Milan Kundera (5843 words)


Milan Kundera is among the few novelists to emerge from East-Central Europe since the Second World War to have achieved international recognition and critical acclaim. Lucid and cerebral, writing a prose charged in equal measure with flippant eroticism, dark existential metaphysics, and ironic humour, the Czech-Parisian writer is published in translation in over twenty-two languages. His literary and essayistic output made a decisive contribution to literary and intellectual debate on both sides of the Berlin Wall in the final decades of communist totalitarianism.

A particularly reclusive author-figure, Kundera is famously reluctant to speak about his life. Having experienced in his native country the curse of “total public visibility” and the consequences of the State's intrusion into the private lives of its citizens, Kundera declares in all his interviews taken before 1985 that he values privacy above all else. Hence the scarcity of detailed biographical data, and their often controversial nature, especially in relation to his early career in his native Czechoslovakia.

The highly cultured nature of his family was a decisive formative influence on the young Kundera. Born in Brno in the Moravian region of the then Czechoslovak Republic, Milan Kundera's father, Ludvik, was a musicologist, concert pianist and head of the Brno Musical Academy, and Milan received the wide-ranging education typical of Central European intellectual middle-classes. His father's lessons in piano, and close involvement with the work of famous Czech composer Leoš Janáček (Ludvik Kundera was one of his most gifted pupils), were to have a lasting influence on the future writer's compositional techniques, evident in the seven-part sonata-like structures of many of his novels, his polyphonic and contrapuntal narratives, his use of variations and interval, and the complex arrangement of his story-lines. After completing his secondary education in Brno in 1948, the young Milan went on to study literature and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague, but after two terms he transferred to the Film Academy, where he was appointed lecturer in world literature in 1952. During his early student years he published translations of poetry by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and some lyrical poems of his own composition, while also working as part of the editorial staff at various literary magazines.

The devastating effects of Nazi occupation and the ravages of the Second World War had a strong impact on the politics and culture of Central Europe during the early post-war years. Kundera, like many other young Czech intellectuals at the time, was drawn into the fold of Marxist ideology, which appeared to uphold a generous social philosophy, and joined the ruling Communist Party in 1948. However, it did not take him long to become bitterly disillusioned with both the ideology, and the arbitrary and totalitarian nature of the Party leadership which revealed its true nature in 1950 when he was expelled from the Communist Party for “individualistic tendencies” and “subversive activities”. He was readmitted in 1956, by which time the rather naïve beliefs of his youth were steadily crumbling. The experience of his expulsion would form the backbone of his first mature novel, Žert [The Joke] (published 1967, first English translation published 1969, definitive English translation published 1992), whose central character, Ludvik, bears more than a passing resemblance to the youthful character of his author.

Before becoming a full-time novelist, Kundera had published several volumes of poetry and authored a number of dramatic writings. His first volume of verse, Člověk zahrada širá [Man, a Wide Garden], was published in 1953. It was a collection of lyrical poems which, when judged by the standards of “socialist realism” predominant at the time, was quite unorthodox and “liberal”. Nonetheless, even though it did transgress some of the more rigid tenets of the dominant literary method, it did so from a strictly Marxist point of view, infusing the wooden jargon of Party dogma with illustrative human situations. In 1955, however, Kundera published a blatantly propagandistic piece on Julius Fučík, a hero of communist resistance against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. The figure of Fučík is heavily mythicised, and his act of resistance made symbolic of the Czechoslovak people's heroic fight against the Nazi invader. The language is stereotypically ideological, and the version of history presented in strict accordance with party requirements. It is works such as these that have engendered the controversial debates on the significance of Kundera's perceived “political dissent” amongst commentators of his works. The author himself will later recall this unfortunate episode of his literary career in The Joke, where Ludvik scathingly destroys his friend's mythicised version of history, which he himself, while an ardent communist, has helped instill in the public consciousness of his fellow-citizens.

These early literary attempts were followed by a more mature collection of poems entitled Monology [Monologues], published in 1957, which highlights the tension between emotion and intellect, and explores deeply personal human relations in order to illuminate obliquely the public world outside. The preference for a lucid, restrained and paradoxical type of writing is already evident in these poems of fidelity and infidelity, in which erotic passion and sexual longing are tinged with a perceivable whiff of misogyny.

The search for an authentic literary voice made the still young Kundera give up on poetry and turn to dramatic writing. In 1962 his play Majitelé klíčů [The Owners of the Keys] was successfully performed at the National Theatre in Prague. It was still an ideologically compliant work, written from within the canons of official socialist realism, but attempting to “humanize” the ideology. While the framework is avowedly Marxist, the play gives voice to some of the preoccupations that Kundera will return to more fully in his prose, particularly to the question of how to reconcile the obligations of the public realm with the desires and longings of the private space. It also expresses a certain distaste for order and control, which may be seen to anticipate the later revolt of liberal-minded Czech socialists against the excesses of totalitarian Stalinism. Together with his public pronouncements in literary magazines in which he defended the legacy of Czech and European avant-garde poetry against the charges of “decadence” brought by official communist critics, Kundera's early work contributed significantly to the gradual liberation of Czech literature from the oppressive reins of Stalinist propaganda. His support for literary experimentation, although admittedly in the name of “ideologically correct aims”, was an oblique protest against the drowning of authentic literary value in a sea of worthless, stereotypical, unexpressive propagandist prose. His 1960 study of the work of Czech avantgardist writer (and also communist) Vladislav Vančura was part of this larger critical trend, but also an exercise in intellectual lucidity that saw the abandonment of lyricism and psychological analysis for a dialogic critique, anticipating in more ways than one his later rapprochement to the poetics of eighteenth-century fiction. He would develop some of the ideas of this early study in his volume of critical essays L'Art du roman [The Art of the Novel, 1986; first English translation 1988].

Kundera later disowned his work published in native Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and early 1960s as immature and ideologically conformist, although if judged in the context of officially supported socialist realism, it was both experimentally bold and thematically provocative. His active attempts to “erase it out of existence”, as it were, and his refusal to include them in the official “Kunderian canon”, have led to a number of controversial debates among literary critics in his native country, especially after Kundera emigrated to France. Although Kundera openly rejected the “dissident” label, and never claimed to have been an anti-Communist writer, his ambiguous attitude towards his past, and his seeming detachment from the political turmoil in his country once safely in the West, has not endeared him to his intellectual compatriots. For Czech critics such as Milan Jungman, for instance, Kundera's post-emigration novels testify to the writer's desire to construct a particular version of his biography that caters to the ideological expectations of the Western public, but elides the controversial aspects of his career highlighted above.

The writer's mature period started, according to Kundera himself, around the years 1958-1959, when he began writing the first stories of what would become his collection Směšné lásky [Laughable Loves; 1969; first English translation 1974]. Alternating between playful erotic trysts and self-contained “jokes” that begin in seeming innocence and end in bitter resentment, the stories unmask the illusion that one can control and manipulate reality, and reveal the essential loneliness of individuals even in the most intimate of human encounters. The characters in the stories resist the tedium, monotony and grimness of public life by playing practical jokes, engaging in sexual adventures and whimsical eccentricities. But the joke often turns against the joker, as Klima's story in “Nobody Will Laugh” so aptly illustrates. Many of the stories (such as “The Hitchhiking Game”, “Nobody Will Laugh” or “Edward and God”) are based on strong dramatic conflict, and play opposing concepts (such as truth and untruth, authenticity and pretence, cynicism and sincerity) against each other, showing them to be paradoxically inter-related. They anticipate Kundera's preference for setting up dichotomous binaries only to have them subverted later in the narrative so as to demonstrate that the complexity of human existence is not amenable to rigid, neatly-formulated interpretive schemata.

Underneath the lightness of lovemaking lurks the writer's more sombre vision of history as an absurd and malignant force. It is this vision which informs the novel that launched the writer's worldwide literary reputation, The Joke. A sceptic's gloss on “the trap the world (under the guise of Communist Czechoslovakia) has become” and a melancholy chronicle of human frailty, the novel is a multiperspectival “symposium” which establishes the narrative tonality of ironic restraint, ambiguity and systematic questioning that will become a marked characteristic of his prose. The juxtaposition of intimacy and history at the centre of the story in The Joke stems from Kundera's belief that “the psychological mechanisms [at work] in great (apparently incredible and inhuman) historical events are the same that regulate private (quite ordinary and very human) situations” (Art of the Novel, 109). The protagonist of the novel, Ludvik Jahn, after having perpetrated a trivial but fatal “joke” at the expense of certain party sanctities, sees himself expelled from the Party and the University and sentenced to forced labour in a penal battalion of the Czech army. Years later, an embittered and cynical Ludvik seeks to exact revenge on his erstwhile “friend”, Pavel Zemanek, the most active perpetrator of his downfall. To this effect, he seduces and mistreats Helena, Pavel Zemanek's wife. When he finds out later that Pavel and Helena no longer sleep together, his bitterness at the “cosmic joke” that his life has become only deepens his despair.

The story is told from four distinct narrative viewpoints, orchestrating a complex dialogue between past and present which reveals, in the end, the delusive nature of each of the characters' version of events. History is shown as an uncontrollable and destructive entity, and human beings' illusions of determining its course a dangerous and destructive fallacy. The exploration of what it means to be “an object of history”, the butt of its “stupid hostility” (see Ian McEwan, “An Interview with Milan Kundera”, Granta 11 [1984]: 34-37), is the central thematic thread running through the novel. It links the creative preoccupations of the writer with the political and cultural ideas animating liberal Czech intellectuals in the revolutionary years of the “Prague Spring”. For 1967 marked not only the publishing date of Kundera's first “serious” novel, but also that of a major speech he gave at the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak writers. The speech, whose immediate object was the nineteenth century Czech national revival, insisted on the need for cultural freedom and ideological self-determination, which were, Kundera boldly asserted, the pre-requisites of authentic creativity, and the only chance small nations had of making an original contribution to the universal heritage of human civilisation. The threat that such small nations faced was that of effective cultural extinction under the pressures of an unjust history of conquest and subjugation. The speech had a huge impact at the time, as the intellectuals and creative artists gathered there understood precisely the nature of Kundera's transparent suggestions, and his urge to shake off the yoke of subservience to the USSR.

In 1968, after the invasion of Prague by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops, Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party a second time and became, together with a large number of Czech intellectuals, a persona non-grata in his own country; he lost his job, his books were banned, and he was actively “encouraged” by the communist authorities to emigrate. This he did in 1975, when he was invited to teach at the University of Rennes, and after moving to Paris in 1978, he settled in France permanently. Though he subsequently rejected the “émigré/exile” labels, and declared in several interviews that France was his only real home, he continued to look at his native country with a mixture of affectionate melancholy and poignant loss.

After his books were banned in Czechoslovakia in 1969, Kundera found himself in the unenviable position of writing his imaginative prose for translators. This gradually led him to develop a prose of concision and clarity, with inserted glossaries of misunderstood or untranslatable terms, and minute explanations of semantic choices. In his 1973 novel Život je jinde [La vie est ailleurs; Life is Elsewhere, first published in the Czech original in Toronto in 1979; first French translation published 1973; first English translation published 1976], in what amounts to a scathing analysis of what he calls “the lyrical attitude to life”, Kundera bids a bitter farewell to his youthful belief in communism, exposing the fallacious nature of ideologies, their totalitarian potential and the commodification of collective desire intrinsic to their kitschifying symbolism. With this novel, he also says a tentative goodbye to his native country, although he will return to it time and again in the settings, incidents and characters of his subsequent fictions, as well as in his numerous political and aesthetic pronouncements.

The last novel that he completed while still in Prague (in 1972), is the farcical vaudeville Valčík na rozloučenou [La valse aux adieux; The Farewell Party/ Farewell Waltz: a Novel, first French and English versions published 1976]. Although set in an obscure spa-town somewhere in Czechoslovakia, and plot-wise entirely devoid of direct political reference, the novel is filled with the oppressive post-1968 atmosphere of defeat. In a decidedly “politically-incorrect” way, the novel looks at the grotesque misunderstandings and petty cruelties that seem to characterize personal relationships between men and women. Private cruelty is often used by Kundera to reflect obliquely on the public and institutionalised violence of political regimes: in The Farewell Party, for instance, the hounding of the stray dogs and the extermination of pigeons in the town's squares illustrate the same themes of betrayal, frustration and thwarted revenge that had featured in The Joke.

His first “Western” book, Kniha smíchu a zapomnění [Le livre de rire et de l'oubli, 1979; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980], in many ways heralded a new stage in Kundera's novelistic career. Ironic essay and novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment and philosophical investigation, historic “faction” and flight of fantasy, Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting holds up a mirror to the recent past of that most turbulent heart of Europe, which has experienced in sixty years

the fall of an empire, the rebirth of small nations, democracy, Fascism, the German occupation with its massacres, the Russian occupation with its deportations, the hope of Socialism, Stalinist terror, emigration ... thus sinking under the weight of history and look[ing] at the world with immense scepticism. (in Roth, “The Most Original Book of the Season” see our list of links for this source).

Described by the author himself as “a novel in the form of variations”, The Book is a polygeneric tour-de-force whose apparently unrelated stories are held together by the thematic centrality of memory and forgetting, and by key recurrent motifs (such as laughter, angels, litost, border). It follows the stories of Mirek and Tamina as they strive to order and control their memories, and endow the rapidly fading past with the meaning and coherence that their shattered lives have been robbed of. Yet the process of re-writing and preservation is thwarted by the unruliness of brute reality, highlighting the onslaught of officially imposed oblivion that seems to have embraced the Czechoslovak lands now ruled by Gustav Husak, “the president of forgetting”. What makes the novel such a powerful exploration of memory, exile, love and loss is its refusal to settle for facile explanations; it resists closure in a manner similar to his perhaps best known and most popular novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí [L'insoutenable légèreté de l'être, 1982; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984]. Both novels oscillate between conceptual pairs (angelic/ demonic laughter, memory/ forgetting, weight/ lightness, kitsch/ shit etc.) whose semiotic instability operates a wholesale demystification of ideologies and myths. Their historical setting (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the period of “normalization” following thereafter) only serves to heighten the grotesque nature of a universe where “totalitarian kitsch” reigns supreme and in which the causal link between an act's intention and its effects has been severed.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being made Kundera into an internationally-known author. It is the story of Tomas, a Czech neurosurgeon, and his wife Tereza, a photographer, who defect to Switzerand after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Tomas is another of Kundera's notorious womanizer-figures, whose greatest desire is to capture with his imaginary scalpel the unique kernel of each woman. Their relationship finds its parallel in the affair that the Czech emigré painter Sabina has with a Swiss lecturer, Franz, who stand for the opposite poles of sceptical cynicism and “lyrical” idealism. The book was made into a successful movie directed by Philip Kaufman in 1988, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, a film that Kundera was not very pleased with since it left out many of the subtler, more philosophical aspects of the novel. Indeed, the book centres around Nietzsche's myth of eternal return, exploring the ramified consequences of the pronouncement Einmal ist Keinmal (one time is no time/ once is never) in relation to both the private lives of the characters and the public “march” of history. Kundera's characteristic mixture of ironic authorial intervention and interrogative musing finds a particularly paradoxical embodiment in this novel:

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (223)

Yet history, with its ignominious collection of ideologies, is also cyclical, weighty, pressing heavily on the shoulders of humankind, as the earlier quote from Kundera's interview with Philip Roth reveals. Kundera is not willing to solve his speculative paradoxes: uniqueness and difference, which in Kundera's hierarchy are values in themselves, at the same time, frail and light because fleeting and accidental. On the other hand, if history is a cycle of eternal recurrences, it becomes heavy with meaning, but dull and kitschifiable.

It is this refusal to provide facile answers to difficult questions that all of Kundera's novels enact to varying extents. The critique of dichotomous forms of thinking and the self-conscious assumption of an aesthetic mode compounded in equal measures by subversion, irony and ambiguity is a marked characteristic of Kundera's prose. It is present in the exploration of his two recurrent binaries: memory and forgetting, on the one hand, and the public as against the private, on the other. These polarities are never as unproblematically expressed as the sentence above might suggest; in full accord with the writer's register of ambivalence, they are concepts to be tested in the cauldron of various existential pressures which often serve to reveal how inadequate our understanding of their functioning mechanisms is. Dualities are revealed to be interdependent, interrelated, and often complementary, and paradox reigns supreme: “light” and “weightiness” become interchangeable, angelic and devilish laughter meet halfway, and the private is shown to be a function of the public.

Kundera repeatedly rejected the label of “political writer” so often imposed on artists and intellectuals who happened to come from behind the Iron Curtain. To him, that was an unacceptable belittling of an artistic effort that had nothing to do with doctrinaire disputes and ideological pieties. In interview after interview he adamantly insists on the right of the East-Central European writer to be judged solely in terms of his artistic achievement, openly proclaiming the primacy of art over politics. He prefers to define his writings as “meditative investigations” which offset established truths and submit all ideologies and cultural clichés to scrutiny. Through a strategy of interrogation and character-exploration, Kundera invites the reader to collapse political dichotomies and examine the dangers of reducing human experience to a totalising discourse. The prerequisite of meaningful resistance (resistance to all establishments and ideologies), Kundera is saying, does not lie in the rejection of one political system in favour of another, but rather in the capacity to submit to questioning all systems. This warning he addressed, obliquely, to East-Central European dissidents and Western leftist intellectuals alike, who often failed to escape the clichés of the positions they had chosen to adopt. His critique of totalitarianism is essentially a critique of Manichean and “lyrical” ways of thinking, which insist on the absoluteness and metaphysical necessity of their truths. Such systems of thought, Kundera asserts, are responsible for the countless Gulags that European modernity produced in the last hundred years of its history.

Against these, Kundera upholds a belief in the inherent capacity of the novelistic genre to transgress boundaries and question received notions of truth. In his two collections of critical essays, The Art of the Novel and Les Testaments trahis [1993; Testaments Betrayed, 1995], Kundera expounds at length on “the spirit of the novel” which is ontologically resistant to monolithic verities and dogmatism, and can therefore provide an antidote to the regimenting uniformity of political systems. Hence his fascination with that irreverent, ludic and self-reflexive strand of European fiction going back to Rabelais, Cervantes and the eighteenth-century novelists (especially Diderot and Sterne) who saw the novel as a game of words and significations that refracted the infinite possibilities as well as limitations of human existence. To this, Kundera adds his own specific allegiance to the post-Proustian tradition of the Central-European novel, represented by Broch, Kafka, Gombrowicz and Musil, which abandons psychological interiority in favour of a lucid incursion into the external determinants of History

His refusal to make explicit political assertions has led otherwise perceptive literary critics such as John O'Brien and Fred Misurella to read his novels as eschewing social responsibility and political commitment altogether. However this is a drastic oversimplification of his work. Beneath the veil of light comedy of manners, and despite his vehement rejection of politicised readings of his books, Kundera remains a deeply political writer. His claims are rooted in the two cornerstones of his intellectual make-up: his faith in the novel as an anti-ideological instrument of truth-telling, and a certain well-defined vision of Europe based on sceptical rationalism and a respect for the autonomy and inviolability of the individual, on a culture of dialogism, relativity and polyvalence. He locates the centre of this vision not in the West, but in his imaginary homeland of Central Europe, whose intellectual and artistic heritage he believes to have been at the root of modern European civilization. The major components of this spiritual heritage as defined by Kundera are, on the one hand, the novel as artistic form and, on the other, individualism as ideology. Together they stand at the basis of the writer's articulation of cultural memory, which, in Kundera's view, is not only the key to recovering and understanding the past, but also the habit of thought which preserves one's private space of humanity and moral decency. The celebrated line in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (4) – aptly illustrates Kundera's stance.

The radical disengagement of Western consumerist culture from this habit of mind is one crucial example of the failure of cultural memory in Kundera's novels. The writer's penetrating gaze cast on the history and politics of his country turns into the equally ironic and disillusioned view of the Western world of “imagology” in his post-1989 novels Nesmrtelnost [Immortalité, 1990; Immortality, 1991], La lenteur [1995; Slowness, 1996], Identité [Identity, 1998] and Ignorance (first published in Spanish translation in 2000; first English translation published 2002), the latest three written in French. The novels feature some of Kundera's recurring thematic interests: sexuality and love, the imperfection of human bodies, the conundrums of human identity, the longing for privacy in a collectivised world. They no longer reflect directly on his Central European experience, but focus instead on the mechanised rhythms of contemporary life. Immortality in particular could almost be called a “roman a thèse”, as the fictional characters are used to explore certain concepts and ideas that their author wants to address, rather than to tell an old-fashioned “story”. This makes of Immortality his most “French” and most “postmodern” novel. In chapters tellingly entitled “To be absolutely modern”, “To be a victim of one's fame” etc., Kundera dissects lucidly, though in a rather un-novelistic fashion, the foolish foibles of what it means to be contemporaneous with one's times. Photography, television and advertising, as both symptoms of globalisation and malignant outgrowths of an obsessive pursuit of fame and immortality, function as potent signifiers of cultural critique.

Slowness, his first novel originally written in French, moves lightly on the surface of erotic farce and commedia dell'arte, yet underneath resounds Kundera's nostalgia for a past in which culture and authentic intimacy were not yet drowned in the speed of contemporary life. It also shows, obliquely, that the political borders of erstwhile empires have undergone new metamorphoses, defined by the East's mixture of historical melancholia, eagerness to please and desire to “integrate”, and the patronizing condescension compounding the West's reluctant acceptance of this integration. In that sense, the grotesque character of Cechoripsky is symbolic of the often ridiculous efforts of small nations to assert themselves in the globalised landscape of the contemporary. The man with an unpronounceable name from an obscure country somewhere east of the Elbe renders himself ridiculous by being out of tune with the contemporary “tempo of accelerated forgetting” (Maria Nemcová Banerjee, Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. London: Faber& Faber, 1991; p. 275). The comic incongruity delivers a witty, farcical, but often nostalgic critique of both the West's attitude towards small nations, and their own ridiculous posture and romanticizing memory.

An equally ambiguous attitude is to be found in his latest novel, Ignorance, in which Kundera's irritation at how his native country has treated him after 1989 is made less than subtly apparent. The Prague of the 90s appears to him as an alien town; the characters are unlikable and many of the dialogues that the returned émigrés have with those that “stayed” are coloured by a barely disguised hostility, one that mirrors the misunderstanding of many Czech fellow-writers and critics as regards Kundera's “Western”-written novels.

Kundera released two further collections of essays, Le Rideau [The Curtain, published in French in 2005 and English in 2007] and Une rencontre [An Encounter, French 2009, English translation 2010], which covered much of the same territory as his previous collections. One chapter from The Curtain, “Die Weltliteratur”, directly returned to the arguments he had made in “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, a topic he had avoided since 1989. An Encounter consisted mainly of previously-published pieces on Kundera’s contemporaries such as Philip Roth and Josef Škvorecký, as well as on the artist Francis Bacon and the composer Arnold Schönberg. 

Between these two books, Kundera became the center of an international controversy in 2008 when a Czech scholar accused him of having been a police informer in the 1950s, and he was defended by numerous international literary figures. This was followed by a short and presumably last novel entitled La fête de l’insignifiance [The Festival of Insignificance, French 2013, English 2015] which received a mixed critical response. His ambiguous relationship with his homeland once again became a widely-discussed topic in 2020 when, on the one hand, he received the Czech Republic’s Franz Kafka Prize, as well as having his Czech citizenship restored, and on the other, an exhaustively detailed and polemical biography of Kundera’s early career by another Czech émigré, Jan Novák, received considerable media coverage.

Insofar as his fictions are cognitive explorations rather than character studies, one can regard Kundera as the lapsed postmodern heir of the anti-psychological novel characteristic of Central European modernism; the conclusion that he reaches, in all his novels, is that the world is unknowable and that human conduct is largely based on misconception and irrationality. His novelistic meditations also speak of the extent to which the private histori(es) of individuals and the public arena of History are inextricably conjoined, of how deceptively thin the borderline between them actually is. The very last story of his Book of Laughter and Forgetting, significantly entitled “The Border”, unmoors the concept from its historical-political grounding and locates it in that characteristically Kunderian space of ambiguity where all meanings are questioned and all certainties dismantled:

the word “border” in its common geographical sense reminds [Jan] of another border, an intangible and immaterial border he has been thinking of more and more for some time now. What border is that? It takes so little, so infinitely little, for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything – love, convictions, faith, history – no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life resides in the fact that it is spent in the immediate proximity of, and even in direct contact with, that border, that it is separated from it not by kilometres but by barely a millimetre. (281)

Although he does not define the contours of this border, but – in truly Kunderian fashion – leaves it hanging as an open question, the reader familiar with the writer's metaphysics will intuit that it is a figural representation of that intangible space where binary oppositions are negotiated and meaning is constructed. It is also, in Kundera's specific universe, the place one must strive to occupy in order to avoid both the kitsch of ideology and the nihilism of indifference, a place which is not only hard to locate, but particularly difficult to hold onto. In Kundera's idiosyncratic metaphysics, balance is essential: “only a few millimetres” separate us “from the other side of the border where things have no meaning” (292). Laughter, too, depends upon balance between its angelic and devilish forms, for if there were too much uncontested meaning in the world (the realm of the angelic) man would succumb under the weight of the idyllic totalitarianisms that it engenders. While the bitter sense of disillusionment that often permeates Kundera's stories appears to vindicate the devil's cynical grin, there is a component of barely disguised nostalgia in Kundera's descriptions of the “lyrical” attitude that longs for meaningfulness; a sense of human solidarity that irony and scepticism cannot offer, a sense of terrible loss, the more terrible the greater one's awareness of it. It is this sense that one intuits at the end of The Joke, in the “Ride of the Kings” episode, where the metaphor of the fall signifies a loss of commonality and community, perhaps, one ventures to intimate, what the writer himself might have felt in the years following that fateful summer of 1975 :

...I was aware that this home was not of this world, ... that what we were singing and playing were only memories, recollections, an imaginary preservation of something that no longer was, and I felt the ground of my homeland sinking under my feet, felt myself falling ... into the depths of years, the depth of centuries, into the fathomless depths (where love is love, and pain is pain), and I told myself with astonishment that my only home was this descent, this searching, eager fall, and I abandoned myself to it ... (316)

It is in passages such as this that Kundera's painful negotiation with exile and displacement, usually disguised so well under the veil of philosophical disquisition, is suddenly made manifest. Part of this negotiation is the coming to terms with a past that is often opaque and resistant to appropriation; the awareness of how tenuous and provisional any “final” resolution of its meaning is haunts all of his novels. Kundera's greatest achievement is that he incorporates this awareness into the substance of the stories he tells, reconstructing an imaginative space of memory that bridges the gap between too literal a recuperation of the past, and a treacherous surrender to the dictates of the present. In order to avoid the destructive consequences of absolute systems of value, the creation of meaning and identity through memory must be an open and evolving endeavour, treading lightly on the thin borderzone between absolute meaning and utter meaninglessness, between angelic and devilish laughter, between self and other. This rope-walking technique is very difficult to master, and it requires scepticism, irony and imagination, the capacity to vary and adapt, a prismatic and infinitely tolerant view of human existence. The writer's explorations of this latter take place in the space of this borderzone, where meanings overlap and metamorphose, and fictional worlds and genres intermingle.

Citation: Sandru, Cristina, Charles Sabatos. "Milan Kundera". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 27 April 2006; last revised 13 July 2021. [, accessed 07 August 2022.]

2569 Milan Kundera 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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