The Czech writer Ivan Klima’s new book, a memoir, is called “My Crazy Century.” It begins in 1941, when together with his family Mr. Klima, who until then hadn’t even been aware that he was Jewish, was imprisoned in the Nazi camp at Terezin, and it concludes with the Velvet Revolution of 1989, ending years of dictatorship and repression. “Sometimes, it was funny crazy,” Mr. Klima said last week, while visiting New York. “But mostly, it was crazy crazy.”
Mr. Klima is now 82, and his Beatles haircut, which his friend Philip Roth once said reminded him of a “highly intellectually evolved Ringo Starr,” has grown thinner and grayer. His conversation is like his writing: direct, plain-spoken, quietly humorous, but uninflected by irony or exaggeration. Talking about his years at Terezin, he pointed out that his family was much luckier than many. “I was very active,” he said. “I was not at all depressed. That was perhaps my age — I was only 10 — but probably my character as well. I’m rather optimistic.”
He paused and smiled. “I survived, so perhaps my optimism was not misplaced.” He added that his favorite book then was “The Pickwick Papers.” “I must have read it 15 times,” he said. “A very good book for the concentration camp, full of optimism.”
Mr. Klima’s optimism extended for a while even to the Communist regime that replaced the Nazis. When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending the Prague Spring, he imagined that Soviet repression couldn’t last more than six or seven years. He shook his head and said, “It lasted more or less 30 years.”
Unlike Milan Kundera, who became an international literary star after moving from Czechoslovakia to Paris in 1975, Mr. Klima rejected the idea of emigration. As he explains in the book, he had at least two chances to escape. In 1968, when the Soviets invaded Prague, he was in London — with a girlfriend, as it happened, while his wife was visiting Israel — and he chose to go back and be with his family. A year later, he was teaching at the University of Michigan and living with his family in Ann Arbor, and this time the decision to return was harder.
“For me, it was a professional decision,” he explained. “For a writer it’s very important to be in close relation with a milieu you understand more than any other, and with a language. Exile is always very dangerous for a writer. I was nearly 40, and to accept an entirely new language seemed nearly impossible. You can learn to speak it, but you can’t write in it at a high level.”