Monday, June 01, 2015

The Shadow World of 1952: INNOCENCE, Heda Margolius Kovály

Thirty-somethings today hold 9-11-2001 as their mark in time: the date the world changed. And it did for an older generation too, but it wasn't the first time. There was President Kennedy's murder - a date when the romance of Camelot fled from the image of American politics. Later would come the violent deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Marks on the timeline in terms of saving the world came, too -- like the date the Berlin Wall finally stopped dividing the two halves of Germany, and the Iron Curtain that hung across all of Europe finally seemed destined to fall.

June 2 marks the American release of INNOCENCE, OR MURDER ON STEEP STREET, a 1985 crime novel written by Czech memoirist and translator Heda Margolius Kovály. At the time it was first published (in Czech), the book was considered so subversive -- set in 1952 Czechoslovakia and baring the gray horrors of Soviet-style life in that nation trapped behind the "Iron Curtain" -- that its publication took place in Germany instead. The author didn't want it to create extra trouble for her friends still living in Prague at the time, and she kept the book's profile so low that it was considered obscure.

Flash forward to today, as Soho Crime publisher Juliet Grames and Kovály's son Ivan Margolius -- with translator Alex Zucker -- finally release, with great satisfaction, INNOCENCE to American readers. What if Raymond Chandler's earliest work had hidden all this time? Would mystery writing be the same? How would the noir genre have risen without it? Step through the looking-glass as a woman, with a finger on the pulse of Europe, and you have the effect of Kovály's novel: Here is where we begin to face the world as it is, the the fierce appetite of crime and murder, which devour goodness and crack open the polite, the gentle, the kind. The innocent.

Helena Nováková is working as an usher at a movie palace, the Horizon. Her life's stripped of all graces: Through her own offhand suggestion of a kindness to a friend, she tumbled her husband into a political black hole, and he's serving probable life in jail. She's numb, impoverished. Barely scraping by in a Czech culture of comrades and corruption. And almost without a will of her own.

Slowly, around her, the facade of civilization crumbles, one person at a time. As INNOCENCE opens, Helena is doing an errand for the absent "manager" of the Horizon: telling the projectionist that his error of the day before won't be tolerated if it ever happens again. Soon afterward, the projectionist is arrested, and the investigation that uncovers his victim also begins to push Helena toward taking action that she hopes will restore her husband's freedom, or at least his culture.

But instead, like the supposed dominoes of Communist occupation that once pushed America into the Vietnam war, Helena's fellow employees and even the Horizon patrons turn out to be involved in crime and corruption themselves. And -- what added trouble is Helena bringing upon herself?

The translation by Alex Zucker catches exactly the trembling grim aura that I recall from the 1960s in junior high school, learning about the fervent passion of the Communist promise while also sampling Russian literature and its despair. At some moments I almost felt the red paper covers of the first Communist propaganda booklet I ever read; at others, I could have been rediscovering the madness and menace of Bulgakov's crime novel The Master and Margarita, without any redeeming magic. Here are the roots of Eastern Europe's turmoil - the same ones that Alan Furst entwines in his Eastern European crime fiction that takes place in the 1930s. There was a world war between the 1930s and the 1952 scenes of INNOCENCE -- but in some ways it only justified the bitter changes that continued to twist once-civil, once-cultured nations into a mockery of Marx's own promises.

Helena's unthinking efforts to improve her situation lead into a compelling sequence of memorable scenes and taut suspense. No car chases, no gunfights, but the grit and betrayal of espionage are here, along with its pained consequences.

I didn't always appreciate Zucker's choice of slang for the Czech characters -- Helena and her husband had been "hitched" for two years when their lives imploded, and Helena reflects on her own actions, "If only I'd kept my trap shut." It's jarring at first. But the match to both Chandler and the American radio shows of the 1950s eventually won over, and I felt like an investigator myself, seeking the truth behind the performances at the unfortunate Horizon. Does Helena deserve the consequences she reaps?

Pick up a copy of this unusual and engrossing mystery, the only one that Kovály wrote. Let me know if you feel the same way about it, after reading it and stepping away far enough to look again: I'm shelving my copy next to Chandler.

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