A Dissident’s Journey

Review: ‘Notes from Underground,’ by Roger Scruton

Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1989 / AP
March 16, 2014

It is perhaps only appropriate that a copy of Roger Scruton’s new novel, Notes from Underground, found this reviewer after an anonymous writer sent an "unofficial" advance copy on a complex trip across an ocean, to the family of a mutual friend. From there it came to Brno, Czech Republic in a suitcase traveling from Germany—a rather samizdat voyage.

Scruton’s sixth novel tells the tale of Honza Reichl, a young, dissident-ish Czech living in Prague trying to make sense of a world in turmoil. "Love at first sight sometimes occurs in the world of normal people; in the underground, love exists in no other form," Honza says. Sure enough, love at first sight comes in the form of Betka, an urbane, and slightly older, woman.

The plot of Notes is forthright enough. Boy chases girl, girl plays hard-to-get, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. A trip to Betka’s childhood home is extraordinarily moving, and other occasions, such as Honza’s meetings with Karel, are laugh-out-loud funny. Honza frequently finds himself in tricky spots—sometimes out of innocent curiosity, sometimes due to his love for others. The enigmatic Betka touches down on the page and disappears just as quickly, leaving the protagonist as well as the reader in the lurch. Meanwhile, police officers attempt to bring about the image of order by disrupting deeper, more fundamental forms of it.

A cursory reading of Notes from Underground suggests it is a warning about the havoc socialism wreaks on societal order, as well as the difficulties of youth, love, trust, and freedom. However, Notes from Underground is not merely about 1980s Czechoslovakia: As one might hope from a philosopher of Scruton’s caliber, the plot serves as a platform for a more general examination of the human condition.

Observing and commenting on the individual and his relationship to the multitude is Scruton’s strong suit, and his best writing concerns the intersection of the personal and the societal, such as his depiction of the way the joyful collapse of communist Czechoslovakia pulls Betka and Honza apart.

A recurring theme of the novel involves the way that trust is created, avoided, cultivated, and shattered. Underground, trust among individuals emerges from a common fear, but it is precisely that fear that also prevents trust from deepening and broadening. Conversely, the sudden flourishing of personal freedom makes trust less consequential. The very freedom that the young couple works to achieve, each in their own way, also ends up corroding the tie between them. In this way, Scruton reminds his readers that while socialism is to be opposed, the social ties that keep us functioning—both individually and collectively—require extra attention and cultivation in free societies. Free societies demand hard choices and require individuals to make hard choices, at the societal as well as at the personal level.

Scruton’s references to such personalities as Magor and the Plastic People of the Universe will bring smiles to many students of the history of this era, and certain small details, such as Father Pavel’s Moravian accent, help bring the characters to life. Other details gently remind the reader of the more mundane changes that have occurred in the 25 years since the Velvet Revolution, such as the observation that when the doors to the Prague metro close, they now ask riders to "please" refrain from trying to enter or exit the cars. Little tidbits, such as unlabeled homemade wine and soup vegetables in the cellar, stand as a marker for things that have stubbornly refused to depart from Czech family life. Other asides remind us of the grim history before that time, and its specific manifestation in Prague ("Defenestration is a Czech tradition, the only one the communists had retained").

In no case does Scruton handle the specifics of his story more tenderly than the interactions of Mrs. Němcová, the elderly woman that Betka briefly meets in the village where she grew up. While she seemingly plays a small, almost walk-on role, Scruton uses her to evoke a variety of thoughts on the legacy of the Czech lands. The paradoxes of Mrs. Němcová—at once socialist and pre-socialist, at once Czech and German, at once a historical reference and the artificial construct of that reference—reflect this yet-unresolved relationship between Czechs and their neighbors, as well as among Czechs themselves. Scruton does not reconcile these questions; indeed, it is not always clear that such questions can be fully resolved. It is the most "Czech" part of his book, so perhaps it is significant it takes place outside of Prague.

As a minor criticism, the book is more concerned with the art of ideas than with the art of the word; certain passages feel wooden, rough. Moreover, like most books focused on ideas Scruton occasionally succumbs to the temptation to indulge in dialogs and statements of an overly didactic quality. However, the majority of the "big ideas" Scruton wishes to communicate are effectively woven into the story. While characters such as Karel and Father Pavel clearly act as personifications of ideas—any young scholar interested in the work of Eric Voegelin could find no better introduction to the concept of metaxy than Father Pavel’s conversation with Honza near the end of the novel—Scruton is also careful to remind us that ideals and ideas must be articulated and acted out by real, flesh-and-blood human beings.

That his characters have flaws, and fall short of their ideals in the end, is a lesson that is certainly not limited to post-1989 Czechoslovakia.

Published under: Book reviews