Saturday, March 04, 2017

Repost: Heda Margolius Kovály's Innocence

-       Reposted from the late lamented site The Life Sentence, now offline

-        Down Prague's Mean Streets:  Heda Margolius Kovály, whose well-known memoir of the Holocaust, Under a Cruel Star, was first published in 1973, also published one crime novel in Czech, Innocence: or, Murder on Steep Street, in 1985. According to her son, who wrote the introduction to the new English translation, Kovály modeled her book on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, which were among the many books she had translated into Czech from English and German. But the Chandler connection is a bit misleading: Innocence is an intriguing reimagining of the crime genre in the context of Prague in the 1950s. Kovály does take from Chandler a focus on the real conditions of the lives of her contemporaries, but Kovály’s Prague in 1952, under Soviet totalitarianism, is a very different place than Chandler’s 1940s Los Angeles, under corrupt, bankrupt capitalism.

-        The style of Kovály’s book shares more with Czech literature of the 1970s: The philosophical meta-fictional prologue could have been spoken by one of Milan Kundera’s characters. But Innocence suggests most particularly a novel by Zdena Salivarová, Summer in Prague. Salivarová’s famous husband, Josef Škvorecký, also wrote detective stories, but his honest policeman is quite different from Chandler’s characters or, for that matter, Kovaly’s. Both Innocence and Summer in Prague have a lightness of touch in dealing with difficult material and both focus on young women whose lives are stifled by the overbearing state. Innocence does include elements of crime fiction absent in Summer in Prague: two murder investigations frame the novel, whereas the only death in Salivarová’s book is accidental (the result of social conditions rather than murder per se); but the real engine behind the misfortunes that befall the central characters in both is the unfeeling apparatus of the all-powerful state.

-        Kovály’s novel does begin with the kind of murder one finds in Chandler and American noir generally, but it’s a red herring: the child-murderer who would have been a serial killer in a conventional crime story serves as a counterpoint to the real serial killer, whom we discover only later. The murder at the beginning announces the book as crime fiction and introduces the characters around whom the action will take place: a police detective, Captain Nedoma, and an usher in the Horizon movie theater, Helena Nováková. The crimes with which the book is really concerned occur later, toward the middle of the book.

-        The focus of the narrative is split among several of the women working at the movie theater, plus a few policemen: in addition to Nedoma, Lieutenant Vendyš (who ultimately replaces Nedoma as the book’s primary investigator) and a satanic figure, Vojta Hrůza, from the secret police (according to the notes, his last name means “dread“ in Czech). The central character, though, is Helena Nováková, who had been working in a publishing house, until her husband (a planning official) was falsely arrested by a paranoid government, branding her, by association, as an enemy of the state. She feels fortunate to have been offered a menial job as an usher in the movie theater, but is mainly preoccupied with her jailed husband’s dilemma. The most important of the other women working at the Horizon are Marie Vránová, a young woman seemingly only interested in having a good time, and Mrs. Kouřimská, an older woman who is carrying the burden of more than one secret life.

-        Helena’s interior monologue, devoted to her despair and the solace she seeks in her hope for her husband’s release, is the only first-person voice we hear. In the depth of her despair, “The solitude separating Helena from other people was starting to distance her from inanimate things as well, stealing into her brain, where every thought floated unanchored into the void.” Her loneliness leads her into a tentative relationship with a stranger who primarily foreshadows the relationship that her despair will lead her into with Hrůza, who presents himself as a friend who may be able to help her husband. There are several other seductions: Marie has an affair with the married Nedoma and Mrs. Kouřimská, in addition to her private sexual proclivities, also has a relationship with Hrůza, providing the opportunity for his original introduction to Helena.

-        It is the two policeman-seducers who precipitate, in very different ways, the deaths at the center of the story, one of which, the “murder on Steep Street” of the book’s subtitle, Vendyš will investigate throughout the second half of the novel. The Lieutenant, though, is an ordinary cop who seems incapable of penetrating to the dark heart of the crime, as the narrator notes in an image that recapitulates the novel’s central setting in a theater: “Steep Street was like an empty auditorium after a performance, with Vendyš the late-coming spectator who could only guess what had taken place.“

-        The investigation leads not so much to the truth behind a murder (though a resolution of a sort is achieved) as to a revelation by a confessed killer about the underlying subject that provides book’s main title, innocence, especially in the context of life in a police state:

-        “No one can do a thing to stop people like Hrůza…They’re like earthquakes, or the plague. But they could never inflict so much misery if it weren’t for…the little helpers who try to convince you it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing wrong with a little snitching…They make evil seem like a natural, trivial thing…they blur the line between guilt and innocence, till eventually you accept it and murder just seems like an accident with nobody to blame.”

-        In the trivializing of evil lies the link between Kovály’s Holocaust memoir and Innocence, as well as the dark undertone that makes her crime novel so distinctive and powerful.

-        The book ends with a coda, a conversation between a shadowy fat man who had crept into the Horizon earlier, and an even fatter man, who together seem to be the actual spies whose actions had caused government’s paranoid suspicion, which in turn ruined Nováková and her husband. The two fat men untangle, from their particular point of view, the skein of guilt that runs through the book’s deaths and betrayals, and one of them refers to the possible justice in some afterlife: “I just hope it isn’t like here. Because if we got what we deserved for everything we did in our lives, they’d have to just cancel heaven, straight up.” That pessimism echoes the novel’s epigraph, from Hemingway: “All things truly wicked start from an innocence.”

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