by Milan Kundera, translated by Peter Kussi
Grove Weidenfeld, 345 pp., $21.95
Milan Kundera’s new novel Immortality is a tragicomic jeu d’esprit stuffed with references and meanings, and even, you might say, ready-annotated. The story is set in Paris and very simple: Paul is a lawyer with a wife, Agnes, who works for a computer company. They have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. Brigitte is closer to her father than Agnes is. Agnes has a lover, Rubens, whom she has known since she was seventeen and whom she sees only once every few years. Agnes’s younger sister Laura is having an affair with Paul’s friend Bernard, a radio commentator. When Bernard deserts her, she decides to love Paul. Agnes is killed in a motor accident, and Paul marries Laura. Laura starts an affair with Professor Avenarius, who is the friend of the narrator, who is Kundera, and who, in Chapter 1, invents first Agnes and then the rest of the story.
Immortality is like the Pompidou building in Paris. All the things that keep it going are in separate chapters or ducts. The ducts make a lively pattern over the outside of the narrative, which corresponds to the body of the museum. The stuff inside the ducts is philosophy, history, cultural history, Ideengeschichte, literature, aesthetics, politics, semiotics, theories about time and chance, and many enthusiastically illustrated reflections about the nature and role of the erotic. The ducts are gaily colored, definitely part of the entertainment; they are also explanatory notes to help you with the story.
A huge amount is packed into 345 pages, but there is no sense of rush on the one hand or overcondensation—heaviness—on the other. The novel dances along on its toes—on its lightness of being, perhaps. The narrator’s tone is debonair. But his view of the world is pitch black. Professor Avenarius shares it. He goes around at night slashing tires in an apparently idiotic protest against pollution. Though he doesn’t come into the story much, he must be intended to be the hero of it. He deals with the horror of life by turning everything into a joke—a familiar East European strategy, only in this case the enemy is not totalitarian repression, but the Western world with its dreadful new delusion, which Kundera calls Imagology. We will come to Imagology later.
At the end of the novel Kundera celebrates its completion by ordering a bottle of wine to share with Professor Avenarius:
At that moment I understood him at last. If we cannot accept the importance of the world, which considers itself important, if in the midst of that world our laughter finds no echo, we have but one choice: to take the world as a whole and make it the object of our game; to turn it into a toy. Avenarius is playing a game, and for him the game is the only thing of importance in a world without importance. But he knows that his game will not make anyone laugh. When he outlined his …