The Troubled Ecology of Ivan Klíma’s Love and Garbage

Christopher Harwood, Columbia University

With the exception of Milan Kundera—whom many Czechs, including Milan Kundera, no longer consider a part of Czech literature—Ivan Klíma (born 1931) is the most translated and internationally recognized living Czech prose writer. He is also one of the most prominent advocates of the environmental movement in the Czech Republic, regularly signing his name to petitions to stop construction of nuclear power plants, limit strip mining, control greenhouse gas emissions, prevent construction of new highways through environmentally sensitive areas, etc. In a 1999 statement explaining his support for the Rainbow Movement (Hnutí DUHA, one of the largest and most influential environmental NGOs in the Czech Republic), Klíma asserted “I am convinced that our civilization is headed in a fatal direction; that the ideals of a technocratic consumer society, however attractive they might appear, are in fact destructive, leading to the decimation of the only space available to life.” ( vyrocka/klima.html) In this and other publicistic writings touching on environmental issues, Klíma to a certain extent echoes Václav Havel’s critique of contemporary consumer societies (articulated at least as early as his 1975 “Letter to Dr. Husák”) and some central arguments advanced by “green” sociologists in the west.

Given the evident ideological disposition of Ivan Klíma the citizen, one might expect the literary treatment of garbage in his novel Love and Garbage (Láska a smetí, first published in samizdat in 1987) to reflect the mainstream environmentalist approach to solid waste: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Correspondingly, one might also expect to find considerable affinities between Klíma’s poetic imagination of garbage and the composting and recycling aesthetics of such waste-minded literary predecessors as Walt Whitman (“This Compost”) or Wallace Stevens (“The Man on the Dump”) and contemporaries like Bohumil Hrabal (I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude) or A. R. Ammons (Garbage)—all of whom work to redeem garbage from its taboo status and to reveal its redemptive potential as a source of new beauty. However, Klíma’s development of the garbage theme, while complex and polysemic, largely avoids metaphors (or concrete images) of recycling and adheres primarily to traditional associations of garbage with impurity and sin or moral failure.

In the following study, I attempt to map the semantics of garbage in Love and Garbage, relating the autobiographical narrator’s various thoughts and meditations about waste to Klíma’s specific aesthetic and philosophical purposes in the novel, which coincide only partially with his publicly expressed ecological worldview.