The second book I chose to read for this course is called My Merry Mornings, a collection of short stories that form an entity, by Ivan Klíma. The format of this book was different from that of The Unbearable Lightness of Being so it took me some time to get adjusted to it. It also centers around one character, who appears to be the author himself. The book is filled with seven stories, one for each day of the week, which frankly, on their own do not seem extraordinary. However, that is precisely the point because each one deals with different topics, and collectively, they are representative of Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime: thievery, love, the black market, religion, and the need for secrecy.
This book discusses travel in a different way as does The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although it is similar in that exile is mentioned. I think what has alarmed me the most about the Communist totalitarian regime through which Czechoslovakia suffered for forty years is the way in which intellectuals were quickly sent to the bottom of the social ladder. In one passage, the author writes that he had a friend who was once considered the great hope of Czech philosophy but, absurdly, eventually became a night watchman in the Institute of Philosophy; his former Chief Editor was employed washing shop windows, and another well-known philosopher friend was digging tunnels in the metro (32). In “An Orderly’s Tale,” Klíma, a respected writer, takes a job as an orderly at an elderly home, after constant persecution and censorship. In what appears ironic, he recounts:
The staff nurse was a lady of about my age and of dignified appearance. She read my file and discovered that I had been to university, lectured at an American college, spoke four languages, and was a writer by profession. She gave a deep sigh. (Obviously she feared that too much education would only get in the way of an orderly in coping with his duties) (91).
Thus, metaphorically, his occupation has traveled from the top to the bottom of the social ladder because of the oppressive regime. Perhaps the format of the book is also a metaphysical demonstration of the rapidness of such occupational transformations. The short stories do not appear as if they belong in the same week because Klíma goes from taking care of his neighbor’s injured son, to having a reunion with a long-lost love, to selling carp, to working as an orderly, etc. Perhaps the uncertainty of his life parallels the uncertainty of the regime.
In “A Sentimental Story,” he tells his long-lost love, Lída who left for the United States, that he does not have a passport:
“You don’t have a passport?” She did not understand.
“No, they took it away from me. Not just me, many people have had their passports taken away,” I explained. “Writers, journalists, politicians, and so on. What was the play like?” [Lída saw one of his plays in New York]
“In New York?”
“Yes, the one you saw.”
“I liked it. A critic said it reminded him of Dürenmatt. You mean to say you can’t leave here, you can’t travel?”
“Well I might be able to, but that would mean leaving for good. Then they just might let me.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
“I’ve already told you—I’m doing fine.” […] “We lead such interesting lives here,” I said. “And a writer has to be a bit of an adventurer, you know.” (31)
After hearing about the way in which Klíma is persecuted, monitored and censured, Lída cannot understand why he does flee to the United States as well. This passage reveals another complexity about travel that we often do not think about. We think travel is accessible and uninhibited, but that is always not the case (think of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and non-US passport holders). Klíma literally does not have his passport. Besides, he wants to stay in Prague to not miss any of the action that has become inspiration for his work. In what appears to be paradoxical, to him, staying stagnant, as opposed to traveling, is adventurous. This also makes one consider the way in which we view adventure. Often, we think adventure is beyond our borders, that adventure requires travel, but as Klíma implies, adventure can also be found at home, that if we travel, we may just miss something pretty epic within our own borders.
I think My Merry Mornings left me with the same perception about the experience of travel in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime as did The Unbearable Lightness of Being. However, it definitely complicated my view of travel: who is allowed to travel and who is not? And even more complicated, are all travelers admired and respected? This weekend, I went on an NYU trip to Ostrava in the Czech Republic where the largest Roma community within the country is found because it is an industrial city; and naturally, a place for poor, colored, cheap labor. Roma people are derogatorily called “gypsies” (stop using that term if you use it, please!) because they have historically been characterized by nomadic behavior as a stateless people. Yet, this weekend I learned that they are Czech citizens. The children go to Czech schools, they speak more Czech than Romani; when they are not discriminated against by employers for their darker demeanor, they work in Czech companies. Despite all this, the Roma community faces a disproportionate amount of discrimination in all of Europe. I would argue that because they are perceived as travelers and non-Czech—even when they have established their home here for generations—they are considered perpetually foreign and therefore undeserving of rights. Even though I walked through their community, I did not take any photos out of respect—I did not want to come off as a voyeuristic Westerner but suffice it to say that their living conditions are quite terrible. It broke my heart especially when I learned that landlords exploit the fact that many are unemployed and/or owe huge debts so they charge a ridiculous rent. However, I also went to the Roma kids’ Halloween party and was infected with their happiness. It is empowering the way in which the people with the least privilege are the most resilient and joyful.
- Ostrava Dolní Vítkovice Mining Area: Maria Alejandra