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Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street

Hard life inspires fast fiction

    Heda Margolius Kovály: all-too-convincing amoral, Chandleresque story
    Heda Margolius Kovály: all-too-convincing amoral, Chandleresque story

    By Heda Margolius Kovály (Trans: Alex Zucker)
    Soho Press, £18.99

    Heda Margolius Kovály was a beautiful woman who, born in Prague, was transported to the Lodz Ghetto in Po-land at the beginning of the Second World War. She survived Auschwitz and escaped the death march of inmates forced to flee with their German guards as the Russians closed in. At the war's end, she was miraculously reunited with her husband Rudolph back in their native Prague.

    There followed a period of democracy in the country, and Rudolph, so impressed by the principled fellow prisoners he had suffered alongside in the concentration camps, became an idealistic Communist. In 1948, the Russian-backed Communists having come to power in a bloodless coup, Rudolph became a member of the government.

    Heda observed the creep of Soviet-style methods of suppressing freedom and, when the administration began to fail, she urged her husband to leave. He refused, still believing he had a duty to serve his country. In 1950, Rudolph was arrested on trumped-up charges, imprisoned, tortured and, after a notorious show trial conducted in vicious Stalinist fashion, condemned to death.

    Heda Margolius Kovály's "thriller", Innocence, is bound up with her experience of these appalling events. Wrought from years of bitter struggle with some of the nastiest elements of human nature - deceit, corruption, betrayal - it emerges as an underrated, subtle masterpiece (it was first published in 1985 by an expatriate Czech-language press when Kovály was in exile in London, and not published in the Czech Republic until 2013, three years after her death at the age of 91).

    Like her Auschwitz memoir, this book cries out for a wider audience

    Like Kovály's factual account of her time in Auschwitz, Under a Cruel Star, this book cries out for a wider audience. A disturbing read, Innocence is as complex as it is compelling. In it, Kovály's heroine Helena reveals the anguish of her thoughts and the torment of living within a system designed to bring out the very worst in its citizens.

    The title derives from Ernest Hemingway's contention that all evil begins with innocence - an increasingly convincing thesis as Innocence progresses. In this world of surveillance and mistrust, the very concept of guilt has become confused in the minds of characters terrified into acts of betrayal yet unwilling to admit to the evil they do.

    Helena, once a publisher, has her world shattered when her husband Karel is taken by the secret police. At the beginning of the book, she herself is arrested and experiences the Kafkaesque terror of faceless interrogators:

    "When we came to the last door they just pushed me inside and disappeared. I found myself in an office that seemed about the size of my hand, along with three men, one sitting at a typewriter. Three pairs of eyes stuck to my face like frog's feet. I couldn't breathe and it felt like the walls were collapsing in on me and the room was moving like an elevator." Yet, to her amazement, at the end of her ordeal, Helena is released and begins her new life dismissed from her job and forced to work as an usherette in a cinema that becomes a sinister centre of intrigue when a murder in nearby Steep Street throws suspicion on all its workers.

    The novel's narrative is many-layered. First, there is the grief of Helena, desperate for news of her husband Karel and impotent to help him - until she comes up with a plan that has heartbreaking consequences for both of them. Then there is a story of Communist Prague's fractured society in which its citizens are so morally compromised that they say and do anything and betray anyone to stay alive. At times, Kovály's prose carries echoes of Albert Camus' novels.

    Yet, Innocence is astonishingly - and brilliantly - written as a thriller in the style of Raymond Chandler, an author Kovály hugely admired. The mean streets her characters tread are infinitely more treacherous than the dark blocks of Los Angeles but she creates a plot packed with surprise, a character-driven, murderous matrix that sustains an amoral universe in an all-too-convincing story. As Clive James said of Under a Dark Star, in his book Cultural Amnesia, Innocence deserves to be a lot more famous than it is.

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