My Crazy Cen­tu­ry: A Memoir

Ivan Kli­ma; Craig Cravens, trans.
  • Review
January 6, 2014

The 500 pages cov­er­ing intern­ment in the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp Terezín and per­se­cu­tion under the Com­mu­nist regime of Czech writer Ivan Klíma’s mem­oir My Crazy Cen­tu­ry could be intim­i­dat­ing, but they aren’t. Klí­ma guides the read­er steadi­ly, hurtling through events from the 1930s to the Vel­vet Rev­o­lu­tion of 1989. It is his sto­ry, and the sto­ry of Czecho­slo­va­kia and its writers.

Main­ly, My Crazy Cen­tu­ry is the sto­ry of a writer: dis­cov­er­ing the pow­er of sto­ry­telling at Terezín; get­ting the idea for his first alle­gor­i­cal play, The Cas­tle; edit­ing a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine; pub­lish­ing his work only abroad and in a clan­des­tine mag­a­zine typed up with friends dur­ing the twen­ty years they are banned from pub­lish­ing at home. While Klí­ma details the harass­ment and per­se­cu­tion his friends and fam­i­ly suf­fer, he nei­ther rages nor dwells. Odd­ly, for a Holo­caust sur­vivor, he is unper­turbed when, in the late 1940s, a neigh­bor in Prague dis­ap­pears. He was a bougie,” his father, an ardent Com­mu­nist, explains. When his beloved father is lat­er impris­oned for sab­o­tage,” Klí­ma dis­plays remark­able non­cha­lance. He wor­ries about his first love, being a good mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, and pro­vid­ing for his fam­i­ly, rather than about his father’s fate. Dis­ap­pear­ances are not seen as the alarm­ing hall­mark of a total­i­tar­i­an regime but rather as the way things are. Per­haps, sad­ly, that is a sur­vival skill learned in Terezín. 

Being clas­si­fied as Jew­ish by the Nazis comes as a sur­prise; Klí­ma had been raised entire­ly sec­u­lar. He remains so, exhibit­ing bemused indif­fer­ence toward all things Jew­ish, despite his Jew­ish wife’s inter­est in Judaism. She ini­ti­ates, for exam­ple, their vis­it to an Israeli kib­butz in the ear­ly 1960s. There he is more inter­est­ed in the Kib­butzniks’ suc­cess­ful exper­i­ment in com­mu­nal liv­ing than in the real­iza­tion of the Jew­ish state.

Klí­ma finds him­self in Lon­don and lat­er at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan as a guest lec­tur­er when Sovi­et tanks crush the Prague Spring. Nev­er­the­less, Klí­ma decides to return. Thank­ful­ly, he address­es why: For me, the only mean­ing­ful work was writ­ing, telling sto­ries that were some­how con­nect­ed to my life, and this was inter­wo­ven with my home­land. The thought of writ­ing in a for­eign coun­try about things that deeply touched me but with which I had cut off all ties seemed fool­ish.” Thus, My Crazy Coun­try is an illu­mi­nat­ing account of what it meant to be a Czech writer in the twen­ti­eth century.

Discussion Questions