Eastern_Europe   Czecho-Slovakia   Czech Republic

 

Milan Kundera

 

by Jeffrey Lin

 

 

"The Unbearable

Lightness of Being"

 

by Igor Abramov

 

 

 
 

 

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Milan Kundera

By Jeffrey Lin

 

Milan Kundera is a writer who gave the world a detailed delineation of life in Czechoslovakia, under the control of Soviet socialism. Kundera's contribution to the world is evident by the numerous prizes awarded to him, such as Prix Europe, LA Times Book Prize, Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society, and many others. Kundera's works have been translated into French, German, English, Japanese, and many other languages.

Kundera's works are primarily fictional novels. However, he is also well known for his plays and poems. He was born in 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Kundera's father, Ludvik, was a pianist and musicologist, and Kundera's mother, Milada (Janosikova), was a laborer. Kundera studied piano at Charles University in Prague, under Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral. Kundera's novels and plays were banned in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968. Furthermore, the Czechoslovak government forced him to resign from his professorship at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Without an audience for his works, Kundera became a laborer and a jazz pianist. In 1975, Kundera was granted a permission to accept a professorship at University of Rennes, France. Kundera's Czech citizenship was later revoked, but he became a naturalized citizen of France in 1981. Kundera does not see himself as an immigrant, because he believes that he has found new audiences in France (NYTimes Magazine, 05/19/85). Even though he was uprooted from his home, Kundera knows that his Czech heritage will always be in his memory (NYTimes Magazine, 05/19/85).

 

It should be declared at the outset that Kundera does not see himself as a political dissident. This is true about his novels as well. Nevertheless, he does acknowledge that political implications do exist within his novels. Kundera believes that the function of the novelist is to show people's philosophy of the nature of men's existence. Therefore, the political implications in his works were the results of the environment that Kundera was in, and not, necessarily, of Kundera's personal beliefs. However, Kundera does have one firm political belief, which is "protesting against the mutilation of works of art in the name of an ideological doctrine as practiced in the socialist countries of Europe" (Contemporary Authors Vol. 85-88, 323). This view can be seen in his 1953 poem, Clovek zahrada sira (Man: A Broad Garden). The poem was a protest against Czechoslovak government's criticism of the fact that artists' personal expressions, rather than communist abstract constructions, were increasing in frequency at that time (French, 119). In June 1967, Kundera was a delegate at the Congress of the Czechoslovak Writer's Union where he and some other writers openly attacked the Communist Party for its censorship. Although the government increased its repressive measures as a result, the Congress became an important factor in a growing reform movement. This movement eventually spread into politics and lead to the Prague Spring and Alexander Dubcek's replacement of Antonin Novotny. However, the Prague Spring came to a sudden halt when Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

 

Kundera's first novel, Zert (The Joke), was published in 1967, and the characters and the situations described in the novel were representations of the Czechoslovakia society during the first twenty years of communism (1947 - 1965). The novel's theme reflected the irony that the targets of communist terror trials were often the early believers (Banerjee, 11) who were responsible for communism's rise to power. Furthermore, The Joke's political undertone of attacking the Stalinist method of government, symbolized the spirit of Prague Spring of 1968, which gave birth to the hope in political and cultural freedom. This hope was mercilessly crushed when the Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia in August of 1968. Despite the political undertone, The Joke is a love story at heart, and as Kundera explained in a TV interview, "the spark that started me off was an event in a small Czechoslovak town: the arrest of a girl for stealing flowers from a cemetery and offering them to her lover as a gift" (Banerjee, 13). Thus, it is not difficult to see that while this particular novel can be read as a political statement, it is primarily about the intertwined nature of people's private and public lives.

 

Kundera's second novel Zivot je jinde (Life is Elsewhere) was written when it was clear that the Kundera's generation youthful revolutionary dreams were not going to come true (Banjree, 74). The novel can be seen almost as an assault upon the absurd idealistic nature of those dreams. The novel was written during the unpleasant time of Husak's rule. Thus it is very likely that the author's merciless self-criticism can be extended to all Czechoslovaks, since the cold realities of Husak's regime very much contradict their earlier revolutionary romanticism. Again, Kundera uses a universal human theme, the ridiculous Platonic ideals of the inexperienced, to show the political and cultural state of mind of the Czech people (Banjree, 76) Kundera's fourth novel, Kniha smichu a zapomneni (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), continues the attack upon idealistic romanticism, and extends into how Kundera deals with continuation of Soviet rule (Contemporary Authors New Revision Vol 19, 272). The criticism of romanticism is aimed at the world of poetry and its contradictions. Poet Paul Eluard was one example. In 1950, Andre Breton asked Eluard for help in saving their mutual friend Czech surrealist Zavis Kalandra accused of betraying the people. Eluard who was traveling the world refused Breton's request. Kundera attacked by including a cover drawing of Eluard amidst a circle of dancing girls obviously forgetting the important things of reality (Contemporary Authors New Revision Vol. 19, 272). In the same novel, Kundera also presented the theme of forgetting as an experience of Czechoslovaks under Soviet rule. It was important for Kundera, that the Czech people do not forget the past, despite the present condition. Kundera also extended the theme of remembering to all humans. He elaborated forgetting as a death of the past and self, and without self there is nothing. In addition to the warning not to forget, Kundera also described the role of laughter as a defense against the Soviet rule. Kundera believes that people, especially those under Soviet rule, need to learn to have the courage to laugh at the meaninglessness of the things that government may do. As usual, Kundera is able to illustrate his points by using the life problems that his fictional Czech characters encountered.

 

Other than showing the world the life of Czechoslovak citizens, using universal themes, Kundera also contributed enormously to the concept of novel writing. Against modern conventions, many of Kundera's novels consist of events that are not continuous and related only by theme. This concept of a book, unified by a theme rather than a plot, offers numerous possibilities to writers. Kundera's use of forms in novels are also unique in the literary world. Kundera's novels were usually written in the third person. However, due to Kundera's unique talent, the novels emitted a second person characteristic, thus forcing the readers to be involved in the story. Another one of Kundera's unique elements is his use of sexual encounters (C. Authors New Revision Vol. 19, 271).

 Many believe that Kundera's sexual encounters were symbolic of aggression against political repression. Kundera has not commented on this issue, but the frequency and the emotion radiated by his sexual description has been a constant dispute among the critics (C. Authors New Revision Vol. 19, 272). A final note upon Kundera's techniques is his poetic metaphors. Perhaps this is a result of his poetry past; nonetheless, it makes his writings much more enjoyable. As can be seen, Kundera gave the world a picture of experiences of Czechoslovak people during the early days of communism and under the Soviet rule. Kundera's method of describing these experiences while using themes of universal concern, made the Czechoslovaks' plight more relatable to the rest of the world. The world is lucky to have such a writer, and Czechoslovaks are very lucky to have Kundera as their cultural legacy.

 

Sources:

1. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 19

2. New York Times Magazine, 05/19/1985

3. New York Times, Section C, Pg. 19, 09/21/1995

4. http://www.du.edu:80/stayklor/Kundera.html

5. Kundera, Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

6. Kundera, Milan, The Joke

7. Kundera, Milan, Life is Elsewhere

8. Banerjee, Maria Nemcova, Terminal Papadox

9. Contemporary Authors, Vol. 85-88

10. French, A, Czech Writers and Politics, 1945 - 1969

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milan Kundera's 
"The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

by Igor Abramov

 

In his novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", Milan Kundera writes

... I have known all this situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equallyhorrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. ... The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. (221)

This passage allows us to comprehend the purpose and meaning which Kundera attributed to this novel. Kundera writes about experiences, emotions, and situations which the characters of his book had faced. Through writing about them, Kundera expresses his own feelings, opinions, experiences, as well as realizations. Kundera fuses with his characters; he becomes a small part of each of them. He shares their happiness and sadness, their failures and achievements. Kundera has compassion and understanding for his characters. In this novel he investigates human life, he shows how the world has become a trap for the human soul and body.

 

In his book, Kundera discusses the issue of eternal return. He says that if the idea of an eternal return is valid, then human beings always carry the heaviest burden of all-"the weight of unbearable responsibility."(5) However, Kundera writes that our world is morally perverse-everything in this world is forgiven in advance, thus, everything is "cynically permitted."(4) If one knows that his actions will not carry consequences in the times to come, one acts recklessly, without any consideration. Kundera rightly notices that Hitler's actions were a direct result of the world's conviction that there is no eternal return. Therefore, Hitler was free to commit all his crimes without being punished for them. Sometimes the lightness of being allows a person to interpret that anything that happens to him has no weight, no permanent importance in his life, no significance. Thus, he is free to continue living free of burden, ignoring any occurrences.

The discussion of these ideas helps the reader to comprehend the characters in Kundera's novel and the meaning of their own lives. The investigation of these people's lives helps Kundera to better understand the very ambiguous issue of lightness/weight opposition. The setting of this story is in Prague during the Soviet occupation of 1968. The characters described by Kundera are intelligent people; they are professors, artists, doctors, as well, as intellectuals. Kundera introduces the reader to a number of relationships between these people and shows how they deal with the events in Prague during the Russian occupation, as well as, how their lives are affected by this tragedy.

 

I am amazed by the way Kundera's characters lived through the crisis of 1968. The author masterfully depicts their thoughts and feelings. Tomas and Tereza, two of the main characters in the novel, were more concerned with their souls than their bodies. Kundera writes that for Tomas "the tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing" compared with the heavy feeling of compassion. It is very remarkable how Tomas' sentiments outweighed the seriousness of the situation in Prague. Kundera also depicts lives of other Czech émigrés, living in Switzerland. These people were forced to flee their country, but they were not experiencing the troubles of the people who remained in Czechoslovakia. They were living free and "weightless" lives. Sabina, Tomas' mistress, disapproved of such people and their actions. She thought that they were not united, that they did not have any common identity among them. Some of them reminded her of the people who collaborated with the Communist regime and only to fall into disfavor with it later. However, she realized that not everyone was like that, that some people were honest to others and, mostimportantly, to themselves.

 

In this book, the reader learns how Communism and the Russian occupation influenced the lives of the Czechs. Dubcek's "compromise with Russians saved the country from the worst: the executions and mass deportations to Siberia that had terrified everyone. But one thing was clear: the country would have to bow to the conqueror."(26) This quote indicates that the lives of Czechoslovaks were filled with humiliation, terror, chaos, and fear. We learn that people who opposed the new regime were fired from their jobs, their friends and colleagues turned away from them and, ultimately, lives were ruined. Tomas, unwilling to compromise with the Communist regime, paid his consequences. When he refused to apologize for the article he wrote, he was fired from the hospital. He, instead of continuing to be a doctor, had he bowed to the new regime, had no choice but to wash windows for a living. Tereza was fired from her job at the magazine, where she worked as a photographer, because she had taken some pictures showing Russian tanks standing in the center of Prague, people screaming and cursing at the Russian soldiers, buildings ruined, and the Russian soldiers staring at pretty Czech girls, who were wearing miniskirts and kissing random passerby to provoke the sexually crazed Russians. These girls, unable to physically outmuscle the Russians, inflicted "sexual vengeance" on the soldiers by marching in front of them and scornfully showing their beauty which Russian women did not possess. Thus, Czechs viewed this as the way of getting back at the Russians. They viewed hockey, soccer, and other sports as the arena in which they would be able to humiliate the Russians. When the Czechs defeated the Russian hockey or soccer teams, it was as if they had defeated the Russian regime. Kundera writes: "the Russian invasion was not only a tragedy; it was a carnival of hate filled with a curious (and no longer explicable) euphoria."(67) The lives of many Czechoslovaks were ruined. The death rate increased tremendously during the years following the invasion. Kundera gives an example of Jan Prochazka, the novelist whose death wasaccelerated by the doctors who cooperated with the police. Moreover, many people died trying to escape the terror of the regime. They were persecuted, thrown into jails, and even murdered. Kundera demonstrates through Tereza the common view that the Czechs had about Russia, its people, and the imposed tyrannical regime in Czechoslovakia. Tereza hated the Russians. She was sitting with Karenin, her dog, resting in her lap. She was thinking how the Russians kill animals; how they find people among the Czechoslovaks and make them kill animals, in order to help their aggressiveness to develop. It is amazing how Kundera is able to combine moral issues of killing, betrayal, and terror with love, sex, compassion, human kindness, and solidarity. He describes the characters' love for one another and their dependency on one another. These people wanted to live on, despite of all terror, oppression, and grief the invasion brought uponthem.

 

The hypocrisy, dishonesty, and feigned happiness were created by  the Communists to make it look as if everything went well, and that people were satisfied. Propaganda was spread throughout everywhere. Kundera writes on page 252: "Soviet society," according to Sabina's professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, "had made such progress that the basic conflict was no longer between good and evil but between good and better." Kundera continues by saying that Soviet cinematography was filled with "innocence and chastity."(253) Tereza did not want to live in this fake, fantastic Communist world portrayed in Soviet movies. She detested this hypocrisy and superciliousness. People around her were starting to act in the same manner, and it was scary. Sabina wanted to brake away from this outrageous situation, she wanted to betray Communism, which was, like her father, limiting her actions and forbidding her love. In this world, loveand freedom were becoming something unknown.

To Sabina, Prague looked like a concentration camp, because people did not have any freedom, any privacy, nor any peace. People were being spied on, informed on; they were oppressed and brutally ruled by the Soviet-imposed regime. Sabina believed that a person's soul does not change, even if the person's outside appearance and behavior change. She was only partially concerned with the life around her; she was living inthe world which had both elements of reality and of some unknown world where Sabina's soul was. The lightness of being was the heaviest burden. That was a burden they all had to carry on their shoulders.

 

The famous German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Beyond Good and Evil writes : "Heavy, heavy-spirited people become lighter  precisely through what makes others heavier, through hatred and love, and for a time they surface." (Beyond Good and Evil, 82) The characters separated themselves into body and soul. Love and lovemaking for them were two different things. The former one involved sensual elements of their souls, the latter one involved physical closeness and physical pleasure. The absence of burden , as perceived by humans, mean slightness; it has a positive connotation. Burden implies negativity. Kundera shows the lightness of his heroes, who spiritually excel into the heights leaving the earth. They become "half real," because their movements, actions, and emotions are not completely affected by experiences on earth. They look at the invasion as something outside of their strata; they isolate themselves from it spiritually by committing themselves to their love and devotion, as well as, physically (Tereza and Tomas went to live to the countryside where the ugliness of the regime had not been actively imposed; Sabina lived in Switzerland). Through their experiences they become lighter; they surface to their own world where the atrocities and terror of the Russian regime and the plight of the Czechoslovakian nation are not significant at all. These things do not mean much to them in the world in which a rehearsal is the final act. They realized that the stronger Russian force would control the weaker Czechoslovaks. Thus, they could not change it. And why change it, if itis completely insignificant in the ultimate scheme of things.

 

 

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