One of the rights citizens hope for and expect of their governments is
the right to a fair trial. Procedures and policies are in place in most first-world
countries now that demand a suspect know what he's accused of,
has minimum evidence against him to justify indictment and a legal
proceeding, and has the right to an attorney. These checks and
balances protect ordinary people.
In Heda Margolius Kovály's INNOCENCE, such protections do not exist.
Accusations of guilt can seal one's fate just as solidly as guilt itself.
Trust is easily traded for gain, and for Helena, whose husband has been
accused and imprisoned, the social stigma is difficult to endure. It's
made harder still when a child is murdered at the cinema where she's
employed, casting even harsher light on her activities.
Kovály's novel, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker, is rich with
fear and paranoia, of the citizens and the State Security agents looking
for leads and information. INNOCENCE is never felt as a guarantee, and
nearly ever character has hidden initiatives or a secret agenda of their
own. The way these motivations cut across one another makes for an intricate,
tightly told story, but also gives breathing room for
the characters to branch out and find their own footing in 1950s Prague.
In many ways, the characters isolate themselves from one another on
the basis that either they have reservations about the honesty of the
other person - or they themselves are dishonest, keeping their secrets
stitched snugly to their breast. In turn, readers get a truer sense
of the political tyranny of the decade, the stresses and challenges real
people faced, and the consequences of such a volatile environment
both on the individual and the community as a whole. INNOCENCE is an
excellent read that I highly recommend.
Famed Holocaust memoirist Heda Margoulis Kovály (Under a
Cruel Star) knits her own terrifying experiences in Soviet
Prague into a powerful, Raymond Chandler-esque work of
1950s Prague is a city of numerous small terrors, of
political tyranny, corruption and surveillance. There is no
way of knowing whether one’s neighbor is spying for the
government, or what one’s supposed friend will say under
pressure to a State Security agent. A loyal Party member
might be imprisoned or executed as quickly as a traitor;
innocence means nothing for a person caught in a government
But there are larger terrors, too. When a little boy is
murdered at the cinema where his aunt works, the ensuing
investigation sheds a little too much light on the personal
lives of the cinema’s female ushers, each of whom is hiding
a dark secret of her own.
Nearly lost to censorship, this rediscovered gem of Czech
literature depicts a chilling moment in history, redolent
with the stifling atmosphere of political and personal
oppression of the early days of Communist Czechoslovakia.