“We can never know what we want, because living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”
As news spread on July 12 of the passing away of Milan Kundera, the great Czech existential writer, at 94, his readers began quoting from arguably his most well-known book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984.
The novel traces the lives of two couples, Tomas and Tereza and Sabina and Franz, as Soviet tanks roll through Prague, the Czech capital. And asks several questions: When life feels like a heavy burden, what should they choose? Weight or lightness? Should they crumble or soar into the air and be lighter than air?
Kundera spent a lifetime inventing stories, confronting one with another, and by this means asked questions about everything — life and death, political and personal, forgetting and remembrance. And exile. He once told American writer Philip Roth that the “wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything”.
His treatment of deep, existential ideas and questions — “the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous” — navigating his day-to-day world in a seemingly playful manner, made both critics and readers happy.
But most of all, his books are an indictment against totalitarianism, as he wrote in his 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
For Salman Rushdie, this sentence illuminated his understanding of events all over the world, he told The Guardian.
By 1984, Kundera had been living in exile in France for nearly a decade following his expulsion from the Czechoslovakian Communist Party for being a dissident, and this gave him the space to elaborate on the themes he was preoccupied with in his early novels like The Joke (1969), Life is Elsewhere (1974) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
Again, he told Roth, who edited a series, Writers from the Other Europe, and promoted Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “If someone told me as a boy: One day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would have considered it nonsense… but after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe.”
In 1993, Czechoslovakia separated into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Value of humour
In the same conversation, Kundera said he learned the value of humour during the time of Stalinist terror. “I was 20 then. I could always recognise a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humour was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humour.”
In 1995, Kundera began writing in French, Slowness being the first. The Festival of Insignificance (2014) was his last novel, which got mixed reviews. Like Roth, Rushdie and several other writers, Kundera was a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born on April 1, 1929, in the Czech city of Brno, Kundera taught literature at Prague’s film academy in 1952. He was a member of the Communist Party but when he raised his voice in favour of freedom of speech and equal rights for all, he was expelled, and ultimately left home to live in Paris. Some called it a betrayal of sorts; there were other controversies — feminists decried his treatment of women. But if there’s a musical cadence to his novels, it’s perhaps because he was greatly influenced by his father who was a pianist.
In a world which is still redrawing borders, with a war on in Europe, Milan Kundera’s books are chillingly relevant for the questions it asks. For these are the questions the world is still grappling with. Rushdie has explained it with precision.
The concept of “the lightness of being”, he told The Guardian, warns us that life allows us no revisions or second drafts, and this can be “unbearable”, but it could also be “liberating”.