Prague, 1985. A young man named Jan Reichl works as a street cleaner, because it is the only work he’s allowed to do. His father was arrested , tried and imprisoned for anti-state activities; as a result, Jan is not allowed to go to university. His mother spends most of her free time typing samizdat manuscripts – how works by dissident Czech authors and others were circulated during the communist area (samizdat was not limited to what was then Czechoslovakia; it existed is virtually all European countries in the soviet orbit and in Russia itself).
Jan, through his imagination, lives in what he calls “the underground,” a kind of alternative existence, even if only in his mind. When he rides the Metro, he imagines lives for the people he sees on the train. He fashions these imaginings into stories, one of which, entitled Rumors, has slipped into samizdat circulation under a pseudonym.
One day on the Metro, he sees a girl, a girl so vivid she breaks through his imaginings. He’s so overwhelmed that he leaves a typewritten copy of Rumors on the train. It ends up in her hands. And they meet, Jan and this young woman named Alzbeta Palkova, or simply Betka. And Jan soon finds himself increasingly enmeshed in another kind of underground, a real one, one comprised of dissidents and intellectuals.
Notes from Underground by Roger Scruton is the novel that tells the story of Jan and Betka, but it does so almost indirectly. It is a novel about a specific place and time – Prague in the waning does of communist domination before the end of the Berlin Wall. It is a novel about a love affair. It is a novel about a search for truth, both collective and individual. It is a novel about history, and how history is not something that happened years before but almost a living thing that continues to shape and direct the reality of today. It is a novel written as a memoir, with the writer describing events of 30 years previously.
Scruton, a native Briton and currently a Fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center in Washington, D.C. has written both novels and short stories over his long career as a writer and philosopher, but he is better known for his non-fiction works, such as Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012); Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2009); The Uses of Pessimism (2010), and Green Philosophy (2012; published in the United States as How to Think Seriously About the Planet). He is also a well-known lecturer (he recently spoke at the Ethic and Policy Center on “The Future of European Civilization: Lessons for America”).
He is also that relatively rare species of conservative philosopher, and a novel like Notes from Underground (with a title borrowed from Dostoevsky) might have fared poorly in less experienced hands, becoming too much of a political discussion. What is different about this work is its heart of the love story of Jan and Betka, a story of a love that the reader understands early is likely doomed but only gradually coming to understand why.
And it is in that unfolding of the “why” that the story of an era is told, and told well.
Photograph by the Prague Castle at sunset by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.