Ivan Klima's Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light was set in Prague, in 1989 on the eve of the Velvet Revolution. Rippling through that work was an undercurrent of hope for the future. The promise of freedom was rife and it came coupled with the expectation that life in a free society would be infinitely better than life under an oppressive regime. Fast forward to Prague in 1998. The Czech Republic has been `free' for almost 10 years. Freedom has no doubt brought great benefits but for the protagonist's of No Saints or Angels freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose. In Klima's words freedom is the "gateway to an unknown space where even adults get lost in." No Saints or Angels is about three people who seem to have gotten lost.
No Saints or Angels centers on three main characters. Krystina is a divorced, middle-aged dentist. Krystina was born in 1953 on the day that Stalin, her devoted Communist father's greatest hero, died. Her father was a strict disciplinarian, callous to his wife and daughter, and a faithful party apparatchik. Krystina's daughter, Jana, is a 16 year old schoolgirl. Jan is a 30 year old and former student of Krystina's ex-husband. Jan is a government employee tasked with investigation criminal acts of the old regime. Various chapters are narrated in the voice of each of these three protagonists.
As the story opens Krystina is alone, lonely, and has no real focus except her work and the care and feeding of her daughter Jana. Her ex-husband Karel is terminally ill with cancer. She is also more than a bit disconcerted by a series of threatening letters she has been receiving lately. Jana is sixteen and unbeknownst to her mother, she is becoming increasingly involved in the type of teenage behavior often associated with `democratic' societies: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Jan, whose father was persecuted during the old regime, is nervous about political pressures.
Krystina and Jan meet and begin an affair. Jana's drug use becomes apparent even to the remarkably naïve Krystina. Krystina is tasked with going through her late father's possessions and his correspondence reveals an extraordinary family secret. As the story progresses to its rather calm conclusion each character, in his or her own voice reveal their fears and concerns with their life. Although each is free since 1989 in a socio-political sense they remain a prisoner of their own past, a past that cannot be changed but can merely be contemplated, again and again. Each is burdened with the past and the daily impact that the past has on their present existence. Each character carries within themselves grave uncertainty about their own future and their role in life. On the day Krystina was born her father cried, not because of the joy of his daughter's birth but because of his anguish over the death of Stalin. Klima has him cry out "What are we going to do now?" "How are we going to live?" These are the same questions that Krystina, Jana, and Jan ask themselves in their own way and each a representative of a different generation asks.
It should be pointed out that Klima paints his character portraits with some sympathy. It is clear that he would not trade the problems brought about by freedom for the security of the old regime. In an interview with Radio Prague he took pains to note that the Czech people haves not lost anything from the transition. "Maybe some people, mostly less capable people, have lost their feeling of security: it means entirely apolitical people, who didn't like to work too much, who were not very gifted, they were secure. The prices were stable, and so on and so on. Maybe for some people that's something of a loss. . . . But what we've gained is many things . . . we have gained freedom."
No Saints or Angels is not a perfect work. Sometimes the resolutions of his characters' problems seem a little too simple. Further, Klima's short stories (My Merry Morning for example) and non-fiction pieces (Spirit of Prague) seems to have a more powerful impact on this reader. Nevertheless, Klima is a master at telling a story and No Saints or Angels is no exception. This is a book worth reading either on its own or in conjunction with Klima's other work. I do think that No Saints or Angels would be more appreciated by the reader after he or she has read Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light.