Martin M. Šimečka, The Year of the Frog, trans. Peter Petro (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993 ).
Usually when we think about communism in fiction or film, the dramatic stuff comes to mind—the Cold War, spies, the gulag, interrogations, and the like. But if that was all there was to communist societies, they would have lasted even a shorter time than they actually did. All societies are premised on ordinary people getting on with the business of life, going to school and going to work and having children and eating and sleeping, in as ordinary way as possible.
Martin Šimečka, a noted critic of the ČSSR who first published this book in samizdat editions, presents in his The Year of the Frog a non-sensationalistic look at ordinary life for ordinary citizens who know full well that they live in a communist, nearly totalitarian regime. It’s about the very small-scope freedoms granted and grabbed and what people to do with them. It also shows how little these freedoms count when you’re hemmed in on every side. They’re only just enough to prevent suicide… in most cases.
The hero of the novel, Milan (based very much on the author himself), takes us through his stream of consciousness in his young adult life in the “normalization” period of the early 1980s. This is just about fifteen past the failed “Prague Spring” and there is no sign, as of yet, that the regime will be coming to an end before the decade is out. Milan’s father has spoken against the government and gotten imprisoned for his troubles. In a typical recrimination of that era, Milan is denied entrance to university on account of his father. The youth is very bright, but there will be no chance to study for him, and accordingly no work of any personal significance or interest. But, being that it’s socialism, Milan doesn’t have the option of refusing altogether. Unemployment is a crime against the state, and the secret service warns him a couple of times—and imprison him once, for two days—to get a job, or else.
So no intellectual freedom, to speak of; no economic freedom; and obviously no political freedom. Milan doesn’t even want to try for the latter, seeing what’s become of his father and what that is doing to his mother. Cultural freedom is almost nonexistent as well, with such tightly closed borders; there’s no room to stretch, learn, or experiment, and when a jazz festival comes to town the prices are jacked up beyond an ordinary person’s reach.
The whole situation leaves Milan always on the brink of despair. He has two things: he’s a runner and can enjoy the catharsis of a run (but can’t compete in any formal way; again, restrictions), and he loves Tania. Much of the novel is Milan’s contemplation of his beloved, her charms, her faults, his complicated love for her, his failures in their relationship and reconciliations.
But even this love, which Milan intuits is the last thing going for him, isn’t unaffected by the perverse environment in which they live. Virtually the only freedom left to Milan is sexual freedom, so even while he is in a steady relationship with Tania he desires and even kisses other women; and toward the end of the book, after he and Tania are married, he has an affair, somehow persuading himself that it’s all right, that he loves them both, that the affair even makes him love Tania more, although his protestations ring hollow. But what rings true in this society composed of pure fakery? During a stint as a clerk at a hardware store he learns that rule number one is to say “it’s not in stock” or “we’ll get a shipment next week,” even when (or especially when) there are plenty in the back room or no shipment is expected at all. How long can you be fed lies before you start believing them, and telling them?
Behind and permeating this apparent sexual freedom is a much darker reality, which is the death of children throughout the book. Milan’s good friends Adam and Dana, whose love by all accounts is real and true, give birth to a baby boy who dies the next day. Tania has an ectopic pregnancy that nearly kills her. Milan’s third and final job in the book is at a hospital that performs abortions, and he graphically describes one woman after another going through the procedure for various reasons. The book ends with Tania being rushed in for an emergency C-section with, so far as I read it, an inconclusive result. The collective picture is clear enough, though: a society with no children is a society with no future. And maybe just as well, in this case, but it’s a grim picture all the same.
Throughout the book Milan struggles with the basic meaning of life, whether he’s a good person, whether he knows himself at all or if others do. He is continually assailed by feelings of guilt, brought on by a society that is always telling him he’s bad. (A Slovak friend of mine confessed that she struggled with constant feelings of guilt and attributed it also to a communist upbringing. The church has no monopoly on inducing guilt!) Any form of transcendence is strictly forbidden by Marxist materialism. Milan twists and turns for a way out, the only way out he can find is Tania, and even that he betrays and fails—because it’s too much to saddle transcendence on another person, however lovely.
You don’t need spies, interrogators, and torturers to dehumanize. There are all too many subtle ways to kill a soul. As Milan puts it, everybody has to learn “how to live in the emptiness of the present.”