- Format: Kindle Edition
- File Size: 2809 KB
- Print Length: 259 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0825307856
- Publisher: Beaufort Books; 1 edition (12 Mar. 2014)
- Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00I078NJU
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Not Enabled
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #461,797 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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|Print List Price:||£20.99|
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Top Customer Reviews
Among them are Jan Reichl, and Alzbeta Palková. When they stumble into each other in the murky depths of the underground, into which the regime has cast out all genuine human emotion, all means of authentic communication, and all hope finding individual justification, they strive, against all odds, to make sense of the surrounding world and each other by creating a refuge for themselves in the enchanted world of forbidden melodies, books and ideas. As the communist reality begins to crumble, this world they have created is also put under pressure.
The title of the novel resounds Dostoyevsky’s short story. Dostoyevsky introduces its protagonist as the type of a person who not only did exist in our society but indeed should. This is also true of Jan and Betka. People like them did exist in that peculiar time, but they also exist today, albeit amongst a different sort of cultural devastation.
Through Scruton’s marvelous prose the reader is likely not only to learn about that horrifying period of recent history, in a way more direct than most historical accounts can hope to offer, but also about the human heart and so perhaps himself, or herself too.
Despite their mysteriousness the characters are sympathetic, exhibiting depth and authenticity in both their strengths and frailties.
The prose is accessible but poetic. As the plot develops and ambiguities build an intense vision emerges both of the time and place in which the action occurs, as well as of human experience sub specie aeternitatis.
Anyone interested in life under communism, twentieth century culture, the modern novel or the human condition should read it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is written as a flashback by Jan, a Czech dissident who has emigrated to the United States after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In many respects it is a love story, recounting Jan's relationship with Betka, a woman who exists in a shadowland where she is able to elude the authorities while providing some measure of leadership among members of the dissident community. Jan "marries" Betka in a deserted church, and it is made clear throughout the tale that they love each other but will never be able to live openly as husband and wife under the chaotic Communist dictatorship.
Scruton opens the book with a note stating that "This is a story about truth, but it is not a true story." He describes life under the dictatorship as filled with "false theories, false opinions, false sentiments, false loves, and false hatreds, all of which had the capacity to colonize the human soul and turn it into the mocking mirror by which he was surrounded." It is, above all, a life of fear -- fear of the police, first of all, but an encompassing fear that one is being followed and at any time might be taken into custody and imprisoned for the crime of thinking an unacceptable thought (a transgression against the State).
It is a dark story, whose redeeming grace is that it leaves the reader with a better understanding of the brutality of life in a dictatorship. I do not think that the author is exaggerating, although it is a difficult read for anyone who lives in a free society. It is perhaps a cautionary tale, warning us that liberty is a treasure that must be guarded lest it be lost in the bureaucratic nightmare of an all powerful administrative state, where the governing class seeks to control every aspect of the lives of its citizens.
Aware that his intervention to help his mother, as well as his association with the club members has put him under scrutiny by those with the power to arrest him, Jan continues to explore the new ideas he learns of, and deepen his relationship with Betka, even as he suspects it might be doomed. Because, early on, we learn that Jan is relating this story from the US, we know that he will ultimately survive, but it seems likely that, like the protagonist of Orwell's "1984," he will be subjected to much unpleasantness before he finds refuge.
The book explores the theme of freedom and how lack of faith can trap a person. While living in a world where censorship is common, there is still a "beautiful defiance," in those who join together to fight it. It's also about nostalgia - when Jan escapes to what he believes will be a better place, his older self still finds things to miss and even mourn for. As he acidly puts it, "The slaves had been liberated and turned into morons." Ultimately, it is both words and love that transformed Jan, and he realizes that without both, the story would never have happened.,
And the secret police have learned that one of the books Jan's mother published -- a collection of short stories by "Comrade Underground" -- was written by Jan.
Completely isolated because of his pariah status as the son of an "enemy of the state," Jan has no friends, no remaining supportive family and no way to contact his mother's dissident writer clients for help. He knows it is only a question of time before he is also jailed.
Jan then encounters and falls in love with a mysterious, beautiful young woman, named Betka, who is an admirer of his book. She offers to help him assist his imprisoned mother and introduces him to other dissident writers and intellectuals, including a heroic priest who was imprisoned for his faith.
But Jan's new friends raise more questions in his mind.
Among the dissident community of seemingly noble, self-sacrificing people, is everyone who they claim to be? Are some of Jan's new friends secret police informers? Are some of them both dissidents and informers? Who are the true opponents of the Communist regime?
Are some of the dissidents truly major scholars, writers and artists or are they simply intellectual mediocrities using dissident presses to achieve fame for low-level work? Are the dissidents' dangerous contacts with foreign human rights activists truly intended to publicize their country's terrible situation or merely steps to help them flee the country for well-paid academic jobs abroad?
In beautiful, achingly sad prose, the novel explores Jan's romance and friendships as he struggles to determine who can be trusted and his real place in the world while wandering through a maze of love and friendships marred by betrayals and deceptions.
Jan's naivety and thirst for love and learning make him vulnerable. The plot moves quickly to a painful and illuminating climax.
The novel is deeply rooted in the desolate Prague of that era, where ancient baroque and rococo churches and palaces were left to crumble, and art, music, literature and political thought were often neglected or suppressed by the dictatorship and cultivated mostly by tiny, fearful groups.
The novel can be read in several ways -- as a Cold War dissident's fictional memoir -- a psychological thriller -- a deeply nostalgic recreation of how culture survived in a dictatorship -- a cynical and affectionate look at Czech culture and history -- a rueful examination of what actually happened in some dissident communities before and after the Communist government was overthrown --
The book is mostly written in a clear and poignant prose that sometimes uses beautiful metaphors to express a situation or emotion. One review has complained that the author uses obscure words, but I found that happened very seldom. The book is absorbing, and I am now reading it a second time to pick up details that I missed the first time.
Although the setting is the real past rather than an imagined future, the book reminds me of a dystopian novel--a genre in which a few brave individuals struggle to remain human amid a bleak civilization. Jan's underground acquaintances speak of "life in defeat" and the "solidarity of the shattered." Even the physical descriptions of Prague and the Czech countryside heighten the sense of oppression: mist hangs over the river "like the blanket on a troubled sleeper." The empty window of a church looks "like the half-open eye of a man who has been beaten." A woman plays with her necklace "as though debating whether the time had come to strangle herself." Similes and metaphors are applied so thickly, in fact, that in places they overwhelm the plot.
The novel is a mental exploration: as Jan wanders Prague, he is wandering within his own mind. The narrative, a reminiscence written in the U.S. twenty-some years later, looks back on "never-to-be-recovered days of beauty and fear." While he knows that the Czech Republic is no longer like this, Jan persists in examining the past. His image of Prague is a snow globe--the "snow" swirling around a frozen scene, not a living, breathing city. Plot and characterization take a back seat to philosophical musings.
I enjoyed the book, especially the atmospheric descriptions of the time and place, but I did get impatient with the self-obsessed narrator. Jan is surprisingly unmoved by his mother's arrest. He views the beautiful Betka as an idealized woman and is unable or unwilling to see or hear her as a real person. At one point he says life under Communism was a time when "truth and falsehood are no longer distinguishable, so that the only thing that counts is your own advantage, to be pursued in whatever way you can." That pretty much sums up not only the regime but also Jan himself.
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