In Kundera’s Laboratory

Encounter

by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher
Harper, 178 pp., $23.99

Milan Kundera’s new book on the art of the novel begins with an essay on the art of painting. The essay is about Francis Bacon, and it was written in 1995—when Kundera had been living in France for twenty years, following his emigration from Communist Prague. It opens with him recalling how in fact he first wrote on Bacon soon after leaving Czechoslovakia: “still obsessed by recollections of the country which I had just left and which still remained in my memory as a land of interrogations and surveillance.”

Milan Kundera; drawing by Pancho

So Encounter begins with a memoir of Prague in 1972, when Kundera was forty-three.:

I met with a girl in a Prague suburb, in a borrowed apartment. Two days earlier, over an entire day, she had been interrogated by the police about me. Now she wanted to meet with me secretly (she feared that she was constantly followed) to tell me what questions they had asked her and how she had answered them. If they were to interrogate me, my answers should match hers.

Five years earlier, he had published his first novel, The Joke, and a year later, in 1968, he put out the third and final installment of stories that became his collection Laughable Loves. But after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in September of that year and the installation of Gustáv Husák’s government of “normalization,” Kundera was dismissed from his post—he taught at the Prague Film Academy—and his books were withdrawn from bookshops and libraries. Officially, he had become a nonperson. His next two novels—Life Is Elsewhere and Farewell Waltz—would not be published in Czechoslovakia but by the émigré publishing house 68 Publishers, founded in Toronto in 1971 by the Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký and his wife Zdena, who had emigrated soon after the Russian occupation.

This experience of invisibility is the background of Kundera’s dark story from 1972. The girl was very young, he writes, and she was terrified. Their anxious conversation was embarrassingly interrupted by her recurrent visits to the toilet. Until then, writes Kundera, he had known only this girl’s composure: she had always been reserved. Yet “suddenly, like a great knife, fear had laid her open. She was gaping wide before me like the split carcass of a heifer hanging from a meat hook.” With this savage metaphor, the story’s deep meaning begins to emerge—it is not about politics, but about what happens between a man and a woman in a room, and it closes on a horrific confession:

The noise of the water refilling the toilet tank practically never let up, and I suddenly had the urge to rape her…. I wanted to bring my hand down brutally on her face and in one swift instant take her completely….

And it’s only here, at this endpoint of black self-exposure, that Kundera finally emerges into his meditation on the art of Francis Bacon:

Uncalled for and unconscionable …

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