Ariel goes to the police

Karl Miller

  • Life is elsewhere by Milan Kundera, translated by Peter Kussi
    Faber, 311 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14560 4
  • My First Loves by Ivan Klima, translated by Ewald Oser
    Chatto, 164 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3014 8

Revolution, literature and love, and the roads and side-roads which join them together, are concerns of Kundera and Klima, whose name is a further concern of Kundera’s, and is used for the uxorious philanderer of his novel The Farewell Party. With the arrival of these two Czech writers Central Europe’s roman à K has taken a new turn. There is a sense in which the hero of the latest of Kundera’s novels to appear in Britain is also the hero of Klima’s collection of stories. Revolution, and its betrayal by a regime which both prescribes and proscribes literature, are described in the literature to which both men contribute. Both are interested in the subject of remembering and forgetting. In the books they write, music is heard in country places – trumpets, fiddles, the cimbalom – and love shows its face in country hotels, pleasant places, set down beside a stretch of water.

Klima may perhaps be a common name in Czechoslovakia, and Kundera has become a common name in the conversation of Western readers, who are drawn to these reciprocal concerns of his. The free world may like him both for having been, and for having ceased to be, a Communist of a sort, and for the freedoms he seeks in matters of literary form, for the modern inventiveness and manipulation of the literary games he plays, games that nonetheless commemorate, as he acknowledges, Cervantes, Sterne and Diderot, and for the sexual games which he plays in an age when, as he once put it, sexuality has ceased to be taboo. We like him for being into free speech and free love, and for what he has to say about convergences of the two, and about the enmity which revolution and its regimes may bear to both. The West has been grateful to Kundera, extravagantly so at times: there’s been an impulse to beat itself with his buoyant fictions. Heads have been turned, and have begun to swim, amid the flow of invention, delivered in works which have been Englished in rapid succession and which are not always easy to tell apart. Which is the one that has litost – a form of self-pity – and which is the one that has ‘unbearable lightness of being’? Which of these two conceptions, for that matter, we may even sometimes wonder, is which? His fertility, narrative gift, gift for experiments and impromptus, are such as to bewilder the attempt to form a judgment of any particular work. Not that he can mind that.

What he does mind – and what even the most arbitrary-seeming, the most ludic, of his ironic and erotic diversions and excursions show that he minds – is the regime that came to power in his native country after the revolution of 1948. Many of his most memorable literary effects attest to this. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being the Czech exile Sabina disturbs her French friends by being unable to last out a parade held to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968: ‘She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.’ The British reader, who has been spared the degree of suffering which enters the books of Kundera and Klima, where a joke, or no joke, or nothing whatever, can sequester you for years from the people you grew up with, is in a position, for all that, to know what Sabina means here. The British reader has only to listen to the sounds that protest makes in his own streets, to the cruel, brutal voices that bellow over loudhailers about injustice and the disadvantaged.

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