Ivan Klíma: Love and Garbage – Láska a smetí (1988)

Donning an orange vest, the narrator–a banned Czech writer–sweeps the Prague streets with a group of the society’s other outcasts–an old sailor given to drink, a sickly teenager, a foul-mouthed former beauty, a failed inventor, and an ex-pilot. As they go about their mindless job, the narrator learns of the dreams and sorrows of his coworkers and meditates on the life and work of Franz Kafka, the power of literature, and his relationship with his dying father. 

Love and Garbage is my first book by Czech writer Ivan Klíma. It’s said to be one of his best. Klíma had a difficult life. Born in Prague in 1931, he spent some years of his childhood in the concentration camp Theresienstadt.  Later he was an editor in his home town. He spent 1969/70 in the US where he taught Czech literature at a university but when he returned to Prague in 1970 he was forbidden to publish until 1989. Love and Garbage contains a lot of Klíma’s own story but it isn’t, as he says, autobiographical.

The narrator, a writer who isn’t allowed to publish, starts working as a street sweeper. The slow and contemplative work allows him to explore his city, to think about his life and an essay on Kafka he is writing and helps him forget his lover. Because he chose to work as a street sweeper and it isn’t necessity who forces him to do this job, he likes it. He likes his colleagues, most of them are outcasts too. The work he is doing doesn’t only allow him to think about his life but it turns into a philosophical meditation on what the society deems worthless. Garbage and human beings alike. As a child the writer who is Jewish lived in Theresienstadt and most of his relatives were killed. The Jews, he muses, were like garbage for the Germans, worthless and had to be discarded and burned. The novel is full of linked symbols and elements, of scenes that are mirrored and repeated.

After he was forbidden to publish, he was desperate, caught in a marriage that didn’t mean much anymore, to a wife who had started a new life. She was studying psychology and trying to help others while he spent his days locked inside, chasing thoughts, trying to write. During this time he meets the sculptor Daría and falls passionately in love with her. When the affair ends, he decides to sweep the streets. This is symbolical as well, he starts to clean the city around him, to make room inside for another, clean start.

The writer is working on an essay about Kafka and often returns to him. He is reminded of Kafka constantly. For him, Kafka was the purest possible writer, an outcast like himself, not really understood and unhappy in love.

When the novel begins, the narrator is heartbroken but that doesn’t explain the sadness in the book. The sadness comes from looking back, thinking about his childhood in the concentration camp and all the people he lost. The only person still alive from that period is his father but he is very old and ill. The saddest thing is that despite everything that happened in the past and that his country had to endure, instead of having a better life now, they live under a communist regime. The constant threats and lack of freedom make life unbearable. His affair with Daría is an attempt at finding happiness but it turns bitter eventually and when he tells his wife about it, it seems at first that he will end up losing both women.

Love and Garbage is a challenging read. It demands concentration as the story moves back and forth in time, breaking up the chronology, sometimes up to three times per page. It took a bit of getting used to but once I had read a few pages I liked it. This type of writing doesn’t allow you to fall into some sort of reader’s trance but wakes you up constantly. This may sound like a gimmick but that’s not what it is at all. It’s a cunning way to mirror the narrator’s interior life.  It’s not so much an interior monologue as a way to render how freely thoughts move, unlike the person who thinks them. We easily move back and forth in our minds, a childhood memory can be followed by some thoughts about the past day. In our minds we can go wherever we want, at any time we choose.

I have read a lot of Czech writers who wrote in German but only a very few who write in Czech. As I have found out, Love and Garbage was meant as an answer to Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being which Klíma considered to be chauvinistic.

I liked Klíma’s writing. It’s unusual, complex, poetic and highly descriptive. There is hardly an aspect of human life that isn’t touched and that’s why the book is like a delicately woven tapestry. One pattern evokes another one, one angle mirrors the next, all is linked and intertwined. Poetical passages follow psychological insights, philosophical thoughts come after realistic descriptions. The book is sad but the way the writer fights for the tiniest bit of happiness and the richness of his interior life are so beautiful, they illuminate the book from within.

Have you read Klíma or other Czech writers?

21 thoughts on “Ivan Klíma: Love and Garbage – Láska a smetí (1988)

    • Thanks, Caroline. I hope you will read it, it’s very special. You have to take your time at first as it’s very unusual but considering it’s about adultery, amonng many other things it was very sensitive. Oh I can’t balme him, I didn’t like Kundera all that much, I found the whole book showy-off.
      I’m glad you like the Mörike btw. 🙂

  1. I have this book–as yet unread, and it sounds good, but perhaps when I am in the mood for something a little more challenging style-wise. I’ve only read a tiny bit of Kafka, one book by Bohumil Hrabal and several books by Milan Kundera–all those years ago. Interesting that the Klima is a response to Kundera. I’d like to read more eastern European lit–it’s been too long since I’ve picked up any books by any authors from that region.

    • We read many Czech writers writing in German like Kafka, Meyrink, Kisch and many more in school but since then I haven’t read many of them. I decided to remedy that and at least read through my TBR pile. I’ve got a few Polish and Hungarian authors who look promising. I forgot about Hrbal. He is another writer I’m interested in.
      One good thing about Klíma is, although the strcuture is very challenging, the indvidual parts are not. It’s not experimental writing at all. I found it very fascinating. I hope you will like it.

      • I’m curious to hear which Polish authors you’ll be reading–if you are reading them in English? I have not found many it seems–at least contemporary fiction. I think I have a few more Hungarian authors on my pile. I should really follow suit and pick up a few of these books this year, too.

        • I have a couple of Szczypiorski’s book and I think a few others but I have to double check always to make sure they are really Polish. I read those either in French or German but Szczypiorski is avaiable in English (maybe written in a slightly different way). There are a far more Hungarian writers available. At least in German. I have quite a pile. Yes, do so as well. It will be great to compare notes.

  2. I really like the sound of this.

    Kafka was unhappy in love? Milena Jesenska was even more unhappy. Have you read his letters? What a complicated man! It’s a curse to fall for someone like him.

    I had a Kundera phase in the 1990s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a teenage read. (great film) He was fashionable in France.

    • He isn’t saying he was unhappy without his own fault. I think he gets him very well.
      Kundera was obnoxiously fashionable. I noticed that even people who don’t read much, read Kundera. I didn’t like the book at all and never read anything else by him. Klíma is much more subtle.

  3. Hi Caroline,
    I love Kafka, and have read most of Kundera. Unbearable Lightness is not one of my favorite books, but I did love Laughable Loves, and Farewell Waltz. Interestingly, the slightly ridiculous protagonist of Farewell Waltz is called Klima. I am looking forward to reading this book.
    I really liked your blog, You’ve reviewed some of my favorite books here. Am following you now!
    I started a new book blog, would you please visit me at http://riversihaveknown.wordpress.com/
    Please tell me if you like the blog. Am working very hard on it.
    If you do like it, please follow. Looking forward to many interesting discussions with you!

    • Hi Amritoroupa, thanks for visiting me and following my blog. I’m glad you like it. I have visisted yours briefly but will have to go back once I have more time. It looks very good so far. I hope you will like Klima. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Kundera named his protagonist Klima. Maybe I shouldn’t give up on Kundera after just one book? I would be very interested to read your thoughts on Klima. If you like and know Kafka well it should have an additional appeal.

  4. I read one book by Klima last year and enjoyed it – No Saints or Angels. This one sounds really good. I didn’t know anything about his life until now. I’m wondering why he thought The Unbearable Lightness of Being was chauvinistic – I quite liked it but I’m curious!

    • Thanks for the recommnedation. I don’t know why he thought it was chauvinistic. Maybe because the male character isn’t as torn as the narrator in this book. The feel is very different but I would have to explore more to know details. I had to read up on his life as the way he wrote about Theresienstadt startled me. It sounded as if he knew wht he was writing about. I didn’t like The Unbearable Lightness of Being that much but I clearly have to read others of his books to be able to judge his work.

  5. Beautiful review, Caroline! I love the premise of the story – it is literary though it is also a bit intense. I haven’t read many Czech authors except for a few stories by Kafka and one novel by Kundera. I would love to read this one – it looks like a wonderful book. Thanks for the wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m glad you liked it. It’s very unusual. I’m aware of what it must have been like to live under a communist regime but one tends to forget how unfree they really were. Still it’s a beautiful book.

    • It’s very good, a bit depressing yes, it must have been awful living under that regime and having lived in Theresienstadt as a child. I liked the structure and there were many beautiful passages.

  6. I ve read a lot czech writers I ve actually three of his in my tbr pile ,twisted sppon publishing some wonderful czech lit in english ,last modern one I love was emil hakl a man and his son wandering prague simply beautiful ,all the best stu

  7. I’ve not read Klima and have been wanting to, so I definitely appreciate the review. I’ve been focusing more on Eastern European writers lately…the only ones written in Czech are Hašek and Hrabal, I believe. Recommend both highly, and I’m looking forward to getting to Klima soon.

    • Hasek, of course. I had forgotten about him. I’d like to read more Eastern European literature, I think Hungary will be the next country to explore. Thanks for mentioning Harbal, I need to read him, I’ve heard so many good things.
      I found the structure of Klíma’s novel very interesting.

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