The Vow: A Requiem for the Fifties

Written by Charles S. Kraszewski (trans.) Jirí Kratochvil
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

The Vow is a complex and multi-layered novel about architect Kamil Modráček, who confronts the harsh reality of Gottwald’s Stalinist regime in 1950s Czechoslovakia when his sister goes missing. At the heart of the novel is Modráček’s increasingly desperate quest to discover what has happened to her and his dilemma about what he is prepared to do to save her.

He has already been compromised by building a villa for a Nazi officer—maybe he should now be willing to collaborate with the Communist regime if that is what is demanded of him? It’s difficult to talk about what ultimately happens without too many plot spoilers, so suffice it to say that when he hears of her fate he will stop at nothing to exact his revenge. That is the story in a nutshell, but there are multiple strands to the narrative, with a host of secondary characters, many of whom narrate their own chapters. Firmly rooted in a totalitarian state under the all-powerful StB, the state security police, and with informers on every corner and in every apartment block, the book explores issues of guilt and innocence, punishment and justice (or lack of it), betrayal and collaboration and the moral dilemmas constantly posed under such a repressive regime.

This is a challenging and thought-provoking book, which requires careful reading. The introduction from the translator Charles S. Kraszewski is invaluable in identifying the themes and issues explored. Modráček himself is an equally complex and challenging personality, especially in the way he takes his revenge, and is an object lesson in how easily the oppressed can turn into the oppressor. Jiří Kratochvil is an acclaimed Czech writer, and this latest translation is a welcome addition to his books available for an English-speaking readership.