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Ivan Klíma: Soudce z milosti (Judge on Trial)

This is the story of a judge – and others – who lived in Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion and were therefore obliged to make compromises in order to survive. The book was first published as an underground text and then, finally, published in England (in Czech). This story is about a low-ranking judge – Adam Kindl. He has seen horrors, including (like Klima) the inside of a Nazi concentration camp. Nevertheless, he has toed the line, even when his own father has been falsely accused and sent to prison. At the beginning of the book he has been handed a file relating to a Karel Kozlik, accused of committing a double murder (his landlady and her granddaughter). He is opposed to a capital punishment and is tempted to turn down the case but knows, if he is to keep his job and his career, he cannot do so.

Klíma brilliantly paints us a portrait of an ordinary man who does everything right – faithful to his wife, no bad habits, good Party member, hard worker – but, in this society where there is no freedom, even the well-behaved man can easily fall into a trap and find himself in trouble. Kindl soon starts slipping, at first unwittingly and then deliberately. He takes a mistress, drinks and, of course, questions the conduct of the proceedings against Kozlik. Klíma superbly shows us that any man caught up in such a system is likely, sooner or later, to have such a choice imposed on him. This, however, is not a Kafkaesque book for Klíma is clearly telling us that there is hope for the Kindls of this world, that a choice has to be made and that, in making that choice, we can hope for survival. I cannot imagine why this book is out of print in the UK. It is witty, wonderfully written, engaging but, above all, so skilfully depicts the moral dilemma faced by its hero.

Publishing history

First published by Rozmluvy, Purley, England in 1986
First published in English by Chatto & Windus in 1991
Translated by A. G. Brain