The police must have been in our apartment for at least an hour when I arrived. Mother was standing in the kitchen, a large policeman blocking her passage to the room where we lived. Everything was in disarray: the drawers open, the beds unmade and pulled away from the wall, our few possessions piled on the table or pushed in little heaps into the corners. Two more policemen filled the living space. One was thumbing through our samizdat library with slow, patulous fingers. His face was sharp and white, with wisps of soft beard on his chin. The other, who was taking notes in an official-looking notebook with a black plastic cover, looked up as I entered, and I recognized the smooth-shaven officer who had taken my identity card on the bus. He took the card from his pocket, and handed it to me with a sarcastic curl of the lip.
"We don't need this now," he said. (p. 1)
Summary: Jan Reichl is a bright young man who is shut out of having a university education because his father's love of books led him into conflict with the Czechoslovakian state; his father died in a prison camp, leaving Jan and his mother in poverty with no prospects. Jan's mother starts a samizdat press, and through that Jan publishes a book about the people he sees on the Prague Metro. Unfortunately, Jan accidentally leaves a copy on the bus, and the police trace it back; Jan's mother is put in jail for her samizdat publishing. At this time, a beautiful girl, Betka, who claims to be returning a borrowed copy of Jan's book to his mother, bursts into his life. She will be Jan's door to a world he would never have known otherwise, the 'parallel polis' of the underground, and help him set in motion the wheels by which his mother's case might become known in the West. This is a major matter; Jan and his mother are too low on the rungs of the ladder even to be dissidents. A dissident is someone whose profile is so high that the state gets more value from not coming down too hard on them -- doing so might cause the state, and even more seriously the state's real masters, the Soviet Union, a diplomatic embarrassment, so it's more useful to surveil them and keep their dissidence within limited bounds.
Betka is a mystery for all of the book, even as we learn more about her. Her love for Jan -- "my mistake", she calls him -- is real and obvious enough, but there is always more to her than she shows. If a beautiful girl suddenly popping into an isolated young man's life and taking an interest in him, right at the moment he has become a person of interest to the state police, sounds suspicious, that is because it is, as is likewise the fact that she seems to know everyone and yet to move freely. But in the regime of the Lie that is imposed by the Communist state, being honest is difficult at best, and being wholly open is a good way to get yourself and others killed.
The book is heavily melancholic and nostalgic (Jan is reflecting on these events long afterward), but it occasionally shifts to biting satire, particularly when dealing with the West, which is full of people who, not being under a Communist regime, don't really understand what life under one is like. The most satirical chapter is when Martin Gunther, an American professor who is an expert in 'human rights', comes to the underground philosophy seminar that Jan and Betka had been attending to talk about human rights and the Czechs don't understand what he's talking about -- he exegetes political philosophers they've never heard of, provides an account of human rights that sounds indistinguishable from the standard justifications given by the Communist regime for its most atrocious actions, gives a vigorous defense of the right to abortion in a country in which being too obviously pro-life is a hazard and being too obviously Catholic could get you jailed, and comes into a landing: "And so, with a friendly gesture of shared triumph, he concluded his talk, arguing that, however much we Czechs may suffer from the unjust restriction of our human rights, so too did women suffer in America" (p. 172). We get another satirizing of American academic culture in Dr. Lopes, the head of the department at which Jan gets a job after leaving the country, who is one of those academics who is always at the forefront of the political fashion of the day, even if it is the opposite of the political fashion he was at the forefront of yesterday, going from defending the Soviet Union to collecting its victims as part of his CV, as if it were the smoothest transition in the world:
And of course Dr. Lopes is a liberal, because only liberals can advance to the top of the academic pyramid in America. This does not mean that he subscribes to some liberal philosophy. He subscribes to no philosophy at all. A great statue of Liberty stands above the open harbor of his mind, ushering every idea that might arrive into the riotous cavern of his body, where it disappears without trace. (pp. 242-243)
The West is in fact an ambiguous character throughout the novel; it is free and comfortable and sympathetic, but what the West offers the Czechs is not a free Czech society based on Czech experience, but a provincial status as a sort of country-sized strip mall selling Western wares and values. The end road is not really the parallel polis made free and unoppressed to enjoy the riches of their Czech heritage, but rather fast-food franchises and American-style pop music. Martin Gunther doesn't provide a means to join an intellectual society as an equal; he shows them an intellectual society in which they could never be more than an outlying colony. Which is not to say that the West's support is not well-intended (although sometimes one wonders how much of it is benevolence and how much of it is vanity), nor that it is not helpful. But the West is not above having its own agendas, and its sympathies are necessarily abstract, filed away under labels like 'violation of human rights' and not under labels like 'my father died in a labor camp because of his love of books', or labels like 'collaboration with the oppressive regime' rather than labels like, 'the love of my love sold out people she knew to the state in order to get her sickly daughter medical treatment'.
One of the things the novel does well is capture the sense in which one has to be generous and not judgmental under oppressive conditions like those the Czechs endured. Almost everyone is complicit with something, and you know this by the fact that they are not in jail or dead. What decent people try to do is not be too deliberately culpable and hold up ideals. They gather, out of the solidarity of the shattered, in a parallel polis of underground institutions, to be with other people trying to do the same. Judgment has to be generous. It's a melancholic generosity, though, because there always hangs over it the question, "What could things have been if conditions had been different?" But conditions were not different, and those things never were.
"Oh," she replied, "I work in the evenings sometimes. In a hospital for sick children in Hradčany."
"And what do you do there?"
"Medical things. I qualified as a nurse."
"But you are studying, too?"
"It's my hobby," she replied, "the unofficial culture. One day I'll write a book about it."
"So I'm a hobby of yours."
"Oh, Honzo," she said, taking my hand. "You are a mistake of mine. A big mistake." (pp. 69-70)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended
Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground, Beauford Books (New York: 2014).