No Saints or Angels

Overview

Ivan Klima has been acclaimed by The Boston Globe as "a literary gem who is too little appreciated in the West" and a "Czech master at the top of his game." In No Saints or Angels, a Washington Post Best Book of 2001, Klima takes us into the heart of contemporary Prague, where the Communist People's Militia of the Stalinist era marches headlong into the drug culture of the present. Kristyna is in her forties, the divorced mother of a rebellious fifteen-year-old daughter, Jana. She is beginning to love a man ...
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No Saints or Angels

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Overview

Ivan Klima has been acclaimed by The Boston Globe as "a literary gem who is too little appreciated in the West" and a "Czech master at the top of his game." In No Saints or Angels, a Washington Post Best Book of 2001, Klima takes us into the heart of contemporary Prague, where the Communist People's Militia of the Stalinist era marches headlong into the drug culture of the present. Kristyna is in her forties, the divorced mother of a rebellious fifteen-year-old daughter, Jana. She is beginning to love a man fifteen years her junior, but her joy is clouded by worry — Jana has been cutting school, and perhaps using heroin. Meanwhile Kristyna's mother has forced on her a huge box of personal papers left by her dead father, a tyrant whose Stalinist ideals she despised.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Klima, internationally acclaimed author of a substantial body of work (Love and Garbage; Lovers for a Day; etc.), deconstructs a contemporary Czech family in his latest effort. Kristina, a divorced mother in her 40s, works as a dentist in Prague. Burdened with responsibilities, she is the sole caregiver for her aging, widowed mother; her terminally ill ex-husband; and her 15-year-old daughter, Jana, who may or may not be using hard drugs. Lonely and starved for affection, Kristina begins dating Jan, a former student of her ex-husband and her junior by 15 years. While she tries to use the romance and morning glasses of wine to erase mounting concerns, Kristina is unable to overcome her own unsentimental perceptions. "I'm no Isadora Duncan," she reflects, thinking of the famous dancer and her much younger paramour, the Russian poet Yesenin. "I'm not famous, I'm simply as old as she was and know how to fix people's teeth. My lover is no poet and I'm sure he won't kill himself; he enjoys life and enjoys playing games." While most of the story is told through Kristina's eyes, Klima periodically shifts the narrative to Jana's and Jan's point of view, channeling common incidents through the eyes of three different generations. Although philosophical musings weigh heavily on the action on occasion, this compelling, bleak story is worthy of Kl!ma's growing acclaim. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"I killed my husband last night," Klima's novel begins dramatically. But this is no murder mystery: Kristyna has simply had another bad dream, one that reflects the overwhelming discontent of her life. Sure, the Velvet Revolution has rid her country of communism, but she is divorced, her ex-husband is brutally ill, her teenaged daughter is out of control, and she is bone-wearily nearing 50. What's more, her mother has just handed her what is indeed a Pandora's box containing the papers of her father an officious and unregenerate Communist who brushed aside her birth in March 1953 because Stalin died on the same day. The contents of that box don't exactly help her reconcile with her father, but they do open up a secret past that subtly shifts her perspective even as a much younger lover begins rocking her life. In the end, noted Czech novelist Klima (Judge on Trial) doesn't give his heroine any easy outs, but at least she learns that there are "no saints or angels." An affecting story, affectingly told: Klima believes in idealists, but he is too good a novelist to be rigid with his own characters. For most collections. Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Czech author Klima (Lovers for a Day, 1999, etc.) returns with a tale about the emotionally lost in contemporary Prague: modern lives haunted by the history of Soviet incursion. Kristýna is a middle-aged dentist in Prague; Jana is her wild daughter, experimenting with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll; and Jan is the boyish investigator who splits their ages and becomes Kristýna's lover. Kristýna is haunted by the infidelities of her father, her ex-husband (now convalescing and a spouter of insane but enlightening philosophy when she visits), and eventually also of Jan, who can't resist an old flame and hasn't yet learned to lie about it. Kristýna and he struggle for love, but the country's baggage is too much for them to bear. Jan is too young, Kristýna too old, and Jana too wild-eventually she gets gang-raped while on heroin and needs to be put into recovery programs. The adventures of the three reveal that even the emergence from Soviet repression into something closer to freedom comes with a set of conflicts and difficulties, and whether these characters will find redemption for themselves and forgiveness for each other will be the story's final word on love in modern eastern Europe. Klima's writing here sometimes meanders aimlessly as alternating narrators describe and critique the world about them, but it's hard to know whether the fault lies with the author or the unimaginative translation that comes with a significant UK bent. It's slow-going at first, but eventually these lives come to have meaning and import, and the reader wants them to find what they are looking for. It's never so moving as when Kristýna's ex-husband finallydies: "His dead eyes seem to look straight at me. I really didn't think I'd be the one to close his eyelids." Not quite as deep as it wants to be, but pensively sad in how sheltered it feels, like people crawling from a tomb.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802139238
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


1


I killed my husband last night. I used a dental drill to bore a hole in his skull. I waited to see if a dove would fly out but out came a big black crow instead.

    I woke up tired, or more exactly without any appetite for life. My will to live diminishes as I get older. Did I ever have a great lust for life? I'm not sure, but I certainly used to have more energy. And expectations too. And you live so long as you have something to expect.

    It's Saturday. I have time to dream and grieve.

    I crawl off my lonely divan. Jana and I carried its twin down to the cellar ages ago. The cellar is still full of junk belonging to my ex-husband, Karel: bright red skis, a bag of worn-out tennis balls, and a bundle of old school textbooks. I should have thrown it all out long ago, but I couldn't bring myself to. I stood a rubber plant where the other divan used to be. You can't hug a rubber plant and it won't caress you, but it won't two-time you either.

    It's half past seven. I ought to spend a bit of time with my teenage daughter. She needs me. Then I must dash off to my Mum's. I promised to help her sort out Dad's things. The things don't matter, but she's all on her own and spends her time fretting. She needs to talk about Dad but has no one to talk about him with. You'd think he was a saint, the way she talks about him, but from what I remember, he only ordered her around or ignored her.

    As my friend Lucie says, you even miss tyranny once you're used to it. And that doesn't only apply to private life.

    I don't miss tyranny. I killed my ex-husband with a dental drill last night even though I feel no hatred towards him. I'm sorry for him more than anything else. He's lonelier than I am and his body is riddled with a fatal disease. But then, aren't we all being gnawed at inside? Life is sad apart from the odd moments when love turns up.

    I always used to ask why I was alive. Mum and Dad would never give me a straight answer. I expect they didn't know themselves. But who does?

    You have to live once you've been born. No, that's not true. You can take your life any time, like my grandfather Antonín, or my Aunt Venda, or Virginia Woolf or Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn didn't kill herself, though; they only said she did in order to cover the tracks of her killer. She apparently took fifty pills of some barbiturate or other even though a quarter of that amount would have been enough. Her murderers were thorough. I myself carry a tube of painkillers; not to kill myself with though, but in case I get a migraine. I'd be capable of taking my life, except that I hate corpses. It was always an awful strain for me in the autopsy room, and I preferred not to eat the day before.

    Why should I make the people I love deal with my corpse?

    They'll have to one day anyway. Who will it be? Janinka, most likely, poor thing.

    I oughtn't to call her Janinka, she doesn't like it. It sounds too childish to her ears. I called my ex-husband Kajnek when I visited him recently on the oncology ward. I thought it might be a comfort to him in his pain to hear the name I used to call him years ago. But he objected, saying it was the name of a hired killer who recently got a life sentence.

    We've all got life sentences, I didn't say to him.

    I can feel my early-morning depression taking hold of me. I had one glass of wine too many yesterday. I won't try to count the cigarettes. Lucie maintains I don't have depressions — I'm just `moody'.

    Lucie and I got to know each other at medical school, but whereas I passed anatomy at the second attempt, she never mastered it. She dropped out and took up photography and was soon better off than those of us who stayed the course. She and I always hit it off together, most likely because we differ in almost every conceivable way. She's a tiny little thing and her legs are so thin you'd think they'd snap in a breeze. I've never known her to be sad.

    What do photographers know about depression? Mind you, she advises me quite rightly to give up smoking and restrict myself to three small glasses of wine a day, though she drinks as much as she likes. I'll give everything up the day I reach fifty. It's awful to think that I'm less than five years away from that fateful day, that dreadful age. That's if I'll still be alive in four years and eleven months' time. Or tomorrow for that matter.

    The best cure for depression is activity. At the surgery I have no time to be depressed. I have no time to think about myself. But today's Saturday: an open day for dreams and grief.

    I peek into Jana's room and see she is peacefully asleep. Last year she still had long hair, longer than mine, and mine reaches a third of the way down my back. Now she's had it cut short and looks almost like a boy. The stud in her ear twinkles, but on the pillow alongside her head lies a rag doll by the name of Bimba that she's had since she was seven and always carries around with her. After she'd wriggled out of her jeans last night she left them lying on the floor, and her denim jacket lies in a crumpled heap on the armchair, one sleeve inside out. She hangs out with punks of both sexes because she says they don't give a damn about property or careers. The last time we went to the theatre she insisted we take the tram. She wants to do her own thing, but what does it mean to do your own thing in a world of billions of people? In the end you always end up getting attached to something or someone.

    There's an open book on the chair by her bed. It's not long since she read fairy stories and she loved to hear all about foreign countries, animals and the stars. She was lovely to talk to. She always seemed to me wise for her age and to have a particular understanding of other people. She'd generally sense when I was feeling sad and why, and do her best to comfort me. Now I get the feeling she hardly notices me or simply regards me as someone who feeds and minds her. I tell myself it's because of her age, but I'm frightened for her all the same. We were watching a TV programme about drugs and I asked her whether she'd been approached by pushers on the street. `Of course,' she answered, almost in amazement. Naturally she had told them to get lost. I told her that if I ever found out she was taking anything of the sort I'd kill her. `Of course, Mum, and you'd feed me to the vultures!' We both laughed, although the laughter stuck in my throat.

    I close her door and go into the bathroom.

    For a moment I look at myself in the hostile mirror. No, the mirror's not hostile, it's dispassionately objective; it's time that's hostile.

    My former and so far only husband once tried to explain to me that time is as old as the universe. I told him I didn't understand. Time couldn't be old, could it? For one thing it was a masculine word.

    Time was feminine in German and Latin, and neuter in English, he told me. He was simply trying to explain that time began along with the universe. It hadn't existed before. There had been nothing at all, not even time.

    I told him how awfully clever and learned he was, instead of telling him he should get a sense of humour.

    I couldn't care less what happened billions of years ago and whether time began or not. I only care about my lifetime, and so far time has taken love away and given me wrinkles. It lies in wait for me on every corner. It rushes ahead and heeds none of my pleas.

    It heeds no one's pleas. Time alone is fair and just.

    Justice is often cruel.

    Still, time has been fairly good to me. So far. My hair is not quite as thick as when I was twenty, and I have to use chemicals to stop the world seeing that I'm going grey. My golden locks — one time I wove them in a braid that reached below my waist. But I still carry myself as well as I did then. My breasts have sagged a bit but they're still large. Not that there is much point in humping them around with me any more — apart from men's enjoyment. Selfish bastards. But nothing will save me from time. They say that injections of subcutaneous fat can get rid of wrinkles round the mouth, but I don't like the idea of it. I don't have too many wrinkles yet. Just around the eyes. My former husband used to call them sky blue, but what colour is the sky? The sky is changeable and its colour depends on the place, the wind and the time of day, whereas my eyes are permanently blue, morning and night, happy or sad.

    When I step out of the shower I'm shivering all over and it's not from cold. Even though it is already April, I still have the heating on in the flat. I am shivering from loneliness - what shakes me is the weeping I conceal, weeping over another day when time will simply drain away, a river without water, just a dried riverbed full of sharp stones — and I'm barefoot and naked, my dressing gown lies on the floor and no one looks at my breasts. Abandoned and uncaressed, milk will never flow from them again.

    From the bedroom behind me comes a roar of what is now regarded as music and what my little girl idolizes: Nirvana or Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees, heavy metal, hard rock, grunge, I can't keep track of it any more. The time when music like that excited me is past. It's true that when the chair in the surgery happens to fall vacant, Eva dispels the quiet by tuning into some radio station, but I don't notice it. My assistant is scared of silence, like almost everyone these days. But I like peace and quiet, I yearn for a moment of silence within myself, the sort of silence in which I might hear the rush of my own blood, hear the tears roll down my cheeks, and hear the flames when they suddenly come close.

    But that sort of silence is to be found only in the depths of the grave, such as in the wall of the village cemetery on the edge of Rozmitál where they buried Jan Jakub Ryba. He cut his throat when he could no longer support his seven children. His poor wife! But in that sort of silence you don't hear anything because the blood and tears have stopped and Master Ryba was never to hear again from the nearby church the words of his folkish Christmas Mass: `Master, hey! Rise I say! Look out at the sky — splendour shines on high ...'

    For me blood, unlike tears, means life, and when I bleed from a wound in my gum I try to stop it as quickly as possible.


2


I've given my daughter her breakfast and I've reminded her she has homework to do. I'm dashing out to see Mum. Jana wants to know when I'll be home, and when I tell her I'll be back around noon, she seems happy enough.

    The street is chock-a-block with cars on weekdays but it's not so hard to cross on a Saturday morning. And there's not such a stench in the air. I actually think I can smell the elderflower from the garden in front of the house.

    The houses in our street are sexless, having been built at the end of the thirties. They lack any particular style. It was the time when they started building these rabbit hutches, except that in those days they were built of bricks instead of precast concrete, and most of them had five or six floors instead of thirteen. Mum used to tell me how in summer before the war people would take chairs out in front of the house and sit and chat. In those days this was the city limits and people had more time to talk. Little did


Excerpted from No Saints or Angels by Ivan Klíma. Copyright © 1999 by Ivan Klíma.
Translation copyright © 2001 Gerald Turner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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