The Farewell Party
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...
(The entire section is 1708 words.)