None of Milan Kundera’s novels fits into the traditional concept of the novel. Each is an experimental foray into the unknown, although well prepared and supported by the literary legacy of Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Capek, and Vancura. This is particularly visible in the structure of a Kundera novels, which strikes one as that of a loosely organized group of short stories that have in common not so much recurring characters as a central theme, of which each story illustrates a single facet.
Each of his novels—as well as his cycle of short stories, Laughable Loves—is a fresh approach to his abiding concern: the search for authenticity defined as an unmasked, demythologized, yet philosophical parable of the existence of a Czech intellectual in a given historical time. Against the background of modern Czech fiction, Kundera appears as a worthy follower of the three main directions of Czech prose, associated with the names of Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Capek, and Vladislav Vancura. It is the mark of Kundera’s genius that he has been able to alchemize the best that these authors had to offer him into his own original prose, surpassing them all.
Kundera’s first novel, The Joke, seems to grow out of the short-story collection Laughable Loves. They have in common the central device of a “joke”—that is, an intended and performed hoax, a prank—that misfires and, like a boomerang, hurts the perpetrator rather than the intended victim. For example, in one of the stories in Laughable Loves, “I, the Mournful God,” the narrator wants to punish a pretty girl who has resisted his advances by punishing her vanity. He approaches his Greek friend, who acts the role of a foreign impresario attracted by the talent of the girl, who happens to be a music student. The girl is easily seduced, and the affair is consummated the same day on the narrator’s couch, to the narrator’s wrenching and never-ending dismay. Hoist with his own petard, the narrator waxes philosophical about the important lesson he has learned about life.
This device is central in the novel The Joke, wherein it is enriched and used to probe deeply into the realms of character motivation past and present, the political order (with the attendant zigzags of the Communist Party line), and the sensitive area of emotional and erotic relationships, the highs and lows of which Kundera captures with singular detachment bordering on misanthropy and misogyny.
The Joke consists of four narratives of the same event, or rather a set of events, centering on the “joke”: Ludvík Jahn, the central character, sends his naïve activist girlfriend a postcard that is politically compromising; his intention is to make fun of her seriousness and steer her toward erotic rather than political interests. The girlfriend reports him to the Communist Party organization, and Ludvík is thrown out of the university as a politically unreliable element, his life derailed for years, during which he has to work as a mine laborer, first as a draftee in a punishment battalion, then as a volunteer without much choice. In revenge, the “rehabilitated” Ludvík, now a scientist in Prague, decides to seduce the wife of his archenemy who engineered his dismissal from the university. Like the first joke, the second misfires: The enemy’s wife falls in love with Ludvík at a time when her husband is estranged from her; to add insult to injury, the enemy, Zemánek, is a thoroughly reformed man, now as fond of ideas as is Ludvík and embarrassed for his past—all in all, a different man, one who is involved with a youngwomanand glad that Ludvík is interested in his unwanted wife. Philosophically, the novel explores the fluidity, the inconstancy of people’s characters and ideas; Kundera also suggests that the nature of justice is undermined by the element of time. Perhaps in some timeless corner of the universe, an exact justice prevails, but how can one implement it in a world crucified by time?
Ludvík Jahn is also an ideal personification of the reformist ideas sweeping Czechoslovakia in 1967 and 1968. Historically, the novel is a literary summing up of the Czechoslovak experience with socialism from its very outset, in 1948. The sensational quality of The Joke, from the political point of view—and it is clear that this point of view is relevant to an understanding of the novel—stems from the near-documentary quality with which Kundera depicts successive stages of modern Czech history, taking into account the many different moves and countermoves of cultural, social, and existential aspects of the Czech reality. What each of the four character-narrators documents, Kundera the author transcends, so powerfully does one feel the controlling intelligence behind the scene pulling the strings that direct the literary “god game.”
While The Joke was immediately praised for its literary qualities when it appeared, it also served to polarize Czech critics along political lines, dividing them into dogmatists and reformists: The former decried Kundera’s wholly irreverent attitude toward Communist taboos, while the latter praised his candor. Kundera himself has noted the danger of ideological interpretations of the novel that obscure the more subtle love story between Ludvík and the tender girl, Lucie, whom he meets while he is a laborer—a love story at the center of the complex novel but for that very reason easily overlooked when weightier and more topical concerns clamor for attention. In the novel’s first reception, few critics noted Ludvík’s failure to lead an authentic existence. Imprisoned by his grudge and his ambiguous attitude toward women as a result of the decisive, treacherous act by the female Communist Party activist, Ludvík blinds himself even to such timeless aids as Moravian folk music— which, in a key passage omitted from the original English translation, opens his eyes to the authenticity he has missed.
Life Is Elsewhere
Kundera develops this powerful concern with authentic life masterfully in Life Is Elsewhere. Where, then, is life? Rather, what is life? Kundera’s second novel answers this question by way of a negative example of a young poet living the life of precocious maturity conventionally found admirable in the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Esenin, and the Czechs Jiòí Wolker and Jiòí Orten, embodying Romantic conventions of the genius and of the indivisibility of art and life. Is it then possible for the Poet, this higher being, to become a wretched masturbator and police informer as well as a clumsy bungler of everything but his verses?
Kundera magisterially answers these and other questions by giving an indecent history of the young poet Jaromil: his life, beginning with his conception, all the way up to his pathetic and bathetic death. On the way, Kundera demolishes the Romantic myth of the poet as the truth seeker, or truth sayer. Instead of a prophet, he shows us a pervert. That, however, is only the consequence of Jaromil’s inability to lead an authentic life, precisely because he is and remains all the time a poet. The lyric quality so necessary for a poet is seen as the greatest obstacle to authenticity, to life as it should be lived.
The unlikely counterpart of Jaromil is a man with whom Jaromil shares a girlfriend. The authentic man, however, is selfless, whereas Jaromil is possessive; he is attached to timeless traditional art, whereas Jaromil seeks absolute modernity. Needless to say, in the political sphere, Jaromil repeats Communist inanities, though he is sufficiently intelligent to see how flawed they are. Lyricism contra logic: This is the conflict at the heart of the painful demolition of the poet. He, the poet Jaromil, even dies without understanding the harm he has done to others and himself through his fateful lyricism.
The Farewell Party
So much for the poet—but what if Jaromil’s condition is generally present among people at large? Kundera turns to this question in the wry, tragicomic novel The Farewell Party. Instead of following one causal chain, he traces several, crisscrossing them in order to show how, like billiard balls, individual fates meet and are bounced in yet further unexpected directions. The plot of the novel is too complex to recount in detail; in simplified form, however, The Farewell Party deals with the issue of self-deception on a group scale, up from the previous novel’s individual scale.
A musician is arranging his mistress’s abortion with a doctor who heads a fertilization clinic in an unorthodox manner: He impregnates his patients artificially, using his own semen. The man whose mission it is to fertilize then kills, and the man who wants to free himself supplies poison to a woman, the same musician’s mistress, who, not knowing about the poison, kills herself. Further complications follow. This novel is far more dramatic than anything else Kundera has published, but it does have the operatic quality of some of his early tales. The obvious tragic aspect of the happenings is countered step by step with genuinely comic happenings, accidents, and a jovial set of characters, almost all of whom preclude the kind of tragic tension that the mere plot implies.
Without any doubt, The Farewell Party is Kundera’s most cynical and misanthropic literary performance. At the same time, it announces the arrival of supernatural elements in his fiction, in the guise of an American, Bartleff. Without the somewhat absurd supernaturalism of Bartleff, which injects a modicum of warmth, the novel would be hard to bear. Thematically, it is possible to place the work within the tense, Kafkaesque atmosphere of postinvasion Bohemia, with its ever-growing demoralization.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Kundera’s next novel was like a breath of fresh air.A daring experiment, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting features the return of a more aggressive narrative with documentary elements, more authorial intrusion and manipulation of the narrative with autobiographical elements, quotations from an eccentric array of thinkers, attempts at the theory of laughter, and incursions into the domains of musicology and philosophy of history.
First, Kundera manages to introduce and establish very successfully the plight of a dissident and an émigré, though in ways that run contrary to political clichés. There is then a considerable dose of “reality”: Historical events are recounted; politicians—dead and alive—are quoted and described; and snippets of what purports to be Kundera’s life are offered in a very appetizing smorgasbord, where the wound of history is treated with the balm of a new mythology, created by Kundera in a feat of magic to vanquish the old—people dance the hypnotic circle and rise into thin air. Finally, there is a “theory of laughter” that distinguishes between the laughter of the Devil and the laughter of angels. At the same time, structurally, the novel solidifies around seven key tales with a limited number of characters, some of whom are present in more than one tale; the tales themselves are introduced as variations (in musical fashion) on the common themes of laughter and forgetting. The dangers of forgetting and the necessity of laughter are often illustrated roughly, subtlety being reserved for a sustained criticism of the modern malaise of indifference, lack of compassion, and the frittering away of a precious cultural heritage.
Above all, Kundera’s concern with authenticity is present here in force, as is his attempt to do away with the sentimental glorification of youth, of childhood even— as if he believed that he had not finished the job properly in Life Is Elsewhere.To get his message across in a definitive fashion, he places his favorite heroine, Tamina, on an island inhabited by children who ogle her, pounce on her, take away her privacy, rape her, and finally kill her— naïvely, sincerely, purely, without malice, but full of curiosity. The island of children, the children’s paradise, is a beautiful parable of the horrors of totalitarianism.
Kundera wanted to impress the Western reader with the issue of totalitarianism, and the avenue he chose was a parable. The totalitarian system, however imperfect, tries to turn adults into children in yet another parody of a perfectly legitimate and profound traditional idea found in many sacred traditions—above all, in Christianity. The primitivism of the totalitarian ideology, the simplicity of its propaganda, has thus acquired a profound meaning: It harks back to the children imprisoned within adults, and therein lies its success, no matter how banal, how simple, how trivial.
To resist the totalitarian temptation, to become a “dissident,” is desirable, but in Kundera’s world, the dissident is a person who exemplifies in miniature the larger political processes existing on a large scale in society, for one is but a part of the whole. Thus, even the dissident feels the need to tamper with the past in order to bring it more in line with his or her present: The past embarrasses the dissident. Kundera justifiably resents labels such as “dissident” and “émigré” as applied to him, for he has spent his entire adult life peering at what is hidden behind the labels, behind the masks, knowing that a label— any label—does not absolve one of anything. At the depths at which Kundera operates, such labels are meaningless.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
It is curious to see, then, in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his attempt to present a character who, according to all indications, does lead an authentic life. When Kundera portrays someone who is living an authentic life, as his main character Tomas and Tomas’s love Tereza do, it is only to suggest that ultimately life itself has been emptied of meaning, of authenticity. The novel begins by stating that if humanity believed (as in German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return) that everything, including the horrors of the past, would occur again and again forever, every act would be “heavy” with consequence. Instead, however, many people now assume that their acts will have no eternal result (in heaven or hell); thus, life becomes “light”—perhaps unbearably so.
Tomas and Tereza, as authentic and as unobjectionable as Kundera could make them, are frustrated by the accidents of history. They understand the personal and the social tragedy that they witness. They feel compassion. When the great traumatic event of their life happens, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, they decide to emigrate to Switzerland. Because Tomas is a natural Don Juan, Tereza, who loves him deeply, decides to return to Czechoslovakia, as she is unable to share Tomas with other women. Tereza’s absence weighs heavily on Tomas, and he returns to Czechoslovakia to join her, though the price is high: Askillful surgeon, he is fired from his hospital and forced to work as a window washer. He does not mind, however; he feels even more free, and the new occupation seems especially useful from the point of view of his easier access to potential erotic adventures. Finally, Tomas and Tereza move into a benighted village, where Tomas works as a truck driver. During a weekend outing, Tomas and Tereza are accidentally killed in the truck.
Far away from Tomas, in the United States, lives his former love, Sabina, who also suffers from the burden of “lightness.” She influences one of her lovers, Franz, a Swiss professor, into adopting a more authentic life and then drops him. Franz looks for a cause, is attracted to a humanitarian mission in Southeast Asia, and while there is killed in a mugging. Tomas, Sabina, and Franz all have something in common, irrespective of their accomplishments as authentic beings, inasmuch as the meaning has been decanted from life itself. This common feature is the Nietzschean amor fati, love of life as it is in all its merciless fatefulness. Kundera never announces this theme, but after his Nietzschean opening, it is only logical to translate the surrender of all these characters to life as it is, without preconditions, as a literary adaptation of this Nietzschean conceit.
Mention should be made of Kundera’s superlative satire of leftism and its kitsch in this novel. In this connection, the conclusion serves as a magnificent counterpoint to Kundera’s discussion of many varieties of kitsch, including the political. What could promise more in the way of kitsch than the death of a dog improbably named Karenin? After all, pets, whatever kind, are the beneficiaries of the most absurd type of maudlin sentimentality and kitsch. It takes courage to lecture about kitsch and then, in a truly inspired and unforgettable passage, after showing why the deaths of millions of human beings no longer have power to move people, describe the death of Tomas and Tereza’s dog Karenin as a genuinely moving event that restores, through acceptance of tragedy, meaningfulness to life. This is the most unbearable event of the novel. As such, it pokes a hole through the all-embracing curtain of Tomas’s amor fati and reestablishes the primary importance of authenticity.
In all of Kundera’s major works there is complex counterpoint between essaylike lecture and narrative. The distance between the two, however, narrows beginning with Slowness. This novel juxtaposes a leisurely, eighteenth century journey through beautiful countryside with a modern motor trip, where people distance themselves from nature and time in an “ecstasy” of speed. Representing the earlier century is a character simply called the Chevalier, who enjoys a night of love at the climax of Vivant Denon’s 1777 novella Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow). Wandering out of that book and into Kundera’s, this Chevalier meets Vincent, a man who also spends a night with a beautiful woman but who is rendered impotent by trying to perform in public. Indeed, throughout Slowness, one modern character after another behaves in a ridiculous fashion because of exhibitionism, a metaphor for quickly traversed open spaces in contrast to the unhurried pace and privacy cherished in the eighteenth century. A Czech scientist, for instance, rushes to a foreign conference only to forget to give his lecture because he is deeply moved by the grandstanding remarks he makes as his introduction. More comically lamentable is a French politician so addicted to ostentatious globe-trotting that he long ago renounced any private life.
Even more than Slowness, Kundera’s next novel, Identity, takes advantage of a French milieu, where ideas permeate conversation. In the former work, the essays have been reduced to short asides by a narrator who witnesses the events. In Identity, however, the essayistic elements are confined to the dialogue and thus are integrated into the action. They all spring from a vision of life as boring because people are no longer distinguished from one another by passionate attachment to their occupations. Instead, there has been homogenization, even of gender: The women occupy previously male-dominated professions, in which they feel detached and two-faced, and the men become effeminate “daddies” instead of authoritative “fathers.” Kundera’s assignment of these ideas to his characters leaves tantalizingly open the question of whether male chauvinism is part of his defense of Old World values or a satire of the stereotypes into which European culture has crumbled.
The character Chantal first laughs at the “daddies” she meets because they lack the masculinity to give her a second glance. Almost immediately, however, their neglect makes her feel old and unattractive. She tries to joke about this depression to her lover, Jean-Marc, but her blush betrays to him that she is deeply hurt. To rekindle her self-esteem, he begins writing her anonymous letters, as from a secret admirer. He then becomes jealous of their success, and the couple’s life slips toward a nightmare of identity loss and boredom. According to Jean-Marc, boredom is the direct experience of time without the protection offered by friendship and occupation (both of which modern life vitiates). In fifty-one short sections, the novel provides so many variations on the theme of identity loss that The New York Times Book Review likened it to a fugue. Kundera has always achieved a musiclike structure in his works, but his later novels have attained a new delicacy and harmony, even if perhaps with some loss of volume.
As in Kundera’s other novels, there is one more character in Ignorance beyond the fictional characters. The narrative is essentially the story of two Czech émigrés, Irena living in Paris and Josef in Denmark. Many years earlier, they had an encounter that Irena remembers fondly and that Josef has forgotten entirely. Memory, nostalgia, forgetting, and ignorance all play a role in this. The additional character is the author himself—he steps in to make general observations and to comment on the lives of his characters. In a device not unlike the intrusions of the narrator in Slowness and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the author launches into an essay on perception of time and place after the narrative has barely begun.
The narrative itself is a fascinating account of characters engaging momentarily and forgetting, much like ships passing in the night. The story begins in 1989 with Sylvie telling her friend, Irena, that she ought to go home. Home for Irena is Paris, where she has lived the past twenty years; for Sylvie, however, Irena’s home ought to be her native Czechoslovakia, just now freed from Communist rule. The author interrupts, and for the remainder of the chapter and through the next two chapters he explores the idea of belonging, with all the attendant concerns about memory, nostalgia, history, expectation, disappointment, and other states of mind that isolate or alienate the individual. The narrative then resumes (with occasional commentary form the author), tracing the paths of Irena and Josef as they return to their homeland after twenty years’ absence (much like Odysseus’s return to Ithaca). They meet at the Paris airport, where Irena recognizes Josef at once from a pleasant and romantic encounter years ago, when he gave her an ashtray as a memento. Josef, however, does not remember Irena at all, although he pretends to.
Back in Prague, they try individually to make connections with the world they had left behind, but the effort frustrates them. People have different memories, and in any event they have no interest in what the returned émigrés may have experienced while they were away. At times they seem to make connections, only to see them fall apart. One of these involves Milada, who tells Irena that she remembers Josef from the time he jilted her when they were teenagers. She attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills and waiting to freeze in the subzero mountains, but only her ear was frozen, and it had to be cut off. She does not meet Josef again, but Irena does at his hotel. In their loneliness they end up making love, after which Irena realizes that he does not remember her, not even when she shows him the ashtray she has kept as a souvenir. He cannot even speak her name. There is a palpable sadness in the journey they have taken, especially for Irena, who is left totally alone and friendless.
Short fiction: Sm0šné lásky: Tri melancholicke anekdoty, 1963; Druhy sešit sm0šnùch lásek, 1965; Tòetí sešit sm0šnùch lásek, 1968; Sm0šne lásky, 1970 (partial translation Laughable Loves, 1974).
Plays: Majitelé klí5x, pr. 1961; Ptákovina, 5ili Dvojí uši—dvoji svatba, pr. 1968; Jacques et son maître: Hommage à Denis Diderot, pr. 1970 (Jacques and His Master, 1985).
Poetry: Slov0k zahrada širá, 1953; Poslední máj, 1955 (revised 1963); Monology, 1957 (revised 1964).
Screenplay: Clair de femme, 1979 (adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel; with Costa-Gavras and Christopher Frank).
Nonfiction: Um0ní románu: Cesta Vladislava Van5ury za velkou epikou, 1960; L’Art du roman, 1986 (The Art of the Novel, 1988; revised 2000); Les testaments trahis, 1993 (Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, 1995); Le Rideau: Essai en sept parties, 2005 (The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, 2007).
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Banerjee, Maria Nemcová. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Milan Kundera. New York: Chelsea House, 2003.
Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Petro, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.
Ricard, François. Agnès’s Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera. Translated by Aaron Asher. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Steiner, Peter. “Ironies of History: The Joke by Milan Kundera.” In The Deserts of Bohemia: Czech Fiction and Its Social Context. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Weeks, Mark. “Milan Kundera: A Modern History of Humor Amid the Comedy of History.” Journal of Modern Literature 28 (Spring, 2005): 130-148.
Woods, Michelle. Translating Milan Kundera. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 2006.