Innocence, the posthumously published crime novel by Heda Margolius Kovály, comes heavy with expectation. It has been described the novelist John Banville as ‘a luminous testament from a dark time’ and a ‘must read’ by Cara Black. Then there’s the writer herself, author of Under a Cruel Star, one of the best – if not the best – accounts of living through the post-war terror in Czechoslovakia. Margolius Kovály almost single-handedly defined the curse of ‘living in exciting times.’ Not only did she lose most of her family in the Holocaust, escaping from Auschwitz on a march herself, but went on to marry Rudolf Margolius, Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade in newly communist Czechoslovakia, and to lose him in the Slánský show-trials of 1952, when along with 10 others he was ruthlessly framed as a foreign agent and hanged. Clives James, referring to Under a Cruel Star, said that ‘given thirty seconds to recommend a book to start a student on the road to understanding the political tragedies of the 20th century… I would choose this one’. A new novel by Kovály, published in the UK five years after her death, is thus something of an event.
Innocence (subtitled ‘Murder on Steep Street) is partly Kovály’s fictionalisation of those years, and something more besides. The novel, we’re told in an introduction, is her ‘homage’ to Raymond Chandler, a writer to whom she felt a particular affinity – a story where Central European history meets the noir thriller. Thus we’re introduced to Prague’s Horizon cinema, where Helena, the central character, works as an usherette. Like Kovály herself, she’s fallen from a great height following her husband Karel’s arrest by the security police on trumped up conspiracy charges. Helena, though blisteringly lonely, does her utmost to stay loyal to her adored husband – and in her fidelity seeks the help of a highly placed womaniser called Hruza: to whom she finds herself painfully attracted. Meanwhile the secret police, still convinced of Helena’s involvement with anti-state forces, are keeping close tabs on her through one of her colleagues – their suspicions about the cinema, it’s suggested, have some credence, but they may have the wrong suspect altogether. No one, it seems, is to be trusted or taken at face value. And is Helena herself as innocent as we’ve been led to believe?
The ‘intellectual game’ aspect of Innocence has been stressed by reviewers, and certainly one’s aware of a complex system of clues, half-clues and red herrings being served up. Narration changes from first to third person, dark secrets are hinted at rather than explicit, and the identity of the main players at times withheld from us, as characters we’ve met before loom out of the narrative described as ‘a man’ or ‘the woman’. It’s a world in which truth is half-glimpsed, in which surfaces – like people – are always changing their meanings, and in which a reader is left at times – like Helena – faltering through the mist, with no solid ground under their feet. As a hint of the horrific insecurity Kovály lived through, it’s eloquent: here we learn what Kovály’s life felt like – as well as her absolute loneliness – in ways which were only hinted at in her biography.
However, Innocence is also a murder mystery and, we must remember, her ‘homage’ to Chandler: how successful is it as either? While readers of Under a Cruel Star will eagerly grasp any new insights on her life, those in search of a compelling crime novel may be disappointed: the book – for this reader – never quite enslaves your interest or catches fire. For a fairly short novel the array of characters is bewildering: this isn’t just the unfamiliarity of the Czech surnames but that none of the characters, bar Helena, seem fleshed out enough to anchor their labels to them. Descriptions of the city too seem oddly wispy: there’s a palpable atmosphere of dejection, mistrust and secrecy, but little sense of place: we might at times be anywhere, and given the wealth of vivid details Prague offers – an ideal dark fairyland for a study of crime – this seems strange. Perhaps once again this is Kovály’s technique of disorienting us, perhaps she was writing for an audience that knew every inch of Prague already, but the translation itself also plays a part – expressions like ‘bustin’ his hump’, ‘broad’ and ‘swimmin’ in dough’ seem to wrench you out of Eastern Europe and towards Damon Runyonland, leaving you dangling in a strange netherworld between them. When the denouement comes, with its twist in the tale, the characters still seem faintly like ciphers, and as readers we don’t seem to have quite enough at stake.
So what are we left with? A portrait of a world in which almost no one is to be trusted, and where innocence seems an unaffordable luxury. A world in which everyone has dark secrets and personal crimes on their conscience, but with the odd moment of redemption thrown in. We get a vivid portrait of Helena’s isolation, a deliciously practical speech by a betrayed wife about her husband’s infidelities, and some memorable lines: ‘As soon as someone flatters you for your brains, you know there’s trouble coming’; ‘Those people that live like saints usually make their life into hell’; and perhaps the most telling of the book, as Helena contemplates infidelity to her husband: ‘maybe it would even bring me closer to Karel if we both sank into the mud, each in our own way.’ It’s a compassionate and forgiving work – from Heda Margolius Kovály one would expect no less – and if Innocence leads a single reader onto Under a Cruel Star, that will perhaps be justification enough. But how much better, says a heretical voice in one’s head, to cut out this slightly perplexing starter – neither quite fish nor fowl – and head straight for the meaty main course?
Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence (Soho Press, 2015) is available from Amazon, priced £16.48.