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. An extreme example of such imaginative compression is Andrei Sinyavsky’s A Voice from the Chorus, a babble of disembodied voices in the Soviet prison camps which dispenses with everything but the sound of the soul, and draws its intensity from Sinyavsky’s concentration upon what is said, not on who is speaking. The voices alone register the truth that, despite the physical discipline the prisoners’ bodies must endure, their voices are free to bear witness to their humanity.
In his novel The City Builder, the Hungarian writer George Konrád devises a different means of annealing the conventional material of the literary imagination into a hard knot that will register moral indignation without the amplitude of leisurely description and dialogue.1 By concentrating single-mindedly on the gnomic introspection of a nameless city planner, Konrád pares the flesh of his book down to a bone of enraged abstraction that comes close to denying the very being of literature, as though the end of such economy must be silence.
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—who was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia only five years ago and whose adult life has been branded by the alternating favor and disfavor of successive Communist regimes since 1948—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, which has been superbly translated by Michael Heim.2 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. As Kundera dryly remarks, “I too once danced in a ring. . . . Then one day I said something I would better have left unsaid. I was expelled from the party and had to leave the circle.” 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.
The life of this brilliantly resourceful Czech writer followed a well-worn pattern even before he was forced out of the magic circle and fell into the void reserved for intellectual heretics. Milan Kundera was born in the provincial city of Brno in 1929, the son of a concert pianist who was rector of the local conservatory of music. A precocious convert to modernism, he began writing surrealist poetry at about the time he first joined the Communist party, at the age of eighteen, soon after the end of World War II. But he was so fiercely dedicated to the making of a socialist Utopia that he was willing to sacrifice literary modernism to the greater political cause; in his youth, as he later recalled, he naively believed that “a period of cultural darkness . . . represented a necessary phase in the liberation of the people.”
But such sloganizing orthodoxy did not sit well with his incurably ironic temperament, and in 1950 Kundera was expelled from the party for harboring “hostile thoughts.” Six years later, after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress, Kundera was caught up in another turn of the political revolving door and reinstated in the party, which allowed him for the next decade to teach at the Prague Film Institute, publish a prolific abundance of poetry, plays, and literary criticism, and live as an officially respectable citizen—until he began speaking out at the Writers’ Union in defense of intellectual liberty and publicly attacked the repressive Novotny regime. His fate was sealed with the publication in 1967 of his first novel, The Joke.
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. In the relatively halcyon days leading to the Prague Spring, that pitifully brief renascence of freedom which ended with the Russian occupation in August 1968, The Joke, with its unsparing account of the malevolent dogmatism that infected the Prague universities in the 50’s, was passed by the censors and published.
In this novel, a university student, Ludvik Jahn, recklessly forgets that the Communist faithful are humorless, and pays dearly for his lapse. When Jahn sends a larky postcard to his prune-souled girlfriend—“Optimism is the opium of the people! The healthy atmosphere stinks! Long live Trotsky!”—she passes the heretical document along to the authorities. Though he protests that the postcard was only meant as a joke, Jahn is expelled from the university and the party, drafted into an army unit for suspected political deviants, and condemned to hard labor in the coal mines for the next seven years. During this purgatory, adrift in a desert of exhaustion and emptiness, Jahn begins to realize that his former infatuation with Communism stemmed not from a genuine concern for “the future of mankind,” but from a romantic illusion “of being close to the helm of history . . . drunk with having jumped on its back and being able to feel it beneath us.”
Such grandiose apostrophes to the abstract gods of revolution are anathema to Milan Kundera, who welcomes any chance to stick a thumb in the eye of apparatchiks declaiming the opposite of what they mean and do. It seems safe to guess that by the time he finished his 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.
Remarkably, one last book of Kundera’s was published in Czechoslovakia after the Russian takeover—the collection of comic stories about sexual foibles which he characteristically titled Laughable Loves—but soon the axe fell again, and this time with finality. Once more he was expelled from the party, and not simply fired from his teaching job but forbidden to work anywhere else. All his books vanished from libraries and bookstores, 80 percent of his foreign royalties were confiscated in punitive taxes, and, as he writes in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he became “a man erased from history, literary reference books, even the telephone book.” In 1975 he was finally granted an exit visa and settled in France, and last year, after his new novel was published in Paris, the Czech government became so incensed that they completed the long process of official annihilation and revoked his citizenship.
Though Kundera’s experience has hardly been unique, he nonetheless continued to write with astonishing virtuosity after being consigned to official oblivion, as though the harsh treatment he was subjected to, the official denial of his existence as a man and a writer, paradoxically bred a defiant creative vigor that no government could silence. As Kundera pointed out in an interview some years ago:
The Western intellectual finds it easy to deny his own values and to mock centuries-old gardens. For him, it is only play-acting. But the intellectual in our half of Europe lives in a quite different situation: he has already been suppressed many times. . . . He has been rejected theoretically, practically, even economically. And thus he was finally forced into a situation that left him no alternative but to begin to understand his own importance, his own lot, to start defending his own liberty and the cultivation of the gardens of the mind.
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.
In a totalitarian world, however, everything soon finds its political level, and Kundera, under constant surveillance by the watchdogs hoping to starve him into a public confession, could no more keep politics out of his literary work than he could escape its tentacles in his life. A novel published in France in 1973 (but not in Czechoslovakia) moves farther away from the conventions of realistic fiction than anything Kundera had written earlier, Life is Elsewhere satirizes the pretensions of a miserably untalented poet, Jaromil, who is caught up in the revolutionary ecstasy of 1948 and by accident elevated into a People’s Literary Hero. Emboldened by his new-found eminence, this self-deluded mediocrity becomes an informer for the police while grinding out his doggerel about love and beauty. It is clear that in this mordant portrait of the artist, Kundera was satirizing the cultural infantilism and backwardness that he sees as endemic to Czechoslovakia and whose most pervasive symptom is the “lyrical” approach to life and politics.
A country that did not come into existence until the 20th century, and whose culture and languages were impoverished by centuries of foreign domination, Czechoslovakia has in Kundera’s view been forced too often to undertake new beginnings and thus failed to become part of the mainstream of European culture. Under its Communist rulers it has remained culturally stunted, and Prague, as he bitterly remarks in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is now a literal embodiment of Kafka’s prophetic vision—“a city without memory.” 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.
After going into exile, Kundera wrote a strange comedy, The Farewell Party, whose deceptively frivolous story is surprisingly hospitable to serious ideas about the psychology of political belief and the capricious impulses of human folly which can suddenly transform farce into calamity. The novel is set in a health resort outside of Prague, where the eccentric Dr. Skreta dispenses a magic cure for infertility from his private sperm-bank. 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, as against a world of inquisitors and informers driven, as one character defines it, by “the longing for order, a desire to turn the human world into an inorganic one, where everything would function perfectly and work on schedule, subordinated to a suprapersonal system.” 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 Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, his most recent work, 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 this 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, most powerfully developed in “Lost Letters” (the second “Lost Letters”—there are two chapters thus titled, as there are two called “The Angels”). 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.
In “Lost Letters,” a young widow, Tamina, who escaped with her husband from Czechoslovakia some years before his premature death, keeps spending most of her pitiful salary as a waitress on telephone calls to her mother-in-law in Prague. She is plagued by the mortality of memory, and is desperately anxious to retrieve a package of letters, photographs, and notebooks that she and her husband left behind, because “the past is growing paler and paler.” The more strenuously she tries to summon up her husband’s face, to recapture the vanished years of their happy marriage, the more everything seems to fade. Tamina feels that unless she can hold those letters and notebooks in her hands once again, she too will begin to blur and vanish forever.
Free of any hint of sentimentality, Kundera’s portrait of Tamina, as she reaches out toward anyone who might be able to smuggle out the letters and thus allow her to salvage the past, captures the dissociated nature of homelessness with agonizing fidelity. Like that other great poet of exile, Vladimir Nabokov, who called his autobiography Speak, Memory, Kundera knows that the only lifeline is the struggle not to forget, that “the future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life. . . .”
This struggle against oblivion assumes a more oblique form in “The Angels,” a story in which Kundera takes enormous technical risks without faltering. It opens with a vignette of two dull-witted American girls, in a summer course on the Riviera, reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros with the literal-minded humorlessness of Ludvík Jahn’s girlfriend, then shifts abruptly to autobiography, as Kundera remembers the time he “lost the privilege of working,” and the young editor of a popular magazine arranged to have him write an astrology column under a pseudonym. In a quick cinematic cut he captures the quality of Communist orthodoxy in the brilliant image of a tightly knit ring of dancers, and suddenly the writer is engulfed by the memory of a day in 1950 when Milada Horakova, a leader of the Socialist party, and Zavis Kalandra, the Czech surrealist poet, were hanged in Prague for supposedly plotting to overthrow the regime. Among Kalandra’s friends were André Breton and Paul Eluard, the surrealist poet who was a member of the French Communist party. But when Breton asked Eluard to protest Kalandra’s death sentence, he refused:
Eluard was too busy dancing in the gigantic ring encircling Paris, Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, Sofia, and Athens, encircling all the socialist countries and all the Communist parties of the world; too busy reciting his beautiful poems about joy and brotherhood. . . . And as I walked through the streets of Prague passing rings of laughing, dancing Czechs, I knew I belonged to Kalandra, not to them, to Kalandra who had also broken away from the circular trajectory and fallen, fallen, fallen. . . .
As he recalls Eluard’s betrayal of his friend, Kundera envisions this ring of happy, singing believers suddenly leaving the ground and floating into the heavens like a band of angels, glowing with innocence and purity, and blind to the evil of the world outside their unbroken ring of faith. From this brilliant fantasy Kundera with no warning drops us back to earth and the young editor who had jeopardized her job by providing him with work. The police were soon tipped off, as they inevitably are in a society that rewards informers, and she too lost the privilege of working anywhere. With this unbearably guilty memory, Kundera brings “The Angels” to its grim end.
The firing of the young editor is the core of the story, yet without the startling shifts from fantasy to reality and back again, this unhappy episode would seem just another among thousands of such stories we have heard about Eastern Europe. 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.
1 See my discussion of Konrád and The City Builder in “A Novelist Under Communism,” COMMENTARY, March 1978.
2 Knopf, 228 pp., $10.95.