Psychological thriller set in totalitarian Czechoslovakia

Innocence: Or, Murder  on Steep Street By Heda Margolius Kovaly  Translated by Alex Zucker (Soho Press Inc. 2015)

There is a great deal over which to marvel in Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street

The narrative is riveting. The art of its telling is powerful. And the back story to its publication is itself worthy of recounting: a testament to the author’s steely will to hallow memory and, in so doing, bring a semblance of balance to history’s often skewed scales of justice.

There is more than one murder in Innocence. A particularly gruesome one is the subject of the police investigation that provides the backdrop for the deft, slow, unravelling of the intricate layers of plot and character that hold the reader in thrall until the very last pages of the book. Late at night, a police officer is found stabbed to death in his car, which is parked on dark, gloomy Steep Street in Prague. His murder lies at the centre of a thick web of morally empty interconnections and interactions that choke and ensnare innocent lives.

The story unfolds in the early 1950s in totalitarian, Communist Czechoslovakia. State control is absolute. People live under suffocating conditions of constant, intrusive watchfulness. Personal happiness is defined by one of the key characters in the novel as merely “a good meal, an absence of suffering.”

Imagine the works by Koestler or Solzhenitsyn about life in a police state. Imagine, too, the narrow, social and cultural strictures in the world depicted by Kafka. As skillfully as they, Kovaly depicts the desperate emptiness, the deep, crushing lack of purpose and pervasive fear of everyday life under totalitarian conditions.

The husband of one of the key characters, Helena, is arrested – taken without explanation, without warning, without charge, without reason. Helena’s life then descends rapidly into an anguish of worry, alarm and life-sapping resignation. She describes her life’s parameters.

“Reading was a dangerous thing for someone like me. It gave you something beyond your own sad, lonely life, and though it acted as a protective shield, it could not be used as a wall or screen, a thing to hide behind. You could sit at home alone by the stove experiencing all these sensational things: loving, fearing, fighting, even dying, all in the space of one afternoon and three cups of coffee. Slowly you forgot that the story came from somebody’s head, and you began to expect the same pattern and rules in real life as in books. You deluded yourself into thinking that after every exposition came a climax and a resolution, every episode fit into every arc of the narrative and nothing happened without a purpose, since of course the story had to unfold smoothly and make some kind of sense. It was a dangerous drug.”

Helena is actually only a pawn being manipulated by “the system.” Her life – her humanity, her existence, her worth as a human being – means nothing to the state authorities other than as a detail in a wider manipulation, a name in a dossier full of suspects’ names, and ultimately, a trap by which to catch a larger prey. 

Fear of betrayal constantly frames the behaviour of individuals. Colleagues at work might be informants. Friends might be unsuspecting targets of the Party decision-makers. In one particularly memorable scene, the author describes the mechanics and the impact of a seemingly innocuous betrayal.

“But then it hit me. A man had lost his life and I was responsible… I realized there’s no such thing as a ‘little’ bad thing because nobody can predict what will come of it… it can grow into a big thing before you even know it…

“No one can do a thing to stop people like H… They’re like earthquakes, or the plague. But they could never inflict so much misery if it weren’t for little bastards like N… the little helpers who try to convince you it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing wrong with a little snitching… They make evil seem like a natural trivial thing… they blur the line between guilt and innocence, till eventually you accept it and murder just seems like an accident with nobody to blame.”

Innocence is a psychological thriller. Since conversation with others is fraught with risk, only conversation with one’s self is safe. Hence, Kovaly brings the readers into the private chambers of her characters’ thoughts and pitiful, despairing lives. And she does so masterfully. She writes mournfully of the desolation of the characters’ lives, but not in over-wrought prose. The language is sculpted by the harsh self-awareness of the extent to which other people control one’s life.

Innocence is Kovaly’s only novel, but it was not her only published work. Kovaly had earlier written Under a Cruel Star, an acclaimed memoir about her experiences in Auschwitz and then in the early years of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. 

Innocence is also partly autobiographical. It was written in Kovaly’s native Czech language when she lived in London and Boston, and published in 1985 by a Czech-language German expatriate press. The book only appeared in the Czech Republic in 2013, after her death in 2010 at the age of 91.

In an elegiac introduction to the book, Kovaly’s son encapsulates what lies ahead for the reader. “In the intensely complex psychological drama, the heroine, Helena Novakova, is an almost-autobiographical portrait of Heda during her most trying times… She depicts how she felt and thought, how the ordinary people around her behaved, how they tried to overcome the stranglehold of the Communist regime. Similar to the characters in Albert Camus’ fictional universes, all of Heda’s characters are guilty to various degrees, although they all declaim their innocence.”

Kovaly’s book is an important and rewarding read.