The Farewell Party
by Milan Kundera, translated by Peter Kussi
Knopf, 209 pp., $7.95
At the outset this new novel by the Czech writer sounds much like a bedroom farce. A famous jazz trumpeter, Klima, is a confirmed womanizer deeply in love with his wife. “That’s my erotic secret, which most people find completely incomprehensible.” His affairs, he says, are pursued solely for the sake of the rebound, “that wonderful return flight toward my wife.” Ruzena, a nurse at a spa celebrated for its gynecological miracles, calls Klima to say that as a result of a one-night stand (when the trumpeter was playing at the spa) she is pregnant by him. Pregnancy is in a different category from philandering and wonderful return flights, so Klima hares off to persuade her to have an abortion. The next few days see a fair amount of bed-hopping.
The Farewell Party plainly doesn’t aim, as much current European fiction does, to be a self-justifying aesthetic or lyric event, whatever that may be. But, to begin with, it is at least informative. So, even beyond the iron curtain people tell lies to avoid marrying people to whom they have told lies to get into bed…. One touch of shabbiness makes the whole world kin. (As witness also another Czech novelist, Josef Skvorecky, also banned, also translated by Peter Kussi, also inclined to verbosity.) Informativeness is something, and something the novel can rise to supremely well. Milan Kundera appears to agree, to judge by his preference for the sobriety and maturity of the novel over the “romanticism,” the deceiving lyricism, of poetry, as expressed in his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere. Like that novel, The Farewell Party has not been published in its native country or its native language.
The whole world is kin. But—we are casually told—Jakub, the political dissident soured by his misfortunes, is unofficial ward to a girl whose father, his friend, was executed. This is the sort of passing remark one doesn’t too often meet with in Anglo-American writing. (With all due respect to E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, where it was scarcely a passing remark.) The turns and counterturns of Czech communism since 1948 form the other strand in Kundera’s work, the imprisonments, liquidations, and rehabilitations, the changing orthodoxies, the hopes and disillusionments. This strand is counter-pointed with the “private life,” the hopes and needs, exploitations and treacheries, of sexuality. The counter-pointing is so complicated (perhaps the Czech has too much to tell) that it is hard to grasp the final significance of this tangled music.
The similarities between The Farewell Party and The Joke, Kundera’s celebrated first novel, are striking. And not confined to similarities of generalized irritation, distaste, and at times disgust. According to Jakub, the saddest discovery of his life is that the victims of history are no better than their oppressors, for the roles are always reversible: and so it is advisable simply to blame everything on the Creator for making man the way he is. Otherwise, “to come to the conclusion …