My rating: 3 stars
My Golden Trades is a collection of six short stories which reads like a fictional memoir. Written by the Czech author Ivan Klíma, all the stories have as narrator a banned writer and are set in the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, which was still in the grip of a repressive communist regime. The plots of the majority of the stories are not particularly engrossing. What makes them somewhat interesting are the social and political considerations made throughout.
Each story either takes place while the narrator is performing a particular job or explains how he came to be involved in a specific occupation. He had to smuggle forbidden books, pass a day at his sister’s house in order to try to paint a landscape, work as an archaeologist, become an engine driver, and spend some time both working as a courier and as a surveyor’s assistant.
The only tale that I actually enjoyed reading for the plot alone was ‘The Archaeologist’s Story’, which takes place while the narrator was working at a Celtic burial ground. However, I didn’t get to read it in its entirety, because there is a page missing from my edition. That was particularly unfortunate, since not only is its plot gripping, but some interesting considerations are made about various topics. These include the fear of nuclear war, the possibility of an afterlife, some fields of study being considered uneconomic, and how we sometimes only understand our homeland when we are away. Another noteworthy element of this story is that one of the topics mentioned is still extremely relevant today – immigrants being used as scapegoats.
“In our town, whenever you go into a store and ask for something they don’t have, the shopkeepers tell you that the Vietnamese have bought it all.”
This is not the only tale featuring a subject that continues to be pertinent today, though. In ‘The Courier’s Story’, it’s mentioned that humans are destroying the planet. It’s remarkable how there were already scientists in the 80s speaking about climate change and saying that the way in which humans use the world’s resources is unsustainable and, nevertheless, not near enough has changed since then.
Some of the other stories also feature thought-provoking topics. In ‘The Painter’s Story’, there are various mentions of the problem of originality in art, both in painting and in writing. ‘The Engine Driver’s Story’ examines censorship and how it’s important not to relinquish our rights. In a similar vein, in ‘The Surveyor’s Story’, the narrator wonders whether the younger generation is interested in knowing how their country got to that state of affairs, or if they think that their way of life is the only option available.
Another characteristic some of the stories share is the recollection of past events by either the narrator or other (less relevant) character. One of my main problems with ‘The Painter’s Story’ was the discussion of too many memories before the plot even began to be properly developed, which made the story drag on. In ‘The Smuggler’s Story’, the account of one of the occasions when the narrator smuggles forbidden books is interspersed with memories from the time when he became a smuggler. If the memories in both of these stories sometimes feel like they are out of place, the ones mentioned in ‘The Archaeologist’s Story’ feel like an appropriate complement.
The short stories comprised in My Golden Trades may not have the most fascinating of plots, but they gave me something to think about anyway. Repeatedly, I would be almost intent on not finishing a story, when I stumbled upon a though-provoking remark and decided to keep on reading to know how many more I would still find until the end.