by Iva Pekárková
Set in the Communist-dominated Czechoslovakia of the early ’80s, Rainbows reminds us that history is sometimes shaped by thousands of tiny revolutions. Fialka, the misfit heroine of Pekárková’s first novel, is an indifferent college psychology student. Eager to escape the “sullen lifelessness” of her Prague neighborhood and the university’s ideologically purified curriculum. Fialka regularly embarks on hitchhiking trips to the Slovak mountains, cadging rides from long-distance truckers.
In a society where the state police have the right to throw people in jail on the slimmest of suspicions, the haulers are virtually the only citizens who enjoy unfettered freedom of movement. Casual contacts with the truckers lead to casual sex as Fialka attempts to grasp a little bit of their freedom.
On her jaunts, Fialka discovers a countryside dying from the acid rain spewed by Stalin-era factories and begins photographing the mutant vegetation and poisoned trees with a documentary urgency. (The blockhead authorities miss the subversion in her work and instead praise her eye for the exotic.) When her best friend is stricken with multiple sclerosis and encounters a 10-year waiting list for a wheelchair (a time frame possibly longer than his life expectancy), Fialka begins sleeping with the truckers to obtain the hard currency to buy one.
Though the setting of Rainbows is grim, its message is hopeful—even the most oppressive limitations can be subverted—and the novel amounts to a portrait of the defiant generation that helped peacefully sweep aside the illusory authority of the Communists during Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22)