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Non-fiction reviews


Jana Cerna - Kafka's Milena

14 June 1993

Kafka's Milena
by Jana Cerna

Published in The Age

This remarkable biography is written by the daughter of the Czech journalist Milena Jesenska, who was Franz Kafka's sweetheart - to borrow a word from The Castle - and on whom he based the character of Frieda in that novel. It was first published in Czechoslovakia in 1969, but suppressed in the post-Dubcek "normalisation", before it had reached the bookshops.

All the more reason, therefore, to celebrate this first English edition of Kafka's Milena. It will prove absorbing even to those who know little of Kafka, or European inter-war politics. For her ultimately doomed crusades against an overbearing father, Kafka's alienation, for - then against - Stalinism, and against the Nazi invaders of Czechoslovakia, mark Milena out as a quintessential twentieth century hero.

Milena first shows us her mettle when, as a schoolgirl, she watched her own mother near death:

When the patient lost consciousness, the physician decided to try and revive her with another injection. He clearly thought it his duty. Milena snatched the syringe from his hand and flung it to the ground where it shattered, sending splinters flying in all directions.

The mother duly succumbed, and Milena pursued her singular ways into young adulthood. She was eventually sent to a sanitorium by her father, who saw her engagement to a Jew, Ernst Polak, as evidence of insanity. But all was not lost. Milena's feminist girlfriends, concerned about his taste for the ladies...

...kept a close watch on Ernst's doorstep, and monitored all his movements. They...were determined that Ernst should remain faithful until her return... they managed to ruin his reputation for miles around. With his constant train of emancipated vestal virgins, the poor fellow was declared to be a womaniser, a lecher and a gigolo...

Milena's peculiarly Czech artform was the fejeton - defined as "a short, pointed article". Echoing Ibsenite feminism, her fejetons air some very pointed opinions on, among other things, cafe society and marriage. But in railing against prevailing illusions about marital bliss Milena was also, probably, talking to herself. Behind a great woman there often stands a succession of less-than-great men: she made, then unmade, three marriages, and several affairs.

The author herself - who died in 1981 - had four marriages and was, like her mother, a drug addict. Indeed the parallels between them on every level are, psychological theory notwithstanding, extraordinary. Jana Cerna's carbon copy of her mother's perceptiveness, her detached honesty and her felicitous way with words lend the story an almost novelistic flavour.

Milena began to question Stalin after her ex-husband and friend, Jaromir (Jana's father), returned from a trip to the USSR:

He told the story of the first opera staged in Moscow to include both Stalin and Molotov (both tenors) among the characters, and how the company had not managed to play it through from beginning to end because the audience's reaction led to the arrest not just of its creators, but also its leading performers, on charges of defaming the Soviet Government. However, a few days later the opera was staged again and this time no one dared grin, let alone laugh out loud. So Stalin and Molotov sang to an astounded public, filled with fear, amazement and dread.

Milena's disenchantment led to a terse interview with the publisher of Svet Pace, the Communist journal to which she contributed. The man, Kopriva, demanded she break off her relationship with her Trotskyite boyfriend.

Milena decided that this was more than she was prepared to stand. She slapped Kopriva in the face and left the office, banging the door behind her (something she could do extremely loudly), thus ending her collaboration with the magazine.

Though the doomed Kafka was an early influence on Milena - as she was on him - her life would have been what is was, substantially, without him. Nevertheless the Kafka material will delight aficionados. Of her "Frank", she wrote:

The fact is that the rest of us are apparently capable of living because at some time or other we have taken refuge in lies, in blindness, enthusiasm or optimism... But he has never sought refuge in anything. He is as absolutely incapable of lying as he is of getting drunk.

But in the end it is Milena's own ruthless intellectual honesty, and personal courage, that draw us to her. That courage - in the face of bourgeois morality, bigamous husbands, illness, political oppression, and eventually the Third Reich - is something we could learn much from in a country where the ephemerality of "pragmatism" holds sway.

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