Malavika P Pillai pays tribute to award-winning Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera who passed away last week.
(1st April 1929- 11th July 2023)
My Master’s thesis began with this quote from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. As a Memory studies scholar, Kundera’s examination of memory enriched my perspectives, inspiring me to delve deeper into the complexities of memory’s role in shaping individual and collective identities in the face of socio-political conflicts. He shuffled off his mortal coil, leaving behind a long train of intriguing literary legacy of explorations into different shades of manhood.
Having been born and raised in the shadow of Soviet-era communism, Kundera presents a strikingly ironic portrayal of power and conflict that captivated many Western thinkers during the 1970s and 1980s. He exposes the mechanisms through which those in positions of power manipulate individuals and societies. Through his characters, Kundera delves into the psychology of political actors and illuminates the devastating consequences of unchecked authority.
Kundera’s insights resonate strongly with my own research interests, as I examine the intricate relationship between memory, power, and identity. His works have provided me with valuable perspectives and have guided my understanding of how memory shapes personal and collective narratives, and how it can be manipulated or suppressed by those in power.
Through his literary masterpieces, Kundera invites readers to reflect on the profound role of memory in shaping our understanding of the world and our place within it. His exploration of memory as a tool for resistance against forgetting underscores the importance of preserving personal and collective histories as a means to challenge dominant narratives and oppressive systems.
Kundera’s insights remind us that politics extends beyond a mere game played by the powerful; it is a realm where personal freedom and integrity are often sacrificed in the relentless pursuit of power. Following his exile to France in 1975, Kundera’s relationship with his homeland grew increasingly complex. While Czechoslovakia underwent a transformative period during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, leading to its re-establishment as the Czech Republic, Kundera had already forged a new life in Paris. He rarely returned incognito to his birth country and maintained a distance, even refusing translations of his work into Czech and declining honors from influential figures like Vaclav Havel. This paradoxical relationship highlighted Kundera’s profound disillusionment with his native culture, as he grappled with the erasure of Czech national memory under the shadow of communism.
Kundera’s literary works invite readers to contemplate the intricate interplay of memory and time. As he wrote in Identity, “Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, maybe the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past.” But in the current global political landscape, marked by a “sunset of dissolution,” “everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” “Guillotine” becomes a bitter mockery directed at governments clinging to outdated ideologies instead of progressing forward.
A Life Shaped by Exile
Exile played a crucial role in shaping Kundera’s life and work. His early satirical commentaries on totalitarianism and explorations of existential anguish within human stories, such as The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere, and The Farewell Waltz, emerged during the communist era. However, it was during his period of exile that Kundera’s reputation soared with the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality. This phase empowered Kundera to fearlessly express the biting truth that would eventually become his trademark. As he widened his perspectives, Kundera’s affinity for philosophy grew evident in his subsequent slender novellas, including Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance.
Kundera’s writings often engage with Marxism, subjecting its ideals and real-life implications to scrutiny. He challenges the utopian promises of Marxism, shedding light on the disillusionment experienced by those who fervently believed in its vision. Through his characters, Kundera explores the tension between the individual and the collective, delving into the loss of personal freedoms under Marxist regimes. He portrays the human desire for autonomy and highlights the inherent contradictions within ideological systems, emphasizing the need for critical thinking and skepticism in the face of grand narratives.
In many ways, Kundera lived through his characters. He identifies with Tomas from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who removes himself from politics through a political act of refusing to cooperate with the regime, ultimately searching for meaning in the realm of private passion. Kundera also embodies the life of a Czech exile, akin to his character Tamina from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Tamina longs for a place where weightless things dance like a gentle breeze and where remorse is absent. Yet, she struggles to make Westerners understand her situation, yearning to simplify things for them. Kundera perceives his novels as political documents that search for answers and pose questions while also serving as a collection of memories. For him, being a writer means not preaching the truth but rather discovering it.
Tamina’s motivation for retrieving eleven notebooks from her hometown stems not from a political nature but from the fading recollections of her early life. Memories, for Kundera, are sources of “splendor and misery”-he acknowledges their ability to accurately track the logical sequence of past events, yet is burdened by the obligation to adhere to the truth when it comes to how those events were experienced at the time. He challenges the notion of collective identity, emphasizing the importance of individual autonomy and the struggle to maintain one’s integrity in the face of oppressive systems. His profound insights into the complexities of human nature and the intricate relationships between power, identity, and personal agency hold a mirror to the war-ridden, conflicted political scenarios across the globe.
On Human Beings
Man, in all its variations, emerges as Kundera’s favorite subject in his fiction. Whether it is a man in love, the consequences of war caused by groups with power, or man’s inherent conflict of “To be or not to be,” Kundera skillfully depicts the complexities of human nature. With precision, he paints man on his literary canvas, capturing the essence of his characters. In Kundera’s own words,
Through his writing, he not only challenges us to reflect on the past but also invites us to embrace the present and shape our own futures.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Immortality showcase Kundera’s unique blend of philosophical inquiry, political critique, and artistic experimentation. He seamlessly intertwines existential contemplations with political contexts, raising profound questions about the nature of human existence. This ability solidifies his reputation as a masterful storyteller and a chronicler of his tumultuous era. His magnum opus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, delves into the complexities of human existence, love, and personal freedom. Amidst its philosophical musings, the novel also offers moments of subtle humor, such as Kundera’s witty commentary on kitsch.
In his collection of short stories, Laughable Loves, Kundera explores the intricacies of human relationships with a touch of humor. One of the stories in the collection titled Symposium, humorously portrays a group of intellectuals engaging in a trivial argument about the quality of a sandwich instead of discussing profound topics. This playfulness highlights the absurdity that can emerge from intellectual pursuits.
Kundera’s literary prowess lies in his ability to expose the decayed ideals and meaninglessness prevalent under communism. His works, often described as “black comedies,” compel readers to question the consequences of political action and the allure that every ideal carries. However, his portrayal of women within his novels has faced criticism for exhibiting an androcentric perspective and lacking psychological depth, which raises concerns about his long-term reputation despite the continued captivation of readers.
Whether set in World War II or the aftermath of the Cold War, Kundera’s characters grapple with chaos, violence, and moral ambiguity inherent in times of conflict. He sheds light on the profound impact of wars on individuals, families, and societies, probing into themes of guilt, memory, and the fragile nature of human existence. Through the lens of war, Kundera delves into philosophical and ethical dilemmas, prompting contemplation on the cost of ideological confrontations.
Kundera’s work transcends the constraints of time. As long as humanity persists with its thirst for power, his words will remain relevant, echoing the timeless struggle of mankind.
About the Author
Malavika P Pillai works as a Senior Editorial Assistant at the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bengaluru. She can be contacted at email@example.com