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?