A Reason to Suffer
Guilt has always been a major theme in noir fiction. Everyone is guilty to some degree or another, and even if they aren’t, what does being innocent get you? Fate will always find a way to trip you up, so you might as well be guilty. The flip side of this, though, is that everyone starts out innocent, and who ends up guilty is often as much a matter of circumstance as it is of actual culpability. Destiny has a way of blotting out intentions, and the sun sets on the innocent and the guilty alike.
Innocence is the theme of a powerful and dusty little gem of a novel by Heda Margolius Kovály, so much so that it lends the book its name. Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street, combines the approaches of a number of crime fiction classics: it’s partly a detective story, partly a murder mystery, partly a fatalistic noir, and partly a tale of espionage. But in one of its many surprising diversions from the rules of genre, the characters aren’t entirely at the whim of fate: that role is taken by the State, omnipotent but not omniscient, and largely indifferent to the motivations and intentions of its subject.
Innocence takes place in Prague in the 1950s, at a time of severe political oppression by Czech officials determined to please their Soviet masters and forestall intervention. The police are both heroes and villains: as in Raymond Chandler’s work, they are simply agents of the law, cruel and indifferent whether they mean well, and vary only in degree of competence. But since the state has far more power here than in the West (another of the book’s curious differences, as Kovály points out, is the difficulty of solving a murder in a country when such crimes are rarely carried out for material gain), everyone is more or less compromised by their relationship to the it. Even the most well-meaning can sell out their best intentions for the favors only a well-connected government official can grant, and even the most innocent can run afoul of the authorities for no greater crime than befriending the wrong person. As for the state itself, its only concern is results; this can blind it to things as sloppy and irrational as human passion, with disastrous consequences.
The book concerns itself with the employees of a small but popular movie theater called the Horizon. After a shocking murder by its projectionist, the staff — consisting almost entirely of women — comes under the scrutiny of various authorities. One of the investigators is Vendyš, a doggedly simple man, terrified of women but with a handful of effective tricks, and one of the subjects is Helena Nováková, an intelligent and sensitive woman whose devoted husband has run afoul of the political bosses. They are central to the story, especially in the book’s second section, but so too are the other women who work at the Horizon, and other government functionaries; the point of view switches from Helena’s first-person perspective to an all-seeing narrator when she’s not around. As the story progresses, and we learn more and more about how compromised all the women of the Horizon are, the city itself takes on a sinister character, becoming more narrow, cramped, and cold as the seasons wear on and the situation gets more hopeless.
Helena is a clear stand-in for Kovály herself, to the extent that when she first published the novel in Germany in 1985, she did so under the character’s name. But Kovály’s life was so fascinating and fraught that she can be forgiven for making what is often an amateurish and messy creative choice; if anything, her real-life story is much more interesting than than of her fictional double. Born in Prague to Jewish parents, she was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto; towards the end of the war, she, her husband, Rudolf Margolius, and her parents were all sent to separate concentration camps. She and Rudolf survived and he became an ardent Communist; her parents were sent to the death chambers. After the war, she and Rudolf returned to Prague, where he became a government official, only to be caught up, seemingly for nothing, in a notorious show trial which ended in his execution. She was reduced to poverty, painted with scandal, and, like her protagonist, forced to work in menial occupations just to survive.
However, she was an educated and brilliant woman, and she managed to do book design and translation under pseudonyms in order to make ends meet. She was responsible for some of the first Czech translations of William Golding, John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and — fittingly — Raymond Chandler. Her debt to the latter in this novel is obvious, and while she’s not quite as elegant a writer, she does take a lot of risks and turns an occasional gorgeous phrase. She is also more experimental, and what she lacks in natural dialogue she makes up for in an ability to create fully formed, multi-dimensional female characters; Innocence never lets us forget the way women suffer more under oppression and violence than men, or that when a man dies, his pain is over, while the women who survive have to live with that pain and shame for the rest of their lives.
Innocence dropped out of sight following its initial publication, and only appeared in an English translation last year, after Kovály was already dead. Belated or not, though, it’s a novel that deserves plenty of attention: its clever construction, compelling prose, terrific characters, and unique perspective make it a rarity not just for women’s crime fiction, but in the genre as a whole. Kovály creates a story that deals with loneliness and desperation in the same cynical way that many noir novels have before, but with an emotional center that rises above the main. A remarkable book written by a remarkable person, Innocence is proof that noir’s insights into the shadows of humanity were not confined to any one place, but found expression even in the most stifling societies.