were preparing to do, that the mercy and love of God would protect them. Peter had turned out to be wrong about divine protection, but his faith had made Pavel start to believe in something as well.
What had he actually believed in then?
That you must not live without purpose, that you must look to the consequences of your actions, live in a way that brings harm or pain to no one. And you must leave some trace of yourself behind, and that trace would be a work of art. At the time he hadn’t been entirely sure what form it would take, but he knew he had the power to create it.
The final escape plan seemed brilliantly simple. They would cross the border in the north where there was no barbed wire, continue to the sea, then catch a boat. Stowing away seemed easier than cutting through wire, clambering over a wall or swimming across a heavily patrolled river. Unfortunately it wasn’t as easy as they’d imagined. The God Peter thought of as their protector was clearly preoccupied with worries of cosmic dimensions in which the two of them had no place.
The tape was nearly over. All that remained at the scene were the victors, puddles of water and several men looking on from the pavement with professional interest. Pavel tried to fix their faces in his memory. Why? Just in case.
Halama stood up disdainfully. Someone behind him began to clap, and several others joined in. Were they applauding his professional achievement, the victors, the puddles of water or the enemy that had just been dissipated?
All of us applaud on demand, yet we fear everyone.
THE BOY WAS wearing a black jersey and yellow gym shorts–the colours of a jaguar. A proper goalkeeper’s outfit. He was tall for his age but still too short to block a shot placed just below the crossbar.
Pavel stood behind the goal and asked him how they were doing.
“OK, but I’ve been lucky. They hit the post.” The boy gestured to his right. “I still haven’t had a touch. It’s good you’ve come, Pavel. I never know when to move forward.”
“You have to make up your mind fast. When a sheep or a wild boar starts day-dreaming, it misses the right moment to run away, and the jaguar gets it.” He felt awkward with the boy; he was really talking about his own experience with Peter.
The play moved closer to the goal, and he was glad not to have to talk. When had he ever been able to act quickly, with resolve? They’d caught him once and locked him up, and since then he’d simply tried to keep out of their way. An animal might seem to know when his life or his freedom is threatened, but do people? They think they’re running towards freedom when in fact they’re rushing headlong into a trap.
“Now! Now!” he shouted at the boy in the black-and-yellow outfit. The boy charged out to meet the attacking players, managed to get to the ball and deflect it off his fist back into the field. He stood for a while at the edge of the box and looked at the retreating cluster of players.
“How was that?” he said when he came back.
“That was great, Robin, you got to the ball first.”
“I need you to stand there all the time and tell me when to move out,” said the boy.
He wanted to tell him that that would only ruin him as a goalie, but he stopped himself.
How old would his own son have been today? If indeed it had been a boy. Whenever he thought about the child, he thought about him as a son. How would he have treated him? Would he have been a good father?
I’d probably have done a decent job, he thought. I take this one out in my car and I advise him when to go for the ball. But I know that I can walk out on his mother and him any time I like, without losing any sleep over it. The truth is he’s not my own son and he never will be, and his mother will probably never be my wife.
After the match he waited for the boy to shower and change. When they got in the car he noticed a cheap gold ring glittering on Robin’s finger. It didn’t go with his jeans at all. Eva must have got it for him. That was her business, their business. He never asked about more than he absolutely needed to know.
Eva lived on the seventh floor of a tower block. The flat had one large room and two smaller ones. Her former husband lived in the larger of these. He was a quiet, affable person, who worked as a fitter and was away from home most of the time on construction jobs. He could probably have found himself a new flat but didn’t appear to be looking for one. With this arrangement, he was at least close to his son, and perhaps he wanted to stay close to his former wife as well.
She never told him why her marriage was over. He assumed it was because her husband did not seem prosperous or important enough. Pavel was a better bet in her eyes; prosperity, like importance, is all too relative. Eva had sought him out herself. Two years ago she had seen a film he’d made on divorce and its impact on children, and she had written to him about it. She was in a similar situation and wanted to see him and ask his advice.
The film was a documentary he’d directed and appeared in. The problem it dealt with had haunted him ever since his own childhood, and he was pleased that the film had spoken to someone. He wrote back, giving his home address. Several days later she rang his doorbell. It was evening. She introduced herself and asked hesitantly if she was disturbing him or his wife. She was wearing a short bluish-purple skirt, a reddish-purple sweater, high dark purple leather boots and an ultramarine ribbon in her dyedred hair. Large green jasper earrings were swinging from her ears. He assured her that she wasn’t disturbing him, that he wasn’t married and that his mother was away. She was clearly pleased to hear this. She walked in without an invitation, her hips swaying and her bracelets clinking with every step. She sat down on a chair facing him, her skirt riding up as she crossed her legs. She looked at him eagerly. He asked what he could do for her. He had done a lot for her already, she said, just by making the film and letting her see him. Without boring him with the banal details, she was living with a man she couldn’t respect. She’d married him because she was pregnant; there was no love between them. She had a bizarre way of speaking, hesitating in the middle of sentences, sometimes not completing them. Her face was plain, but there was something bold and inviting in her every movement and glance. When she finished telling her story, she fell silent and seemed to be waiting for him to embrace her. When he didn’t, she stood up, walked over to him and said, “I want you to make love to me.”
When Pavel let himself into Eva’s flat, Argus bounded out to meet him, planted his huge paws on his chest and licked his face. Only then did Eva appear, freshly made-up as always, her mouth painted, her eye-shadow replenished, strawberry-blonde hair combed high. She could have gone directly in front of a camera. He had to bend over slightly to kiss her on the mouth. She smiled at him. She did everything she could to bind him to her. She tried to be pleasant, to tolerate his eccentricities, his occasional disappearances, his silences. She even went with him sometimes to visit his mother, always remembering to take flowers, though his mother forgot about her the minute she left. She did his laundry for him, cooked for him, made love to him and listened to what he said. If he was silent for too long, she would complain that he hardly ever spoke to her.
What did they talk about?
About life, of course.
What was life?
Life was a heap of things, an enormous accumulation of old clothes, tubes, creams, mincing-machines, coffee-mills. It was also masses of wires, lamps, mirrors, cameras, cassettes, scissors and water-cannons.
He took his sweater off and went into the living-room.
The television in the corner was on as usual, but nobody was watching. The sound was turned down, and for a while he watched a silent singer swinging her arms to the rhythm, while behind her waves beat against a rock and a gull hovered overhead. Lacklustre, empty images, but who had any good ideas any more? Who had a point of view? Who was doing decent work? He was, or at least he could still inject the most heavy-handed material with life, and one day, when they let him show what he could really do ”
“Guess what we’re having for supper,” said the boy, coming up to him.
He shook his head.
“Fried chicken. Your favourite.”
“I eat everything.”
“Except potato dumplings.”
“Potato dumplings I can do without. They don’t fit down my throat.” He made a face as though he were gagging.
The boy laughed. ‘dad likes them.” Then he stopped.
“He was here yesterday,” he said, somewhat embarrassed.
“He bought me these jeans.”
“And the ring?”
“Yeah. Do you like it?”
“Let me see it.” He took the ring from the boy. “I’ve never worn rings,” he said, avoiding the question. The ring had a hallmark and might have been a family heirloom. The boy’s paternal grandfather had once owned a factory. The factory had been nationalized, but the state had apparently let the family keep their jewellery. Perhaps it was the jewellery that had first attracted Eva to her husband. But either there wasn’t enough to go around, or it wasn’t enough to compensate for the impoverished heir’s other shortcomings.
Pavel had inherited nothing. When they caught him, he was wearing a threadbare duffle-coat with twenty marks in his pocket and some maps in a knapsack: a map of Germany, one of Belgium and a forty-year-old map of Mexico. It was all he could get. What do you need a map of Mexico for around here? I wanted to trade it for a local map. They struck him in the face and told him to stop lying. Still, he held out for several days. They told him there was no point in denying anything, because Peter had already confessed. It seemed likely. Lying went against Peter’s nature. In fact, Peter hadn’t talked until they’d told him Pavel had confessed. The two of them had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, but they were still young, stupid and inexperienced.
Sometimes, when he thought back over this botched period in his life, he thought that the worst thing about it was not the locked doors, nor the guards shouting at them, nor the fact that there was never enough to eat and what little they had was often stolen from them: it was that everything was saturated with lies. Meanness, rottenness, baseness lay concealed behind every word, every allusion, every promise, every smile. Only later did he come to understand that his time in prison was the best preparation he could have had for the life awaiting him outside. Everyone had to get used to it, and he at least had had a crash course.
The boy left the room. When Eva opened a cupboard to take out the tablecloth, he saw several colourful sweaters in Cellophane wrapping on a shelf. “What are those?”
“They brought these to the shop yesterday, so I kept some back. They’ll certainly sell well. Shetland wool.” She took one of them off the shelf and unwrapped it.
“I know. You’ve got your own private customers.”
“I have more customers than goods.”
“One day you’ll have your own shop and then you won’t have to drag these things home.”
“You think so?” She smiled happily as though he’d told her he loved her. She longed for a shop of her own, but the truth was she couldn’t possibly imagine it. Most people can’t imagine a life that is any different from the one they are actually living. They can dream about it, they can even go into the streets and demonstrate for it, but they still can’t imagine what it would be like.
Eva’s smile reminded him of the shy smile of Ditta in a film by the Jensens, and it moved him. Maybe he should spend more time with her, be a little nicer to her. She was all he had. As she bent over by the cupboard, he reached out and stroked her hair.
She looked up at him in surprise. “Is anything the matter?”
“No, nothing–nothing at all. Why?”
She went into the kitchen and after a while came back with supper. His sudden feeling of warmth towards her had, in the meantime, evaporated. She had nothing at all in common with Ditta; there was no shyness in her demeanour. Besides, he was certain she valued success over kindness. Success meant buying cheap and selling dear. It was a simple formula, and kindness or no kindness, he obviously fitted in with it. He knew how to sell his abilities, and himself.
Eva ate only a few mouthfuls. She was afraid of gaining weight, although there was no danger of that. She had a pretty figure, with small breasts, slim hips and a long neck. He’d photographed her nude several times, mostly with her face obscured. Her face looked good behind a counter, but it wouldn’t have been right on the cover of a magazine. There was something missing from it, the thing that would make it special, a birthmark, a small scar, a mole. But most of all it lacked interest.
“Looks as though I’m going to have to do a film about the big chief,” he told her.
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I’d rather film animals than people. Big animals. But then again not as big as this particular one. Not as old, either. And certainly not the kind they’re likely to send to the slaughterhouse.”
She looked at him in astonishment. She wasn’t used to hearing him talk like that. ‘does that mean you’re going to turn the job down?”
“They haven’t offered it to me yet.” The first time he had been entrusted with filming the president, he had felt honoured. Gaining access at such a high level strengthened his position, made him less vulnerable. And the president’s life, which had been so full of ups and downs, was an attractive subject for a film. Yet so much had changed in the past few years. The president’s influence was in decline, and so was the position of everyone connected with him. Perhaps the best thing would be to turn down the offer when it came. But what excuses could he make? That he was tired? That he had heart trouble? Perhaps a doctor would back him up. But the idea that the job might go to someone else didn’t appeal to him either. Presidents come and presidents go, and the president who replaces the present one will need someone to record his achievements. Whom will he choose? The most skilled and experienced manipulator he can find. No, he mustn’t drop out of the game, not even for a second. The single most important thing was to recognize in time that the old game had ended and a new one had begun.
He quickly swallowed a mouthful of food. Whether they offer the job to him or to someone else, those in charge will not allow authentic films. They won’t be looking for a genuine, inimitable work of art. ‘did any replies to the ad come?” he asked Eva, changing the subject.
“Yes,” she said happily. ‘do you want to see?”
She longed for a house of her own. She was saving up for it and she assumed he was too. Until then, she was trying at least to exchange this flat for another. Perhaps she believed that once she had a flat all to herself she would have him to herself as well, and that he would finally marry her and surrender his right to leave at any time. He neither confirmed nor denied her belief. He studied the ads, and occasionally the two of them would ring doorbells and look at flats which, fortunately, he could declare too ugly, or which were no longer available. He had no desire whatever to acquire a cage in which he would have to set up house with her.
He picked up the leather folder and leafed through the papers in it.
“Does anything take your fancy?”
“Kuera came yesterday.” She always referred to her former husband by his last name. “I don’t like running into him all the time.”
“Robin told me he’d been.” Pavel got up from the table, but there was nowhere to go. He’d been coming here for two years and hadn’t yet found a corner of the flat he could call his own.
She got up too and stood close to him, waiting for him to embrace her. ‘sometimes I think you don’t really want to be with me.”
“I’d never be with anyone I didn’t want to be with,” he replied, using a line he’d heard in a television serial. But the reply satisfied her for the moment, or she thought it proper to pretend that it did.
What did it mean to be with someone?
He lit a cigarette and waited. The boy came in to say goodnight. Eva unfolded the sofa bed and went into the bathroom.
He hadn’t been with anyone for a long time. At one time he had had a number of friends, but they had drifted away, their places taken by colleagues at work, some of whom kowtowed to him, while others watched, waiting for him to make a mistake so that they could step into his shoes. Until recently, he had occasionally stayed with his mother. But she had suddenly aged and was losing her sense of time and her interest in the world around her. Sometimes she could be unexpectedly and unreasonably hostile. He might pity her, but he could no longer be with her.
He was overwhelmed by restlessness. He wanted to go somewhere, do something, change something. Go back somewhere.
He opened the drinks cabinet. There was always a bottle of cognac there, and a glass just for him. He uncorked the bottle and drank from it.
The bathroom was free. He went in to wash, then tiptoed past the room where the former husband sometimes lived in silence, and slipped into bed beside Eva. He took her in his arms and without a word skilfully caressed her, just as he had done yesterday, and a year ago. Then he placed his palm on her stomach because he knew that she liked that and would fall asleep more quickly. As he did so he looked into the semi-darkness, faintly illuminated by the lights in the street, and into the windows of the tower block opposite. He was afraid he wouldn’t fall asleep. Recently he’d been having more and more trouble sleeping. If only he had something to think about, but nothing in his immediate future seemed worth the effort. What was the point of replaying the same old images and the same old stories? He should be inventing new ones. But he was too tired for that now. Whenever he began a new story these days, he tired of it before he had finished.