The collapse of communist systems has not eliminated the need for a better understanding of the impact they had and how and why they persisted. Only in the aftermath of their unraveling has it become possible to gain insight into these matters as books earlier suppressed are published and as the people of the former communist states speak freely of life in the old days. Actually, the transformation of some former communist countries has been so rapid that there is danger that the past will all too quickly be obliterated, that much that ought to be remembered will too soon be forgotten.

As always, literature—and especially good literature—is the best guide to the past, Judge On Trial was first published underground in Prague in 1978 and was subsequently revised and published in English in 1986. It was written during the long hopeless years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia; Klíma, like most citizens of the communist bloc, had no cause to believe that the system was on the verge of destruction. His book helps us to understand the apparent strength and durability of the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the docility of the majority who lived under them.

The protagonist is a judge who, influenced by the experience of Nazi rule, by his father, and by other members of his family who belong to the minority of believers in Soviet-style socialism, begins his career as a supporter of the communist regime. Having grown up hearing that “politics was the key to everything: happiness, justice and life in general . . . [his] conviction grew that it was the communist movement which embodied courage, conviviality, wisdom, humanity, and all the other virtues.” Later in life. the judge recalls how he once believed,

Where selfishness, envy, and meanness were once rife, friendship and comradely love would prevail. That fanatical and infantile notion of friendship, a street in which an apathetic and hate-filled crowd was transformed into a throng of empathizing and understanding compassions, had captivated him so much that he believed he had answered the fundamental question, he believed he knew how to live.

His youthful enthusiasm, however, gradually weakens under the pressure of experience, including the arrest of his father (an engineer) on trumped-up charges of sabotage. Caution, cynicism, and opportunism replace idealism. The judge’s uncle—not unlike Western fellow travelers—finds ways to rationalize the false arrests (including that of his brother) of the period:

My uncle agreed with me that it was an appalling miscarriage of justice, and gave us a sermon about the incredible complexity of the class struggle, when after losing the decisive battle, the enemy sought to sneak in everywhere. Hence it was necessary to investigate even the most devoted comrades. . . . [The enemy] was employing all sorts of shrewd tactics such as pretending to be a friend. . . . As a result it was impossible and unthinkable to trust people absolutely.

Among the lesser-known aspects of life in the communist system was the extinction of spontaneity under the inexorable pressures the system exerted on the citizen to divorce the public from the private self, to wear what was sometimes called the “party mask,” to engage in all sorts of role playing, to become a matter-of-fact public liar. Thus,

when my uncle had been regaling me with his elegant stories about courage, consciousness, and patriotism . . . he had also been aware of the reverse side of reality: cars that drew up at dawn in front of people’s houses; names scratched from the covers of books and from people’s memories; the suffering of those taken away and the grief of those left abandoned; and his own fear. He had known it all, but his grave expression and perfect self-control hid everything. He betrayed nothing of that other reality.

While still in high school the judge is tapped to spy on his fellow students and teachers: he is “convinced that [he] would manage to perform all that was required . . . in a totally fair and unbiased manner.” Subsequently, at the beginning of his career, “I had to be aware . . . who had me under surveillance, who was reporting on me. . . . I had to consider very carefully whom I could talk to frankly, and who was best avoided.” Not surprisingly, alienation under the communist system was far deeper and more widespread than in Western societies. A woman in the novel “abhorred the sort of life in which people were made to act like strangers; in which fear and denunciation ruled, people shunned each other, were frightened to talk to each other, exchange letters, confide in each other; in which people could be accused of having uttered some heretical thought years before; in which people were required to speak a strange official jargon that almost prevented communication.” In these circumstances, persona! tics assumed exaggerated importance even as they became a source of great stress. Sex became an inexpensive and widely available means of escape.

Klíma is wise enough to know that while the communist system greatly increased human misery and degradation, happiness and personal fulfillment remain difficult and elusive goals no matter what type of political system one lives under. Thus in his historical readings the judge comes to the realization that “beneath the veil of time-honored justice, the mask of redemptive faith and the smile of holy compassion, was hidden the face of the self-same beast. . . . Again and again, it demanded its ration of blood. . . . Always with the same conviction and utter faith in the Tightness of its actions.”

The hero’s perspectives on both the moral and material deprivations of life under socialism and on the complexities of the human condition are deepened by a prolonged academic trip to the United States (where the author himself spent a considerable amount of time). Presumably, this visit contributes to the insight that “one would never find freedom in this world . . . unless one found it in oneself.” Also during this visit, the judge “realize [s] for the first time that lack of freedom harms people not only by blocking their path to knowledge and curtailing what they can say and where they can go, but also by damaging the very core of their being and enslaving them by switching their attention to themselves alone. I realized how much energy I had been wasting trying to express in a complicated way and through allusions something which people there [in the West] didn’t even bother to express as they took it for granted.”

It is the interplay between such insights, born from the experience of life under communism and from the recognition of the more universal burdens and dilemmas of human existence, that the American reader will find rewarding and thought-provoking in this novel.


[Judge On Trial, by Ivan Klíma (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 540 pp., $25.00]