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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...
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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315
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.∗
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"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…. Despite some raucous army experiences, the pageantry of an ancient folk rite, a spate of sexual encounters and the hilarious outcome of Helena's brief encounter with death, "The Joke" is basically a tragic work. (p. 40)
It is much to Kundera's credit that he does not depict his hero, a dissident intellectual like himself, as a man with all the answers. Ludvik himself realizes he is doing everything possible to prevent time from healing his wounds, but hate has crowded out all other emotions from his life….
The translation succeeds quite well in reproducing the tone of the original, but omits whole sentences, paragraphs, and—in one instance—an entire chapter…. Apparently the object was to make the novel read more easily; the missing chapter, for example, deals with the place of folk music in modern society.
Fortunately, "The Joke" retains its bite even with the omissions. It reveals a great deal about the background to liberalization in Czechoslovakia, and—more important—it offers a genuinely humane look at inhumanity. "The Joke" is a work of sharp psychological perception and great literary finesse. (p. 41)
Michael Berman, "'The Joke'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1970, pp. 40-1.
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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."…
[After] the Communist take-over, folk music and folk customs had been officially sponsored and subsidized, according to "Stalin's famous definition of the New Art—socialist content in national form." (p. 35)
[Jaroslav's clever friend, Ludvik, the principal character and narrator in the novel,] led the folk music group into the Communist party…. But later Ludvik fell from grace and was excommunicated from the Party because of a silly, youthful joke. It is against this background that middle-aged Ludvik … returns home from Prague, in the late 1960s, now a bitter, disabused man. He plans to play another bad joke—on an old enemy, Pavel, a "Stalinist" trimmer and opportunist. Ludvik aims to seduce Pavel's wife, heartlessly. (pp. 35-6)
Throughout this subtle commentary on recent Czech history we note … a suspicion of youth and innovation, together with a curious delight in being up against it, hard pressed…. The novel is admirably shaped. It begins with a brief account by Ludvik of his arrival in his home town, to play his bad joke. We switch rapidly to the narrative of Helena, the woman he has come to meet. She is in love with Ludvik and glad to make an assignation with him in this town, which she associates with, yes, Moravian folk music (that missing chapter!) and thus with the communist idealism of her youth. She loves the Party and is sorry that her husband, Pavel, has become a revisionist; his attitude toward the Party reflects his attitude toward music—and toward his wife, for he betrays her with young women. So Ludvik, disillusioned ex-Communist, wants to punish Stalinist Pavel by having his wife; but Pavel is now a permissive youth-minded revisionist and can't be hurt in this way. The author is showing us how and why some Czechs of his generation have loved the Communist Party and resented the impatience of revisionist Youth.
Yet the American publisher presents this dialectical novel merely as a "parable for student disillusionment with the brutal regime in Czechoslovakia today." That is what the Western world wants to see in a Czech novel. The British publisher removed Helena's revealing narrative from its prominent introductory position and tucked it further back in the book: it is only because of Kundera's protest that the American edition has Helena back where she belongs….
This book is a living argument, neither communist nor anticommunist….
I am very impressed by this rich novel…. The Joke is a delicate construction, a perfectly balanced performance. Putting the author at risk, it is as strong as it is delicate. (p. 36)
D.A.N. Jones, "Live Attraction," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XIV, No. 10, May 21, 1970, pp. 35-7.∗
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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 personal freedom. And when we are led to wonder why these small personal maneuvers return people to the circumstances they wished to escape, the novel seems to reply that it is because as individuals they operate on too small a scale. Everyone has his plot, but there is always another and larger plot which gathers up and transforms the designs of individuals….
[At a certain] point in our experience of the narrative we begin to see its comedy differently. Just as the highly serious material of surveillance can turn farcical when its consequences are scaled down to the doings of guinea pigs and unfaithful husbands, so the farcical matters of paternity suit and fertility clinic can eventually turn back again toward tragedy, or at least toward something approaching it. That these trivial doings should be the matters upon which lives and dignity hang is, when the laughing is done, no laughing matter. What has always disturbed the people in Kundera's fiction is the idea of their missed opportunities, and doubly so since the opportunities they do manage to find are never quite equal to the demands made on them. In this case the opportunities at hand turn hollow and farcical becoming in the end agents of a larger pathos. (p. 312)
The analogies to Restoration comedy which seem so apt at first break down as we see the wider implications of farce. Among other things, the final scene in a comedy of manners brings each person's foolishness or ignorance home to him, but in The Farewell Party this moment of illumination does not take place. If there are, and it is not clear that there are, specific lessons to be learned here they will be of no help in the future, for these people are consigned to a life of farce. The brotherhood of man is left in the hands of nearsighted offspring who will always be unaware of their mission, and in this new twist to comedy even those people who learn of their mistakes are still somehow not brought to their senses.
The most extreme consequence of a man's actions, in this case murder, is to him weightless, even trivial. Here is a more trenchant display of destiny at work than tragedy generally allows, for these people do not die of their fate, they are discovered to be perpetually living with it. Looked at in this light, it is hard to imagine anything more chilling than Kundera's apparent light-heartedness. (pp. 312-13)
Elizabeth Pochoda, "Overlapping Delusions," in The Nation (copyright 1976 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 223, No. 10, October 2, 1976, pp. 311-13.
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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.
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["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 yet certainly no novel, by an expatriate Czech resident in France, fascinated by sex, and prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination, and recent Czech history. (p. 7)
Kundera is an Adam driven from Eden again and again—first, from the socialist idyll of his youthful imagining, then from the national attempt to reclaim that idyll in the brief "Prague Spring" of 1968, and then from the Russian-dominated land itself, and lastly from the bare rolls of citizenship…. [It] is small wonder that Kundera is able to merge personal and political significances with the ease of a Camus.
For instance, [the] theme of forgetting is masterfully, effortlessly ubiquitous. On the official level, erasure achieves comic effects…. Official forgetting is echoed by the personal struggle of the subjects of so revisable a government to recover lost letters, to remember details that give life emotional continuity. (pp. 7, 74)
Throughout these stories of life under Communism, motives are frequently quite mistaken, and emotions of extreme inappropriateness arise. Every life is lobotomized by the severances of tyranny.
Of course, there is comedy here. "Laughable Loves," coming from a Communist state …, seemed perhaps even funnier and sexier that it was, like jokes in a courtroom…. But the theme of laughter, as developed by Kundera in ["The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"] is elaborated to the point where it can no longer be felt as laughter. He is deft and paradoxical but too heavyhearted to be a funny writer; nor can he bring to his heavyheartedness that touch of traditional religious resignation which converts depression to the cosmic humor of Kafka, or Bruno Schulz, or the early Malamud, or Gogol. Kundera in comparison is a child of the Enlightenment, and what mysteries exist for him occur on the plane of the psychological and the sexual. There is more analysis of laughter … than laughter itself. A certain mechanical liveliness, as of French farce, attends the scenes of group sex….
Sex is sad for Kundera, at bottom, and laughter is cruel. His book's final image is of a group of doctrinaire, self-congratulatory nudists on the (presumably French) beach, "their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand." The proclaimed personal freedoms of the West are no liberation for him. The hero of this final episode, named Jan, has earlier reflected that the Jews had gone to the gas chambers in naked groups, and that "nudity is a shroud."…
As to the women of Kundera's world, sex is best when it is soulless…. Tamina, in the second story called "The Angels," sexually beset by a band of children, "rejoiced in her body, because for the first time in her life her body had taken pleasure in the absence of the soul, which imagining nothing and remembering nothing, had quietly left the room." In short, pleasure demands suicide of a sort. "Or to put it another way, sexuality freed from its diabolical ties with love had become a joy of angelic simplicity."
The angels in Milan Kundera's complex universe of disjunction are malevolent. These children end by tormenting Tamina and goading her to the death by drowning she had, earlier, sought in vain. In the first story called "The Angels," they dance in the streets of Prague to celebrate some political murders; they dance in circles until they rise into the sky. The angels are the unfallen from the Communist faith, Kundera once danced in their circle, and remembers their bliss. Angels are the heralds of "uncontested meaning on earth"; once fallen from their circle, one never stops falling, "deeper," Kundera tells us, "away from my country and into the void of a world resounding with the terrifying laughter of the angels that covers my every word with its din."
Kundera's prose presents a surface like that of a shattered mirror, where brightly mirroring fragments lie mixed with pieces of lusterless silvering. The Communist idyll he youthfully believed in seems somehow to exist for him still, though mockingly and excludingly. He never asks himself—the most interesting political question of the century—why a plausible and necessary redistribution of wealth should, in its Communist form, demand such an exorbitant sacrifice of individual freedom? Why must the idyll turn, not merely less than idyll, but nightmare? Kundera describes the terrors and humiliations of the intellectual under totalitarianism with crystalline authority, yet for all he tells us these barbarities are rooted in the sky, in whims beyond accounting. He keeps ploughing his earthly material back into the metaphors of laughter and forgetting, of angels and children…. Tamina, he states, is the book's "main character and main audience, and all the others are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror." Yet in her final appearance she seems allegorized into nothing, and the episode almost whimsical. As in the case of Nabokov, a private history of fracture and outrage is rendered kaleidoscopic by the twists of haughty artistic will—without, however, Nabokov's conviction that art, the reality we extract from reality, is sufficiently redeeming. (p. 76)
Kundera—who moved, after all, only a few hundred kilometers west, and who unlike many expatriates had enjoyed considerable artistic success and prestige in his own country—seems, five years out, in a middling position. He is crossing that border he describes, to the side that men dread, "where the language of their tortured nation would sound as meaningless as the twittering of birds." A meaning once omnipresent is gone. A habit of vision developed in one context is being broken in another. The sexual descriptions, both tender and shrewd, that had an effect of subversive comment within the Czech context have a somewhat jaded, hollow ring out of it. In "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" a work of social realism and protest coexists with a brittleness, an angelic mockery that, amid much melancholy remembrance and shrewd psychology makes us uncomfortable. (p. 78)
John Updike, "The Most Original Book of the Season," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 30, 1980, pp. 7, 74, 76, 78.
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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 society in The Yawning Heights?) Other writers, preeminently Kafka, have given us a sense of the individual's helplessness against incomprehensible authority through surreal abstractions of reality: one remembers In the Penal Colony, and the terrible machine that slowly executes the condemned by tattooing his sentence on his back. More recently, principally from writers who have lived and suffered through the experience of Communist regimes, there has come a new form which might be called the literature of compression.
This kind of imaginative writing about the world of Eastern Europe attempts to convey the airless, claustrophobic nature of its life by condensing the conventional apparatus of character, action, and judgment into a small and heightened span. It suggests visual actuality with fragmented images and shreds of shadowy detail rather than capacious description, and conveys the writer's loathing of his rulers in oblique metaphors rather than demonstrative statements….
What undoubtedly accounts in part for the self-limitation of such writing is not only the infamous hypocrisy of socialist realism, which prettifies and denies the truth, but the unnatural degree of vigilance that nonconforming writers under Communism must maintain if they have any instinct for literary—and physical—survival without capitulation. To live under the shutters of threat deprives a writer of all patience for the cumulative pace and casual clutter of conventional narratives that stop to linger over the color of a woman's eyes or the cut of her clothes.
A writer like Milan Kundera … seems, even after he settled in the West, to be driven by nervous urgency, a sense of dwindling time. He has small tolerance for the voluminous recreation of surface appearances because the minatory ghost of history constantly reminds him that the real world is brutally unlike the way it looks. In Kundera's new novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,… dancers in a circle become the symbolic image of the ideological power of Communism. A circle which magically protects the true believer from the perils of skepticism is also a circle that suffocates the individual dancers in a closed ring of solidarity…. In the five novels of Milan Kundera which have so far been published in the United States, we can trace the path of the dissident writer: from protest, to comedy and satire, to surrealist compression. (p. 66)
More polemical and expansive than anything Kundera has written since, The Joke is a straightforward political narrative (greatly enriched, however, by the author's psychological acumen) exposing the excesses of the Czech inquisitors during the Stalinist years….
It seems safe to guess that by the time he finished [this] anti-Stalinist protest novel, Kundera had grown so weary of the Marxist kitsch pouring out of every loudspeaker in Czechoslovakia that he wanted to banish politics from his fiction altogether….
Most of the stories in Laughable Loves crackle with irony, but the comic entanglements of his characters are so precisely observed, and related with such a winning air, that in the end this Czech La Ronde is touching as well as funny. Kundera has none of Schnitzler's world-weary cynicism about sex, and he seems determined to show that there is just as much erotic jealousy, narcissism, promiscuity, and absurdity in a Communist society as there is in decadent capitalist countries—and a good thing, too. Even when sex turns to farce under Kundera's sardonic scrutiny, it remains a solacing oasis of disorder in an ironclad life. What he slyly sets out to demonstrate is that even though socialist realism is too high-principled to be bothered with the sexual diversions of everyday life, he finds sex entirely worthy of literary attention, whether he is mocking a paunchy Casanova long past his prime or a couple of frantic Lotharios so easily distracted by new quarries that they never consummate any campaign of seduction. Though Kundera is astringently anti-romantic, his laughter is not mean-spirited nor his irony scornful. In Laughable Loves he is no longer protesting a ruthless political system, but looking with canny amusement at that enigmatic and quirky arena of desire shared by all of humankind. (p. 67)
[Life is Elsewhere] moves farther away from the conventions of realistic fiction than anything Kundera had written earlier…. It is clear that in this mordant portrait of the artist, Kundera was satirizing the cultural infantilism with backwardness that he sees as endemic to Czechoslovakia and whose most pervasive symptom is the "lyrical" approach to life and politics….
The Czech passion for lyrical poetry, Kundera believes, is a sign of puerility because such poetry "is a realm in which any statement is immediately accorded veracity." During the Stalinist years, this poetic enthusiasm induced a general haze of gullibility and innocence that blinded the Czechs to the reality of a world in which people were being jailed and tormented, and this seems to be the object of Kundera's satire. Unfortunately his contempt for the Czech devotion to lyric poetry never acquires convincing satiric clarity in Life is Elsewhere, at least not for readers unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Czechoslovakia's cultural and political development and thus unable to respond intelligently to the novel's complex motivation….
On the surface, The Farewell Party pretends to be nothing more than a light-hearted romp about a philandering jazz trumpeter and his Machiavellian scheme for shedding a pregnant mistress. But the spa is soon revealed to be a bizarre microcosm of the world at large, complete with comic saints and righteous sinners, disenchanted politicians and jealous wives.
With great agility, Kundera packs an extraordinary variety of moods and genres into this short and ostensibly inconsequential jest: bedroom farce, romantic love, melodrama, high comedy of manners, philosophical rumination. It is a ballet of incongruities, and as such would seem to be Kundera's celebration of life as disorder, which thrives only in freedom…. Though the word Communism never appears in this novel, and the spa seems to exist in cloud-cuckoo land, Kundera's pretense of comic inconsequence is undercut by the kind of pointed intelligence that is all the more affecting for being so offhand.
What is immediately striking about [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting] … is the bold authority that has enabled him to work out a genuinely innovative way of expressing, not representing, the reality of his past life in his homeland. He has completely rejected the traditional, by now well-worn and creatively unprofitable ways of writing about inhumanity and exile, and has drawn instead on the vitality of the unexpected and the concentrated imagery ordinarily found in poetry. It is a difficult and demanding book, which is not to say that Kundera indulges in the feckless obscurity of synthetic modernism, but neither is he willing to ease the reader's task. His fantasy requires a willingness to suspend the expectations we bring to realistic narrative.
Though Kundera calls his book "a novel in the form of variations," it is more accurately read as a group of stories loosely connected by the elegiac and sardonic meditations of the author on his past and the imperatives of memory. The elusiveness of memory, and the compulsion it becomes for those who must live in exile, is a central theme…. Though so much of Kundera's rumination about his former life in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is drenched in the poisonous spume of East European politics, he poignantly conveys how the sorrow of exile from one's homeland, even though life there had become intolerable, is an inescapable price of freedom. (p. 68)
The boldness with which Kundera cuts back and forth among the different levels—from history to autobiography to the apparition of soaring angels—transfigures the familiar with a power entirely his own. Through this triumphant act of the imagination, Kundera has made his experience of non-being an ineradicable part of our consciousness.
One returns from Milan Kundera to our own middle-class world. Our lives, we are told, are empty and meaningless, we have been dehumanized by false gods. The American writers who believe this wearily strain to convey their "radical" message with the experimental tricks of exhausted modernism, in order to assert that they are the cultural avant-garde. Yet how feeble their gestures seem alongside the writers who are driven to take genuine literary risks out of the necessity of expressing a reality that is literally, physically dehumanizing.
If there is an avant-garde today, it is to be found not in the technical acrobatics of Western writers, but among the dissident novelists and poets of Communist Europe. The freshness and strength of their innovations come not from their political dissent but from the fact that, having experienced the actuality of concentration camps, prison, and exile, they are driven by the need to find a new voice for old horrors. (p. 69)
Pearl K. Bell, "The Real Avant-Garde," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 70, No. 6, December, 1980, pp. 66-9.