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Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera is the author of the novels The Farewell Waltz, The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as well as the short-story collection Laughable Loves.

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The Farewell Waltz

Human Beings Are Inherently Ridiculous

01/07/13

People who know me might find it a little hard to believe that I've never read any of Milan Kundera's fiction. Heck, I even find it a little hard to believe myself. I read a lot, and I should have read Kundera by now. However, I haven't. I am a bit late to the party, or rather, to The Farewell Party (sometimes translated as The Farewell Waltz, which is not the title on my copy and would ruin the attempt at wit in this sentence).

The Farewell Waltz/Party centers around a beautiful nurse, Ruzena, who has been impregnated by a married jazz musician at a fertility clinic. Ruzena sees the baby as a way out of the banality of her life. However, the jazz musician, being of another opinion, sees it as a yoke that will end his life.

Of course, before you get too set in views that could be easily taken, I should tell you that the nurse may actually have been impregnated by a young mechanic that she can't stand. In fact, after deciding that she will not give up her baby, the following scene occurs with her and the young mechanic:

The young man grasped her hand. "Don't go yet!"
Ruzena turned her eyes toward the ceiling in desperation.
The young man said: "Everything would be different if we got married. Your father couldn't stop us. We'd have a family."
"I don't want a family," Ruzena said sharply. "I'd kill myself before I'd have a baby!"

Also, there are a great deal more people involved in The Farewell Party than just Ruzena, her jazz musician, and her mechanic.  We also have a benevolent fertility doctor who has been injecting women with his own sperm to combat ugliness in the population, a formerly imprisoned dissident who holds himself above everyone else but really is just as bad, a saintly but somewhat foolish rich American, and a number of other strange beings.

For me, this is the real magic of Kundera's writing. Kundera writes a number of intricate characters that are all extremely interconnected in a very short space. But, that alone would not be as impressive if it was not for how these intricacies and interactions come off. Really, everyone ends up looking pretty idiotic.

After all, all human beings are inherently ridiculous. It is only when we are full of our own self-importance that we don't see that. However, at the same time, our follies are an extremely serious thing. I mean, what else do we have? Kundera seems to recognize this in The Farewell Party. All the characters are ridiculous in some way or another, but Kundera treats them simultaneously (or sometimes alternatingly) as foolish and serious. They are flawed, but so is everyone else. Stretching out over all of this is a constant sense of tenderness that Kundera seems to feel for his characters, through all flaws and virtues.

Perhaps it was just a moment of weakness on the part of the Lord when He permitted Noah to save himself in the ark, thus allowing the human story to continue. Can we be certain that God never regretted this moment of weakness? But whether He repented or not, it was too late. God cannot make Himself ridiculous by continually reversing His decisions. Perhaps it was God Himself who planted the idea in Herod's mind? Can we rule out such a possibility?"

Bartleff shrugged his shoulders and remained silent.

Herod was a king. He was not responsible merely for himself. He couldn't very well tell himself, as I do: Let others do as they please, I refuse to propagate the race. Herod was a king and knew that it was up to him to make decisions not only for himself, but for many others, and he decided on behalf of all mankind that man would cease repeating himself. This was how the Massacre of the Innocents came about. Herod was not led by the base motives ascribed to him traditionally. Herod was animated by the noblest longing to liberate the world from the clutches of mankind."

I rather like your interpretation of Herod," said Bartleff. "In fact, I like it so much that from now on I will think of the Massacre of the Innocents the same way as you do. But don't forget that at the very time Herod decided to do away with mankind, a little boy was born in Bethlehem who eluded his knife. And this boy grew up and told people that only one thing was needed to make life worthwhile: to love one another. Perhaps Herod was better educated and more experienced. Jesus was actually a young man, and probably knew little about life. Maybe all his teaching can be explained by his youth and inexperience. His naïveté, if you like. And yet he was right.

I admit, I'm a sucker for this kind of take on humanity. Kundera presents it so well: tight yet effortless sentences, a story that manages to focus on an entire crew of characters at once, and sadness mixed with laughter mixed with hope mixed with fatality.

There is really nothing else to say about The Farewell Waltz/Party other than I was very impressed and should have read it years ago. If this book is representative of Kundera's work, then I need to spend a lot more time with him. I think that conveys my reading experience better than anything else I could say.

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