Judge on Trial

The other night the staff of the summer program at Palacky University in Olomouc threw a party. Unfortunately for them, having prepared a large amount of delicious food and supplied beverages from their own pocket, most of the students stayed in the dormitory and did their homework (the staff had improvisized a field trip to a nearby castle that afternoon and thereby made it impossible for anyone to both go over the material and to attend the party). Only we oldtimers, who didn't care about grades and knew that the assignments would probably not be checked anyway, showed up.

For us, the small group was more enjoyable than having a youthful crowd talking loudly and making the small rooms unbearably warm, because we were able to discuss Czech literature all evening. Czech writers are not particularly well-known in America, probably because they reflect so accurately problems which abound in this country but which are relatively unimportant in the USA. How to organize a party, for instance, and assure that guests will come.

Although all Czech have in common a fascination with their recent, unhappy past half-century, they have wildly contrasting ways of expressing it. Hrabel is perhaps the best at describing the Czech personality today--his books are filled with life, laughter, and absurdity--but sometimes one wonders if there is anything to many of his short stories other than the joy of listening to words play upon each other and meeting some of the most remarkable characters in modern fiction. We ended up talking longest about Hrabel's opposite, Ivan Klima, and his realistic novel, Judge on Trial.

Klima is typical of the best western intellectual tradition--rational, organized, thoughtful, with insights into the human condition that transcend nationality. However, this book demands an effort from the reader--especially knowing the history of the Czech people during the lifetime of the protagonist, Adam, but also constant reflection on the apparent motivation of each character. The plot unfolds slowly: Adam as a boy in the Nazi concentration camp, his scientist father (a thoroughly convinced communist from a family with old ties to the party) arrested in the Stalinist purges, the unsatisfactory university situation which led him into the then unpopular field of law, his troubled marriage, the crisis which comes when he wonders if he can continue to be a judge at all in a system which robs him of all independence, and the Russian invasion of 1968. The slowness of the narrative is appropriate, since Adam did not come to doubt the communist system at any one moment; he was committed to the ideal of a perfect society until the reality of his situation could not be masked any long--after 1968 all his friends were purged or living in terror, fearing for their homes and livelihoods, everything they had worked a lifetime for.

The crisis comes to Adam in the form of a murder case--he must choose whether to give a death sentence to a habitual criminal, as his bosses wish ("the people demand that an example be made of such vicious criminals"), or to look into the matter carefully, with the possibility he will have to give a lesser punishment or even free the defendant entirely. Should he not impose the death penalty, it will cost him his job, his family, and any potential for doing good later when the system changes. The reader ultimately learns that Adam's wife is facing a similar choice, though in far different circumstances. The matter is complicated by the accused having made a confession because there was no use in trying to buck the system; why not just go along, say whatever they want, and get it over with? In short, Judge on Trial is a serious and demanding novel.

Our discussions brought out clearly how important age is in one's appreciation of art, especially of novels. This is not a book for young people, though mature students could learn a great deal from it. This is a book for people who have lived, worried, perhaps even suffered a bit. In contrast to Hrabel's work, where the serious episodes come like thunderclaps, so unexpected are they, Klima builds up the novel's atmosphere slowly, adding layer onto layer, nuance after nuance. Toward the end, when the judge and his wife spend a year in America--where, whatever stupid things people choose to do, one can act on one's conscience without necessarily doing harm to friends and family--Klima speaks about what it means to live in a truly free society.

The ultimate horror of the communist system in Czechoslovakia was its impact on the ability of people to communicate with one another. It is hard enough for individuals to understand one another, to explain what it is they want to do and what they feel they must do--Adam's marital troubles would have occurred in any modern society, even had he stayed in America. When mistrust is rampant, when the least broadly trained members of society come to power and defend themselves against even the mildest criticism--not crudely, as was done in the Stalinist era, because they had learned death and imprisonment had failed to deter true heroes, naive fools, or habitual failures from breaking the rules, but by spying into the personal and professional lives of everyone who might someday become a danger, quietly suggesting that their only chance to make a good living, to travel, and to write was through cooperating--in short, to run the system that robbed everyone of freedom. The purge that followed the Russian invasion did not send many to jail; instead, professors were made into bus drivers and, in accordance with the communist theory that all work is of equal value, bus drivers became professors.

What we see is that when any group isolates itself from outside review, using its control of the police, the economy, and the media to muzzle all potential criticism and makes economic and political decisions on the basis of raw theory, the inevitable result is fantastic incompetence at all levels. The Czech people are learning that this is not something which can be reversed immediately. There are human traits common to any society--a hesitation to make changes, inexperience, laziness, lack of proper training, perhaps a fear that the new freedom might not be permanent, and motives which lie deep within individual pysches. Certainly everyone is tempted to avoid unpleasant or unrewarding work, to avoid thinking about the consequences of actions, and to blame outside enemies, internal sabotage, or fate for any problems which might arise; communism accentuated the natural tendency to inefficiency and irresponsibility.

The Czechs are working hard on this problem, but every day they have to re-invent the wheel. Some professors whose sole qualification for their job was party membership have been retired, some young people have been promoted (actually elected) more on the basis of their past courage and patriotism than on their experience and performance, and if there are any bus drivers willing to resume a low-paying profession after twenty-five years off the job, in theory, they may have it. Let's hope that Adam has donned his robes again and is working in a suitably important courtroom. But for the rest of Czech society, and even the foreigners living here, are learning that experience is not something which is gained swiftly, without pain, and without mistakes. Clearly the legacy of communism still affects even the ability to organize a party.