The Ultimate Intimacy
by Ivan Klíma
The protagonist of this book, a priest named Daniel, is tormented by two of humanity’s most controversial questions:
First: Is there a God who hears us, sees us, and grants us the possibility of everlasting life? Did he come to Earth in human form? Did he die, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven that we might do the same?
Second: (This is a more modern dilemma that disturbs only some human cultures, including ours):
Is it possible to love two people with all your heart? to be bound to both? How can you work out the tangles of two simultaneous/separate romantic, sexual, parental, and domestic attachments? Is there any moral solution?
As the story opens, Daniel has a contented marriage with his wife Hana. They have two children, and Hana has always been a good mother to Eva, Daniel’s daughter from his first wife, Jitka, who died when Eva was a baby.
Two events precipitate Daniel’s wrestling with his the very foundations of his spiritual belief. His mother’s death is the first. Ironically, on the very day of her funeral, a married woman he can’t help but fall in love with—Bára—insinuates herself into his life. The irony is magnified by the fact that Bára is drawn to Daniel for what she sees as his spiritual conviction and goodness; yet it is his unshakeable attachment to Bára and his continued unfaithfulness and deception towards his wife that unhinges him spiritually.
With Bára, Daniel finds an intimacy unknown to him since the death of his first wife, an intimacy he never expected to experience again. Yet he still loves Hana, and is strongly bound to her and his children not only by love but by duty and his moral beliefs.
His guilt and confusion force him to examine his religious beliefs. Suddenly, he realizes he has lost all conviction for the very ideas and words that he preaches to others and uses to comfort them.
The Ultimate Intimacy is a fearless book because it accepts and exposes the ambivalence in human behaviour, the absence of black-and-white morality, the truth that in some situations there is no choice that will avoid inflicting hurt and injustice.
The reader is drawn into the depths of Daniel’s and Bára’s minds as the text shifts from narrative, to Daniel’s journal, to letters (mostly to and from Daniel and Bára, but also from other significant people in their lives). Yet even with these insights, the characters and their motives remain partially inexplicable. Klíma can be pitiless in his exposure of human frailty and irrationality, especially during the decline of old age.
Klíma saves the greatest irony of all for the book’s conclusion. The ending surprised me, but it was also oddly perfect and satisfying—because it was an uncompromising refusal to answer all the questions the novel had raised.
Note: The English version of The Ultimate Intimacy, (translated from the Czech), was published in 1997.
I’d like to quote an excerpt from the author’s foreward to The Ultimate Intimacy:
After a lifetime’s experience of prose writing, it is my considered opinion that the most authentic people and stories are those that emerge from the author’s imagination.