The Hideout: Egon Hostovský

★★★½

A man writes a long overdue letter to his distant wife, from the cellar where he has been hiding in Normandy since the invasion of France by the Nazis. It is a confession, an affirmation and a form of self-analysis. The narrator is by turns ridiculous and profound, confined in his hiding place while war rages above: forced, while great events unfold unseen outside, to retread the well-worn paths of his own memories. Yet, in coming to understand his past, he has more sense of purpose in the present and, finally, begins to see the shape that his own future must take.

The Hideout begins with the narrator’s departure from Czechoslovakia and this is no love story to a country, but rather a self-centred man’s efforts to understand the strange trajectory his life has taken. He flees Prague not for his safety or his beliefs but because he’s chasing a woman for whom he feels a certain tendresse, and whom he believes feels the same for him. Leaving behind him his wife and daughters, he pursues this woman to Paris, a city which captivates him with its vivacious disregard for convention. Here, he believes, a man may become anything he wishes to be, and a woman likewise. But his dream of a grand affair is dashed, not by a confrontation, but by a quiet accidental glimpse of his beloved, who weeps when she thinks he isn’t looking, at the thought of her shame. That is enough for our narrator who, despite everything, does love his family. He resolves to go home and make it up to his wife… but circumstances prevent it.

For war is coming, rolling into Paris in Panzers and jackboots. And, in the shadow of those troops, our narrator realises that his own talents may come back to bite him. He is an engineer, who has devised a revolutionary sight for anti-aircraft guns: a sight which the Nazis in Czechoslovakia would be eager to have, but for which he has destroyed the blueprints (not out of patriotism but a momentary petulance). Fearing for his wellbeing if he is found, he goes to ground with the assistance of his eccentric acquaintance Dr Aubin. Here, in the dark of a cellar, he finally has the chance to stop, to review his life and to puzzle out how to face such overwhelming times. Should a man hide in the dark, like a rabbit run to bay, and allow his mind to disintegrate with fear? Or should he seek something greater to believe in? This moral debate underlies the story.

Hostovský (1908-1973) doesn’t feel like an immediately identifiable Czech writer as, for instance, Urzidil did, and I have to confess that I wasn’t quite as charmed by this as I was by Urzidil’s masterly short stories. There are no beautiful vignettes of old life in Bohemia here. But there is a pervasive melancholy: a belated realisation of what is at stake and what is lost. I should emphasise that the story isn’t autobiographical. Hostovský was Jewish and worked for the Czech Foreign Ministry. In 1939, he was posted to Brussels which meant he was already out of Czechoslovakia when war was declared. He did then, however, move to Paris like the narrator, but his stay was brief: he moved on to Portugal and finally, in 1941, to the USA. Not everyone in his family was so fortunate: according to Wikipedia, his father and sisters died in concentration camps. Apparently his work often focuses on his protagonists’ struggle against evil and their existence in some form of exile, which speaks all too eloquently of the life-experience of the émigre. In that sense one feels that his life is flavouring his works, without dominating them.

This is not upbeat, of course, and the narrator isn’t exactly sympathetic – if we feel for him, it’s because he has been caught up in such typical human frailties and weaknesses – but it is inspiring, in seeing how he makes sense of his world and his place in it. Perhaps it’s in the moments when we are most trapped, most blind, that we begin to feel the true potential of humanity. Another thoughtful, poignant mid-century classic from Pushkin, who always manage to unearth intriguing little gems.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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