Innocence, Or Murder on Steep Street
This novel was first published in 1985. It is set in 1950s Prague, during the early days of Communism, and more specifically around the Horizon, a cinema where a young boy is found murdered. Months later, the investigator who solved the murder is also found slain in his car in front of the cinema. The novel isn’t really about the murders or the investigation, but about three of the women who work as ushers for the cinema. The lives and secrets of Helena Novakova, Marie Vranova and Mrs. Kourismska are put under a microscope by the investigation, including the tactics they employ to survive an oppressive political and societal system that wants to implicate them for the investigator’s murder.
The novel was written and published while the author, Heda Margolius Kovaly, was in exile. Kovaly died in 2010. Although the novel reads like a first draft, with chapters and characters that need to be developed, points of view that randomly change, and characters whose significance is never explained and is assumed by the reader, it directs a strong light on the communist climate of 1950s Czechoslovakia. Everyone minds his or her own business, everyone is suspected of a crime against the government, and anyone can be an informant for corrupt authorities, who need very little to persecute, jail, and destroy a person. In short, no one is safe.
This is a brief but powerful novel about everyday people trying to navigate and negotiate, through honest and dishonest means, the tyranny of a communist regime that wants to destroy people who appear not to conform. I came away feeling sad after reading the novel but very much aware of how the people of that time and place had to act in order to survive.