Milan Kundera (mee-LAHN kewn-DEH-rah), who acts as the narrator. He comments freely about the act of writing, about his own life, about his characters—some of whom are based on real people and some of whom are frankly imaginary—and about the history and fate of his native country, Czechoslovakia.
Mirek (MEE-rehk), a well-known intellectual and television personality, actively involved in the Prague Spring reforms, a campaign of openness, relative freedom, and rich cultural activity initiated in response to long years of Communist oppression in Czechoslovakia. With the invasion in 1968 of Russian tanks and 500,000 Russian troops, the Prague Spring was crushed. Some half a million supporters of the Prague Spring—Mirek among them—are pushed out of their jobs or arrested, and some 120,000 Czechs leave the country as exiles. As the novel opens, Mirek is attempting to recover his youthful love letters, which he wrote to Zdena, who is now, as always, a fervent supporter of Communist rule and the Russian state. Returning from his unsuccessful attempt to recover the letters, Mirek is arrested in his apartment. He, his son, and many of his friends are put on trial and imprisoned for antistate activities.
Zdena, who twenty-five years previously was Mirek’s lover. An ugly woman, Zdena has never forgiven Mirek for leaving her and has transformed her unrequited love into an unwavering political loyalty to the state and the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Karel, who is married to Marketa. He has long lived by the slogan, “As far from Mother as possible.” Now that his father has died and his mother is old and alone, however, he feels pangs of guilt and so invites her for a week’s visit. Dissatisfied with the sexual restrictions attendant on monogamy, Karel develops a sexual relationship with Eva and convinces her to befriend his wife, Marketa. As the story opens, Marketa has invited Eva for a visit that coincides with that of Mother, who overstays her welcome.
(The entire section is 912 words.)