Kundera, Milan (Vol. 19)
Kundera, Milan 1929–
Kundera is a Czech poet, novelist, short story writer, musician, and filmmaker. Because of Communist censorship of his writing, Kundera left Czechoslovakia and now lives in France. He uses political satire and comedy to express his anguish. His The Book of Laughter and Forgetting received especially high praise for its original style; Pearl K. Bell termed it a literature of "surrealist compression." (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
In Czechoslovakia it's still little more than a year since progressive writers like Milan Kundera were associated with Dubcek's noble attempt to build 'socialism with a human face'. Against this political background, The Joke tends to overwhelm with meaning. Literature and politics coalesce particularly closely in that the novel deals with the total disruption of the main character's life by politics….
[The] end is achieved by extremely sophisticated means, both in construction (with its dislocated time-sequence) and character. The anti-hero Ludvik is a classic alienated outsider. His ironic objectivity is essential to his part in the plot. It causes his sufferings; it enables him to survive camp life unscathed; it dominates his mode of revenge, which demands that he should stand aside emotionally from his own lovemaking and treat his mistress only as a pawn in his plan. It also enables the author to satirise communist reasoning and rituals from Ludvik's standpoint. But events are seen, too, through other eyes. The multiplicity of viewpoints is intellectually demanding but mirrors life's complexities; and they have the effect of commenting on and correcting Ludvik's ironic assumptions, so preparing for his final forgiveness. Even this is faithful to the novel's ironic mode.
For all the possible political significances, the novel remains an imaginative construct, with at its centre one brilliantly-imagined event: the 'Ride of the Kings'. Reminder of a pitiful present or a heroic past, bourgeois religious survival or expression of the people's culture—Kundera makes of this obscure folk-festival in Ludvik's native village a potent, profoundly complex symbol. It provides the setting for former party member Ludvik's forgiveness of the past, which comes over as a kind of religious conversion—but then communism, as Kundera reminds us, is not so much irreligious as itself a failed religion. (p. 429)
Clive Jordan, "Camp Jokes," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 78, No. 2011, September 26, 1969, pp. 429-30.∗
"The Joke"—a Czech novel that measures up to Czechoslovakia's wonderfully human films—is 40-year-old Milan Kundera's first novel but far from his first work. His collection of poems, "Monologues," was practically the only book of love poetry published in Czechoslovakia during the Stalinist era, and his three volumes of short stories, "Ridiculous Loves," have been best sellers there for several years. The lyrical and narrative skill he demonstrates in these earlier works comes through clearly in his novel.
Though by no means a symbolist work, "The Joke" works well on several levels. The characters are valid both in themselves and as types in contemporary Czechoslovak society; the plot stands comparison with the plots of novels that concentrate on their heroes' inner worlds, yet almost as a bonus it provides a miniature social history of Czechoslovakia during the past 20 years; and finally, the meditations on guilt and possibilities for change and the concept of history that underlies the logic of the novel's events are unquestionably worthy of attention….
The book consists of four interwoven first-person narratives: Ludvik's, Helena's, and two others …; so we often have the same events and characters treated from several points of view. Each voice is stylistically and ideologically distinct; together, they make up a lucid and satisfying whole.
Much of the narrative consists of flashbacks…....
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When a first-rate novel comes to us from Communist Europe, we do not want it sterilized and packaged; we want it raw. Last year, the Czechoslovakian author of The Joke wrote from Prague to the London Times Literary Supplement, protesting that his British publisher had "broken up" the novel, cutting at will and forming a mosaic of selected episodes….
"All my life long," wrote Kundera, very boldly, "I have been protesting against the mutilation of works of art in the name of an ideological doctrine as practiced in the socialist countries of Europe." The art discussed in this novel, as a symbol and as a thing in itself, is Moravian folk music. Kundera wrote a chapter about it, with musical examples. "Goodness me, how boring!" said London. So the British version omitted the chapter altogether. Surprisingly [the] American version follows suit, although in other respects it is closer to Kundera's original….
The story of The Joke is told by four reminiscent narrators, Ludvik the joker and three more earnest citizens: they are all feeling middle-aged in the 1960s. One of them is Jaroslav, Ludvik's old schoolmate, a fervent lover of Moravian music and the culture and customs which, for him, it represents. For 200 years, he says, the Czech nation almost ceased to exist: the language retreated from the towns to the countryside and became the property of the illiterate, creating a culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs. Jaroslav "hears in popular art the sap without which Czech culture would have dried up. He is in love with the sound of its flowing."…
[During the Nazi occupation folk music served] to repudiate the invaders' claim that the Czechs "had no right to exist, that they were only Germans who spoke a Slavonic tongue."…...
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Refined in the laboratory of social oppression,… Kundera's knowledge of personal freedom leads inexorably to the comic perception of victims of surveillance who are also, in their private ways, master practitioners of the art. So sophisticated is Kundera's rendering of this perception that one would have to look at 18th-century comedies of manners to find comedy and gulling on the scale of that in … The Farewell Party. Here in the festive atmosphere of a health spa and fertility clinic the characters take apparent holiday from the pressures of daily life, and once again love, or more accurately sex, is the swing on which they try to move past their destiny just as it is also the swing which returns them to it.
Like the plot of any rich comedy, that of The Farewell Party is difficult to summarize with its various subplots, counterplots and the numerous meetings between the two. Since personal destiny is again Kundera's concern, the multiple coincidences of plot and subplot are for him a natural métier. (p. 311)
The two themes of unwanted paternity and desired pregnancy are not plot lines at ironic odds with each other, but parallel illustrations of the unforeseen and uncontrollable which govern all the lives in this comedy, especially those who strive to supplant destiny with sexual machinations of their own. Nearly everyone is in the business of exerting some fantastic means of control over fate…. The juxtaposition of so many overlapping delusions is not simply mindless repetition but a comic device for innovating on the themes of helplessness and control.
Of course something must always go wrong when sex and love are made to bear the whole burden of...
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This "novel in the form of variations" [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting] is a series of seven responses to a single event: After a Party leader was charged with treason and hanged, the Communist Czechoslovakia propaganda apparatus airbrushed his face out of a famous ceremonial photograph. These meditations on the state's denial of memory involve a number of different imaginary characters and occasionally author Milan Kundera himself. Against the bleak voids of a self-obliterating history are set the gentle human comedies of people trying to restore or revise their own past. They are always tempted to forget, to relive their innocence, to act like sinister children, to indulge in mindless sex, or to dance to mindless music….
Kundera is a delightful writer, a more demanding and elegant Vonnegut. This is a somber and amusing book.
Charles Nicol, "Book Briefs: 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 15, November, 1980, p. 70.
["The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"] is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out. The strangeness of, say, Donald Barthelme or Barry Hannah derives from shifts in a culture that, even if we do not live in Manhattan or come from Mississippi, is American and therefore instinctively recognizable. These authors ring willful changes and inversions upon forms with which we, too, have become bored, and the lines they startle us with turn out to be hitherto undiscerned lines in our own face.
But the mirror does not so readily give back validation with this playful book, more than a collection of seven stories...
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Pearl K. Bell
Novels of protest—protest against oppression and injustice—have invariably taken the form of brutal realism, from a Zola to a Solzhenitsyn, since they seek to document horrors with a wealth of detail and fact. But questions of form apart, since the realistic novel is an "old" form, how long can one go on piling detail on detail, in a mounting demonstration of evil? Writers of protest have tried other modes, such as satire, yet satire requires that a reader have more than a passing knowledge of the facts about an inhumane regime. (How can anyone lacking intimate knowledge of the Soviet Union, for example, fully appreciate the cunning ingenuity and deadly accuracy of Alexander Zinoviev's satirical assault on Soviet...
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