Last Reviewed on June 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307
The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera begins as a comedy in the form of a burlesque, a subgenre which caricatures a serious topic. However, like many of Kundera’s works, The Farewell Party has multiple layers that explore themes of love, hatred, and fate. The story is set in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s, when the country was still part of he Eastern Bloc. This setting and time period is important in establishing the background of Jakub, who was a political prisoner, and Dr. Skreta, who wants to immigrate to the United States (and once gave Jakub a poisonous pill for suicide). The entire story—not including the backstories—takes place at a village spa.
The spa represents rejuvenation, and not just in a physical sense. For instance, couples there are trying to heal relationships and marriages. Another important element in the story is the concept of birth. An old, sickly American man and his wife were desperate to conceive a child. With the help of Dr. Skreta, who is a gynecologist, they are able to do so. On the other hand, Ruzena becomes pregnant after having an affair with Klima. There is a contrasting duality between sickly characters and the act of conception and childbirth as symbolic of a hope for the future.
Milan Kundera constructs a narrative that somewhat resembles a woven basket: individual fates intersect with each other and illustrate the connections between characters. Although the book is stylistically comedic, Kundera explores the dark sides of the human psyche and the negative elements of the human condition. The author does this by showing the dualism in people—the facade that people present to others and the secrets they bury underneath that image. This creates a sense of tension as the reader discovers the true dynamics between the characters and begins to unravel their psychological profiles.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708
Is life worth living? Is life worth propagating? Beneath the comedy and satire of The Farewell Party, Czech author Milan Kundera is asking some fundamental questions. Much of the irony in the book is directed at the political powers which have attempted to silence Kundera; neither this novel nor his previous one, Life Is Elsewhere, were allowed to be published in his native Czechoslovakia, and his plays have been taken off the Czech stage. But beyond the political ironies are other, quieter ironies, dealing with human limitations and the human habit of inventing illusions to disguise those limitations. The book is political in the sense that, finally, all novels and all works of art are political acts, but to limit the book by labeling it a political satire makes as much sense as to attempt to limit Kafka in the same way. On the surface, the novel might almost seem to be a comedy of manners, but Kundera uses the various plots, subplots, counterplots, and the intrigues which join them to explore his fundamental concern with personal destiny. The problem of the self and the state and of the self and others, lies at the heart of The Farewell Party.
The novel’s setting, at first an apparently apolitical choice, actually provides a unique background for probing both political implications and the philosophical and moral issues raised by the characters and their actions. The story unfolds at the government health spa in an unnamed Eastern European socialist country. The spa caters chiefly to women who have fertility problems, but also to some men with cardiac difficulties. A subtle universality adheres to the locations in the novel. The health spa and fertility clinic is only a four-hour drive from the unnamed “capital,” but it might as well be in another, timeless, world. A soggy chorus of fat, barren ladies splashes and sloshes in the mineral water baths, while comedies and ironic tragedies beyond them are acted out before their unseeing eyes and within hearing of their inattentive ears. All they care about is the hope that by their miraculous immersion in the foaming waters flowers will bloom in their personal deserts.
The comedy—and tragedy—is touched off when Ruzena, a poor and obscure nurse at the spa, phones Klima, a celebrated jazz trumpeter living in the capital, to tell him that she is pregnant, the consequence of his one evening’s visit to the spa. As far as Ruzena is concerned, her life is empty of opportunity; her apartment, her occupation, and even her future husband are as good as assigned to her from the moment of her birth. The highly doubtful accusation that Klima is the father of her child is her effort to snatch for herself the apparent freedom of Klima, who occupies such an envied position in her society. But Klima is not prepared for either paternity or marital strife as the consequences of his amorous escapade and seeks to persuade the girl to have an abortion.
The irony is that Klima is not as free as he appears to others. He is, for instance, the emotional prisoner of his beautiful, extremely jealous wife. He is the victim of an “erotic secret” which is his own hopeless love for his wife; he pursues other women only so that he can return to her with renewed passion. In truth, it is his wife’s watchfulness which obliges him to have spells of infidelity in order to maintain the illusion that he has escaped his destiny as a devoted husband.
With a terse, almost abrupt style, Kundera explores the ironies of these two themes of unwanted paternity and desired pregnancy. Each character attempts to control his own life or the lives of others, often resorting to bizarre and fantastic means to do so. The human beings trapped in the refined air of the health spa often appear to be a circle of self-conscious zealots, dancing insanely together, whipping both themselves and each other with their fanaticism. In fact, fanaticism seems to be a way of life in this novel. Even the minor characters, such as Ruzena’s father and his gang of aged cronies who mercilessly conduct “dog roundups” to rid the town of its supposed canine “menace,” are fanatics who see the world through their own narrowly channeled and warped vision.
Another fanatic seeking to bring his own brand of salvation to the world is the brilliant Dr. Skreta, the head of the spa, a slightly mad scientist who practices personal eugenics by inseminating (via test tubes) unwitting patients with his own sperm and thereby filling the country with largenosed miniatures of himself. He believes that the whole world should be brothers and he is doing his best to see that as many people as possible will have at least one common parent. This theme of brotherhood, opposed to the sterility of the official doctrine and accepted lifestyle, runs through the book, and it is with this theme, however ironic its implications, that the book finally concludes.
Dr. Skreta conducts several long and heated debates with his friend Jakub on the subject of population and childbearing. Jakub is a “rehabilitated” victim of a Stalinist purge, returned from the house of the dead, having been betrayed by an old friend, a Party official who was himself killed by his masters. Jakub has come to believe that the only true freedom in his country is the freedom to commit suicide; to remind himself of this option, he keeps a poisoned pill (provided by the doctor) with him at all times. If one has the certainty that he is master of his own death, Jakub explains, and is capable of choosing its time and manner, then one can stand anything. He believes firmly that nothingness is often preferable to the life that he has witnessed and endured.
The comedy of this novel is of a serious nature, rooted in basic questions. On the surface, the book glitters and dazzles with its wit and crisp style, but under the shine is a bleak awareness of the other side of life. Jakub and Dr. Skreta stand opposed in the center of this Janus-faced novel, friends, yet philosophical antagonists. Dr. Skreta illustrates his instinctive affirmation, as well as his egodrive, by impregnating countless women with his sperm, while Jakub announces that he is against parenthood of any kind, for parenthood implies absolute affirmation of human life, and he knows that he never can feel that life is good enough to be worthy of being multiplied. Never could he say that he believed that man was worthy of propagation.
According to Jakub, the saddest discovery of his life was that the victims of history were no better than their oppressors, for the roles were always reversible. And if one comes to the conclusion that there is no difference between the guilty and their victims, one reaches a state in which all hope has been abandoned—which, he proclaims, is a definition of Hell. Skreta counters that Jakub has paid too much attention to politics.
Skreta actually has little patience with Jakub’s reluctance to bear children. It is a bitter fact, Skreta insists, that the stupider the individual the greater his desire to multiply, while the better individuals give birth to at most a single child, and the best come to the conclusion that they won’t propagate at all. But Jakub who will not sire a child of his own and is against other people reproducing themselves, impetuously saves the life of a bulldog pursued by Ruzena’s fanatical father and his elderly fellow-zealots. Perhaps, as he says, anyone can kill, but also anyone can save a life, even if it is only a dog’s life.
Another zealot who wanders through the novel, touching the other lives both directly and indirectly, is a rich American expatriot named Bartleff, who dispenses fistfuls of U.S. half-dollars while preaching a Christianity of joy in which saintly asceticism is practiced out of lust for adulation. At times, a blue halo eminates from around the portly Bartleff. He freely advises the other characters, and takes joy in interfering with their lives. Fervently, he urges them to abandon their past existences and to embark on the glorious route that he has espoused, but the fact is that one person can have no real influence on any other individual. They are separate personalities, perhaps even separate creatures, and cannot even really make contact. The lives of the people in this apparently humorous novel are filled with missed opportunities, or of opportunities to which the individuals are never quite equal. The farce of The Farewell Party tends to diminish its characters; the fact that they have opportunities in their lives only for farce makes a dark and dreadful statement about the culture which surrounds them. Only the American is forever optimistic, daring to confront the consequences of man’s actions.
Finally, Jakub’s long-treasured deadly blue pill leads to a death, a death which he first wanted and tried to prevent. His existential gesture, his willful murder, backfired on him. The plot turns itself inside out and the verdict is that we all are murderers, whether we choose to be or not. In the foreground, Kundera’s men and women plot their intricate designs, while the clowns, naked or in funny costumes, prance about with looped poles on the hunt for mongrels or splash in mineral water baths, babbling about law and order and the wonder of birth; in the background lurks “the capital” from which authority flows. And everywhere men and women seek to assert their human dignity and independence and fail absurdly.
As a somewhat coldhearted metaphysical puzzle and intellectual achievement, The Farewell Party must command the respect and the admiration of the reader, but its bleak comedy and disenchanted ironies leave the reader with a bitter taste. One suspects that this is the taste that the author has experienced himself, struggling to create a life and a career in his native country. The party, finally, is over, and the guests have dispersed, and it turns out that it was not much of a party, at all; in fact, the farewell party really was a wake.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66
Donahue, Bruce. “Laughter and Ironic Humor in the Fiction of Milan Kundera,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. XXV (Winter, 1984), pp. 67-76.
Harkins, William E., and Paul I. Trensky, eds. Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, 1980.
Maloff, Saul. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXI (September 5, 1976), p. 4.
“Milan Kundera,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism. XXXII, 1985. Edited by Jean Stine.
Pochoda, Elizabeth. Introduction to The Farewell Party, 1977.
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