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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Heda Margolius Kovály

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To purchase Innocence

Title: Innocence
Author: Heda Margolius Kovály
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 235 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Innocence - US
Innocence - UK
Innocence - Canada
Innocence - India
  • or, Murder on Steep Street
  • Czech title: Nevina
  • Translated by Alex Zucker
  • With an Introduction by the author's son, Ivan Margolius

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Our Assessment:

B : fine parts, but mixed bag of approaches

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 31/7/2015 Marci Shore
Wall St. Journal A+ 31/7/2015 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a book about Stalinist Prague in which Communist ideology is almost entirely absent. The focus is not on the utopian narrative of the Big Brother state but, rather, the basic desires -- for sex, companionship, comfort -- of ordinary people. There are no grand ideas, no heroic characters, no strong decisions – merely many weak ones. Accumulated, these create a world in which neither fate nor will prevails. (...) Everyone becomes complicit -- not out of sadism or malice, but rather out of quotidian needs, petty jealousies." - Marci Shore, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) remarkable work of art with the intrigue of a spy puzzle, the irony of a political fable, the shrewdness of a novel of manners, and the toughness of a hard-boiled murder mystery. (...) (A) book sure to dazzle and please a great many readers." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Innocence, written by then longtime expatriate Heda Margolius Kovály and first published by an émigré press in Germany, in 1985, is still about as close to authentic Communist-era Eastern European crime fiction as English-speaking readers are likely to be able to find; there's simply very little of this genre -- a hard fit for the ideology of the day, in any case -- available. (Fellow Czech Josef Škvorecký's Lieutenant Boruvka-books -- the first of which was actually published in Communist Czechoslovakia before Škvorecký emigrated -- are among the limited exceptions.) Set in the 1950s Prague familiar to Kovály -- and the political climate that saw the show trial and execution of her first husband --, Innocence is certainly not the kind of book that could have appeared in the Czechoslovakia of that time, or indeed, for many decades, but offers a faithful first-hand depiction of those times and circumstances.
       Kovály was also a translator (of Böll, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, Bellow, Muriel Spark, and Philip Roth, among others), and in his Introduction her son suggests: "perhaps the author she admired most was Raymond Chandler". There's some Chandler to Innocence, but quite a few other influences too, in both style and presentation, making for an odd -- and ultimately too muddled -- mix.
       Innocence centers around the Horizon, a cinema that is, from the start, "the center of the web, where all points converge". The cinema is, in part, a workplace of last resort, the only opportunity left for some of those who have had run-ins with the law. So, for example, young Helena Nováková -- "the embodiment of innocence", who nevertheless found herself caught up in a political nightmare that saw her fired from her job and her husband, Karel, imprisoned. It is Helena whose first person account begins the novel -- as, for a while, much of the story is related from her perspective; unfortunately (and oddly) Kovály changes her approach over the course of the novel, with Helena (and her interesting voice) drifting very far into the background.
       Another down-and-outer at the Horizon is Janeček, the projectionist who keeps to himself -- until he doesn't, A terrible crime is committed -- but also quickly resolved: Innocence leads quickly to murder, and just as quickly away from it. Indeed, the crime promised in the subtitle, Murder on Steep Street, only occurs about halfway through the novel -- and, since the first one was so easily and quickly resolved, doesn't seem to have much to do with the original crime.
       The Lieutenant who handles the second murder case is named Vendyš, and:

     Vendyš investigated cases of murder, assault, and grievous bodily harm. He didn't have any political assignments, so he could afford the luxury of taking his job seriously. He just wanted to ascertain facts, or, as he somewhat reluctantly put it to himself, he wanted the truth to come out.
       Of course, this is a time and environment where the political is hard to avoid, and the truth often something that a variety of parties have an interest in at least obscuring. Helena's -- and especially her husband's -- legal-political mess was not simply resolved by his jailing; there are still truths people hope to get from him, or her, and Helena continues to be manipulated by the authorities in the search for these. Complicating matters, the cinema is itself a suspect hub: the easy coming and going and mingling of so many strangers in the darkness make it an ideal drop-spot for the exchange of illicit information or material, so the authorities have a strong interest in keeping close tabs on it (and those who work there).
       Kovály is particularly good on Helena's situation and role in all this -- the unwitting innocent who comes to play a central role. But the way she sets things up means Kovály has to relegate Helena's role to barely more than that of a bystander for the second half of the novel, a crippling turn away from what was the dominant figure and voice of the first half of the novel.
       Innocence offers a nice slice of Czech life of those times, and is especially interesting in its depiction of its varied female figures, from the strong boss at the cinema to Helena and her co-workers (as well as the wife of a constantly straying husband). It also presents an interesting picture of the political paranoia of those times, and the flailing of the authorities to uproot both real and imagined conspiracies against the state. But the novel also drifts uneasily from one style of mystery to another, and ultimately drifts a bit too far apart.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 September 2015

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Innocence: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Heda Margolius Kovály lived 1919 to 2010.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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