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A black swan floats on rippling water on the cover of Jindra Tichá’s novel, Death and Forgiveness. The image could not be a more apt symbol for the book. Serene, yet with the promise of troubled water and darkness at its heart, Death and Forgiveness is both a portrait of a difficult marriage and a chronicle of the grief and heartbreak of emigration.
Death and Forgiveness, Tichá’s nineteenth novel (but her first in English), revolves around the central character of Anna, formerly a Czech national but long since having moved to New Zealand. While on a visit back to Prague to bury her mother, Anna receives a phone call from her son back in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her estranged husband Jan has committed suicide in the Dunedin bush. Anna at once travels back to Dunedin, echoing the journey she made from communist Czechoslovakia to New Zealand decades earlier.
These two journeys—her initial emigration to New Zealand by boat with her husband, and the present-day journey back to New Zealand to bury that same man—are interwoven with each other through the book. These twin journeys build up a picture of Anna and Jan’s marriage, as together they weathered Communism, adultery, unwanted pregnancy, and exile. Neither are perfect, and Tichá refreshingly makes no attempt to make either character likeable, preferring instead to be transparently honest about Anna’s thoughts and feelings. Jan, however, was more of a question mark of a character, his true motivations hidden from both Anna and the reader by his eventual hatred and rejection of Anna. Despite her overwhelming feelings of hurt, Anna remains devoted towards him—a habit borne of a long marriage, and an allegiance she cannot break.
Anna’s ties back to Czechoslovakia are similarly unbreakable, despite everything she goes through. Anna (perhaps speaking as a mouthpiece for Tichá) says: “God was truly dead in the communist society, and human decency had died as well […] It was a society which, in the words of John Paul II, indulged in the culture of death. That society corrupted us as well, even if we were not fully aware of it”. And yet, it is still a terrible wrench for Anna to leave that society behind. Emigrating—in fact, fleeing—Czechoslovakia and the life she had known is clearly a kind of death for her, and Anna’s struggle to deal with this grief while being overwhelmed by the starkly new experiences of emigration makes for compelling reading.
Some of the differences between communist Czechoslovakia and New Zealand are fascinating, if sobering. When Anna, upon arriving in New Zealand, tells her doctor she is pregnant but has contracted German measles, she is nonplussed to find that her doctor believes her and reassures her that her baby is probably safe; in communist Czechoslovakia, telling your doctor this meant that you wanted an abortion, something your doctor would do for you, no questions asked, understanding that in such a society, another mouth to feed was a curse, not a blessing.
It’s details like this that speak to the stark truth of this novel. Although Tichá’s prose is unadorned, even Spartan, in style, the story and the honesty with which it’s portrayed more than makes up for its lack of stylistic flair. As such, Death and Forgiveness is by turns a depiction of a Communist society that is gone but not forgotten, a story of a journey from home to make a new home elsewhere, and a unflinching glimpse into a far-from-perfect marriage. It is also a fascinating page turner. A recommended read.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
Death and Forgiveness
by Jindra Tichá
Published by Mary Egan Publishing