Life Is Elsewhere
Good Men Still Live!
The Case Worker
Extraordinary Czech novels, written in the late Sixties, keep coming from Western publishers. Ludvik Vaculík’s The Axe and then The Guinea Pigs were translated during the last few years; Milan Kundera’s The Joke was published in 1969, two years after it appeared in Czechoslovakia. Now we have in English his Life Is Elsewhere—unpublished in Prague or indeed anywhere in its original Czech—which first reached the public in a French translation last year and won the Prix Médicis for the best foreign novel of 1973. Invasion, repression, official abuse, and loss of employment have not silenced either of these obstinate Moravians, for there is more to come: Vaculik is finishing a new novel and a third work by Kundera (described in the Gallimard blurb for Life Is Elsewhere as the “third panel of a literary cycle”) is currently being translated into French.
This is not a superficially political literature. The high quality of these novels is unquestionable: they need nobody’s indulgence, they are not scribbled letters thrust under an Iron Curtain to prove not only that somebody is still alive behind there but that those somebodies actually read and write. They are not, for example, responses to the intervention of 1968. Their political aspect is more assimilated; the history of Czechoslovakia in the last thirty years is no more than a stage for delicate psychological drama. The excess steam was blown off long ago, in the early Sixties when expression became freer.
Cut a strip of paper, twist it once, take the two ends together to form a ring. This form is called a Moebus Strip. Its property, and its philosophical curiosity, is this: that a naïve finger setting out to explore the inside surface of the Strip soon finds itself inexplicably following the outside surface. The moral history of the Czech and Slovak peoples has resembled such a Moebus Strip. Nazi occupation; resistance; liberation, Communist revolution in February, 1948; Stalinism and the terror of the early Fifties; the decrepit authoritarianism of Novotny; the loosening of the bands and then the “Prague Spring”; the invasion of August. These were the stations along the Strip. And for those who traversed them, good became evil and wisdom became folly. Those who believed in self-sacrifice found themselves opulently rewarded for administering the unwilling sacrifice of others. Those who believed in an end to bourgeois hypocrisy became professionals of misreporting and suppression. Those who believed in the simple, innate moral discernment of the ordinary working man discovered that they were accessories to the security police and its web of denunciation. Lyric poets incited the citizen to look up to sky-high fireworks of the imagination, which made the operation of tying the citizen’s legs together a good deal simpler.
The life and death of a lyric poet form the narrative of Life Is Elsewhere. But there is an argument about the role of poetry that is peculiar to Czechoslovakia and forms the real background to this terrific satire. Milan Kundera …