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Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 11:38 GMT

Czech writer's path to fame

Ivan Klima's life story reads like a novel

By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

Czech novelist Ivan Klima used to smuggle his manuscripts into the West, his work silenced under Communism. Now, with Communism gone and the ban lifted he has become a household name in his own country and an internationally acclaimed author.

Communism - the end of an era
Popularity pleases him, as it would any writer. But the history of his country has left its legacy.

"People now recognise my face, which I'm not so sure I like. But people do come up to me and shake my hand and say, 'Thank you for writing'."

Ivan Klima is not a man to whom fame seems to come easily.

In his simple room in a north London guesthouse, where he has come to promote his short story collection Lovers for a Day and work on a film adaptation, Ivan Klima is a man without airs. His ragged jumper has seen better days. He seems in fact, perfectly ordinary.

But Ivan Kilma's life has been anything but ordinary, from Nazi prisoner to political activist to celebrated international author, his life story is something a novelist could have dreamt up.

Childhood experiences

Born in Prague to Jewish parents in 1933, he was raised as a Protestant. But it did not save him from the Nazi camp Terezin, where from the age of 10 he spent more than three years during World War II.

It was his experiences in the camp that influenced him to become a writer.

"There were such horrible things, he said. "Many of my friends and family died. "It is my duty to speak in their name."

Mr Klima starting writing from a young age and wrote his first novel aged 15. He seems ashamed of his early work and has refused to have them published.

"My first novel, dealt with love," he said. "My second novel, aged 16, was about World War II, the anti-Nazi movement and love. Then there was a play.

"All three were connected with the war but I haven't gone back to it. Now I write about loneliness and human relationships, about love and death, about the world we're in."

Banned writer

Klima's novels are certainly not as radical as the long ban on his work would have people believe. He studied literature at university in Prague and became deputy editor of intellectual newspaper Literani Noviny. He became a successful author and playwright, but he was seen as a dissident, leading to a ban on his work and the loss of his job.

Like Vaclav Havel and others he continued to write and publish his work in samizdat, the underground printing presses. He took many jobs including ambulance driver and surveyor's assistant. During the Prague Spring and the violent aftermath he edited the Czech Writers' Union journal.

It was only in 1990, a year after the fall of Communism that the Czech Republic lifted the ban on his work. The first book published in his country after the ban quickly became a best-seller.

Now Mr Klima's books are read widely in the Czech Republic. Along with the novels and short stories translated into English, he has published children's books, biographies and travel books in his mother tongue and also writes occasional newspaper articles.

He himself admits that his books are not very political, but his work does show how ordinary people live under repression.

His novel Waiting For The Dark, Waiting for the Light highlights the difficulties faced by Pavel, a cameraman in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. It charts his realisation that things are not changing as quickly as he hoped. His latest anthology is a collection of previously untranslated stories written between the 1960s and 1990s, dealing with people's attempts to find freedom in love.

Did he ever consider leaving his country?

Never. Apart from sixth months as visiting professor of the University of Michigan, Mr Klima has lived in Prague all his life, where he says people understand him. But he doesn't judge those who chose to escape, putting it down to people's different "values".

Ivan Kilma talks calmly about his past. If he is troubled by his own history, and that of his country, he certainly doesn't show it. He seems to be a man happy to move on and tackle change.

He also is a busy man. From London he is heading to Toronto and New York for meetings about a film adaptation of his novel My First Loves. His latest novel, Ani Svat_Ani Andel_Neither Saints Nor Angels), is due to be published in the Czech Republic in November.

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