One of the four central characters of Milan Kundera’s brilliant new novel is a Czech painter named Sabina, who leaves Prague for Geneva around the time of the Russian invasion of 1968 and finds herself in a perpetual struggle against the unbearable banality of her situation as an émigré artist.
Sabina had once had an exhibit that was organized by a political organization in Germany. When she picked up the catalogue, the first thing she saw was a picture of herself with a drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had suffered, struggled against injustice, been forced to abandon her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle. “Her paintings are a struggle for happiness” was the final sentence.
She protested, but they did not understand her.
Do you mean that modern art isn’t persecuted under Communism?
“My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!” she replied, infuriated.
From that time on, she began to insert mystifications in her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life.
Kitsch is the enemy of every artist, of course, but it has special menace for the artist who has made his way out of the abyss of “totalitarian kitsch” (as Kundera calls it), only to find himself peering into the chasm of Western anticommunist kitsch. Kundera, who left Czechoslovakia in 1975, after he was expelled from the Communist party for the second time and could no longer publish or teach there, now lives in Paris and works in an increasingly—what to call it?—abstract, surreal, “poetic” idiom.
His need to experiment with form is surely connected to his personal vendetta against the puerilities of “socialist realism” and its “free world” counterparts. In an interview with Philip Roth which appears in the Penguin edition of Kundera’s previous novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980), Kundera spoke of his great fondness for Diderot and Laurence Sterne, citing them as “the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel.” “Sterne and Diderot understood the novel as a great game,” he told Roth. But writers for whom the issue of artistic freedom hasn’t the urgency it has had for Kundera do not play the game of the novel quite as close to the edge as he has played it.
His novels have all the unpredictability and changeability of mountain weather, and are marked by an almost compulsive disregard for the laws of genre. Like a driver who signals right and promptly turns left, Kundera repeatedly betrays the reader’s trust in the conventions that give him his bearings in a novel. In Kundera’s farcical fairy tale The Farewell Party (1976), for example, a character named Jakub, who possesses a poison pill that he…
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