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Whatever else might be said about Heda Margolius Kovály (and there is much to say), she was definitely a survivor. Born in 1919 to Jewish parents in Prague, as a young woman she was deported to a Polish ghetto, then to Auschwitz, finally to escape the Bergen Belsen death march to return to Prague. There she was reunited with her husband Rudolf, also a survivor of the camps. After a successful, if brief, career as an official in the Czech Communist bureaucracy, Rudolf was convicted in the infamous Slánský trials in 1952 as an enemy of the state and executed. Heda immediately became a persona non grata and had to scratch to support herself and her small son. In time, she married again and took up a career as a translator of German, American, and English writers into Czech. Of a long and distinguished list of authors, she was particularly taken with Raymond Chandler. In time, she turned to writing her own books, especially a highly-regarded memoir, Under a Cruel Star (1973), and, in the 1980s, turned her hand to crime fiction, prompted by her fondness for Philip Marlowe. After a lengthy stay in the United States, she and her husband returned to Prague after the Czech Republic was established. She died there at the age of 91.
INNOCENCE (1985), now published in English for the first time, is her only novel. Two murders occur. The first is quickly solved; the second takes rather longer. Both murders affect the group of people, largely women, who work at a cinema on Steep Street. Helena Nováková, an important character based on Kovály's own experiences, has recently started work at the theatre as an usher because her husband has been arrested as a possible spy. Like Kovály herself, she remains free but unemployable in any but the most menial of positions while her husband is in prison. Her life is on hold as she waits what has been promised to be a three year term. Although her speech sets her apart from the other women on the staff, they seem to accept her and she them. The entire group appears to be governed by an unspoken, though accepted, set of loyalties, even though several among them are engaged in informing on their co-workers about things they deem essentially harmless.
The novel, though written in the 1980s, is set in 1952, a period characterized by political show trials and all the paranoia and intrigue that accompanied them. Helena's husband Karel is arrested because he'd invited his secretary and her boyfriend to their cottage, providing them with a map so they wouldn't get lost. Sadly, the boyfriend was West German, the road to the cottage passed an army installation, and Karel is convicted of spying and sent up for three years. The most affecting passages in the novel record Helena's valiant attempt to continue to live in Karel's absence and the degree to which she is "innocently" betrayed.
But this is not an easy novel to recommend to the general reader. The translator, the prize-winning Alex Zucker, was handed an almost impossible task. Kovály was much taken with Philip Marlowe and with the American noir sensibility that must have seemed responsive to the situation she found herself in after her husband's arrest and execution. She evidently tried to capture the style in her foray into crime fiction. But that left the translator with the problem of translating the Czech version of noir back into the language in which it first appeared, and that doesn't always work out convincingly. There is also the problem of the characters' names. Being Czech, they bristle with diacritical marks and are therefore largely unpronounceable to a reader unfamiliar with the language. As a result, many of the characters never quite take on the substance and individuality that they probably had in the original version.
Although this is not a book likely to speak to a casual reader looking for a brief excursion into noir, it is nevertheless an intensely interesting novel for anyone with the patience to take it seriously. While one may have trouble sorting out the various characters and understanding quite who betrayed whom and how, much the same can be said for any number of the classic noir fictions that inspired this one. The revelation that a writer like Chandler could supply a kind of comfort to a woman who had experienced much of the worst that 20th century Europe could inflict is astonishing. Finally, the central premise, that innocence is neither protection nor excuse in a darkly corrupt world, remains a bitter truth.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2015
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