Memory and meditation dominate this alternately static and absorbing 1977 tale, the first of this Czech author’s four novels to appear in English.
The story is presented as the first-person narrative of Mikulas Svoboda, an architect who upon turning 40, in 1967, looks back over his earlier life, loves, and submissive “accommodation” to a communist regime that stifled his lifelong desire to create living spaces “in harmony with . . . the landscape I had a personal connection to.” Instead, he has obeyed orders to “Build quickly, build cheaply,” and thus avoid the fates suffered by his brother Beda (accused of “sabotage” and gently decaying in a lunatic asylum), and by several other friends and colleagues who enter the novel only as quickly sketched memories. These latter include Stepan, a cautious Catholic priest; Mikulas’s pragmatic supervisor Dr. Rychta; and a former mentor Kormund, the unlucky perpetrator of a botched fake assassination attempt on a politician who “needed to show that people were threatening him.” Mikulas’s decision to “live parallel” (i.e., alongside, but detached from, the reality destroying his country’s landscape and its spirit) sets him at odds with almost everyone he encounters, and crystallizes in his tangled relations with three women: his former wife Jarmila, a petite, strong-minded literary translator; his sometime mistress Miladka, a “luggagette” whom he meets at a railroad station; and the love of his life Olga, a widowed painter whose imminent departure from Prague to live in Paris is the stimulus for Mikulas’s lengthy vacillations between her claims on him and those that his country and culture continue to exert. The resulting structure of episodic, nonsequential thematic clusters with virtually no narrative tension offers, at its best, echoes of Boris Pasternak’s ineffably meditative “novels”; at its worst, frequent tedium.
Kliment, a member of the Prague Spring literary generation (Vaclav Havel, Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, et al.), is clearly a gifted, thoughtful writer, but Living Parallel isn’t much of a novel.