The Hideout, by Egon Hostovský, was first published in the U.S. in 1945, and now has been reissued by Pushkin Press in an English translation by Fern Long. The novel – really more of a novella, at roughly 120 pages – consists of one extended epistolary soliloquy-cum-confession-cum-suicide note.
The writer of the epistles, an unnamed Czech engineer, leaves his family in Prague for Paris shortly before the 1938 Nazi invasion; wanted for arrest by the Germans, he is unable to return home. When Paris is occupied in 1940, he takes shelter in the eponymous hideout: the dank cellar of an acquaintance in the French countryside. He lives there in near-total isolation until 1942, when he is presented with an opportunity to aid the French resistance. Aware that he will almost certainly die in the brave act, he writes a series of letters to his wife, addressed by the affectionate diminutive Hanichka, explaining the circumstances of his exile, the likely circumstances of his approaching demise, and the progressive erosion of his soul in between these two points.
To a reader like me, whose limited experience of Czech literature began with the dark humor of Hašek, traced over the Surrealist magic of Nezval, and ended with a broad survey of the Prague Spring, there is something startling in the plainness and clarity of Hostovský’s prose and the directness of the plot he constructs, which seem to borrow somewhat from the conventions of genre fiction. This is not a text of superior lyrical beauty, except in rare moments. The epistolary format of the book, and the subject matter, lends it a kind of sentimental, moralistic tone that can on occasion bleed into mawkishness.
What the text does offer, however, is a psychologically realist portrait of an otherwise unexceptional person shaped by historical conditions. We know that our unnamed narrator is middle-aged; that he has two daughters, teenagers at the time of his departure for Paris, for whom he is somewhat superfluous; that he left Prague not because he sensed impending danger, but because he foolishly chased a woman, a love he never consummates. We know, too, that the warrant issued for his arrest was for an act of treason against the Germans he never actually committed; when he later actually attempts to commit treason, the French authorities dismiss him as a quack.
The weakness of our hero in both a private and political sphere is sharply rendered throughout; for instance, in one passage he discusses his inability to communicate with or find happiness with Hanichka:
“Whenever you asked me to talk to you I always became completely mute. At that time, too, every sound from the outside took the words from your lips, every noise, every ringing or knocking. What’s happening again? Some kind of demonstration? What did they announce over the radio? That the Germans are cutting off our electricity? Who announced it? That our theaters are going to be closed and meetings forbidden? Martial law? Impossible! Both thoughts and people were going around in circles; everything seemed useless, stupid, futile – but you know very well how it was.”
This vagueness of thought, and our narrator’s impotence, the “…[paralysis] of [his brain] when it has to cope with larger segments of time. All the collective unhappiness and all the collective catastrophes…” put me in mind of Hannah Arendt’s description of “inner emigration” – people who, in “dark times,” no longer feel like citizens, but do not in actuality emigrate, instead drawing into a mute, invisible, interior realm. Our narrator’s withdrawal from reality before his exile – both of his marriage and of the coming war – becomes literalized once he enters the hideout. It is not until his mind begins to disintegrate, and until the invisibility of the hideout is directly threatened, that he is able to face the unendurable reality of Nazism and take action.
Moments such as this in the text – and there are many – feel almost horrifyingly relevant to today’s global political climate, and render this a singularly timely reissue. See the narrator’s impression of the origins of World War II, which reads like how we may all feel when the age of Trump comes to a close:
“I keep having the feeling that a good half of the human race got drunk in a kind of gigantic space where the air is all breathed out…by now, thank God, we have advanced far enough so that we can tell our friends from our enemies, but the drunkenness lasts, the guilt is still debatable, and the harm done is beyond imagination.”
Some of the most memorable passages of the book come in his description of wandering around Paris before the fall, disoriented and adrift. It bears mentioning that while the text is not autobiographical, Hostovský himself lived in exile, and often wrote of the subject. Hostovský was born into an assimilated Jewish family in 1908, and, much like the narrator of The Hideout, left Prague not from political fear but from an accident of fate – already a successful author in Czechoslovakia, he was invited to give a lecture in Brussels shortly before the occupation. He then sought refuge in France until its fall, at which time he escaped across the Pyrenees to Lisbon and onward to the United States.
The Hideout is a singular text, certainly, but an important one, which bears reading for its insights into “dark times” present and past.