Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera; drawing by David Levine

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 Now we have in English his Life Is Elsewhere—unpublished in Prague or indeed anywhere in its original Czech—which first reached the public in a French translation last year and won the Prix Médicis for the best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, who made his own transition from poetry to novel-writing, is one of the deadliest exponents of the argument that there have been too many poets, too few novelists: too much romantic narcissism and too little sober illustration of what is within the capacity of the human animal and what is not. An editor in Life Is Elsewhere suggests, in exasperation, that Czechoslovakia should export its surplus poets: “They could give a valuable boost to developing countries. In return for our poets, we’ll get the bananas or electronic instruments our economy needs.”

In February, 1967, A. J. Liehm held a long interview with Kundera, which afterward appeared in Liehm’s Politics of Culture.* This interview, in which Kundera expresses all his accumulated suspicions about accepted Czech literary tradition, is a key both to this novel and to the dispute about lyricism. He says:

Lyricism is a form of self-expression; it contains the narcissistic principle. A person becomes mature when he leaves his “lyrical age” behind…. Take our own culture. It is predominantly lyrical. The greatest figures in our literature have been our poets…. But when a national culture reaches maturity, its lyrical dependence becomes a form of prolonged childhood…. This one-sided emphasis on poetry helps to create a public mentality that is not very rational, not very clever or witty, but rather hysterical, sentimental, and partial to kitsch….

He then comes to the thought which became the framework of this new novel:

My own youth, my own “lyrical age” and poetic activity coincide with the worst period of the Stalin era…. I got a close look at poets who adorned things which weren’t worth it, and I am still able to remember vividly this state of passionate lyrical enthusiasm which, getting drunk on its own frenzy, is unable to see the real world through its own grandiose haze…. On the other side of the wall behind which people were jailed and tormented. Gullibility, Ignorance, Childishness and Enthusiasm blithely promenaded in the sun….

Jaromil, Kundera’s protagonist, is a mother’s boy. His mother obscures the humiliation of her own unhappy marriage with fantasy about her son. By the age of six, he is writing little rhymes which she hangs round the walls of his room, convincing him that “he is a child uttering significant words.” At school, however, he soon sees the peril of being identified as a mother’s pet and makes an alliance with the most squalid and despised pupil, the son of the janitor. Together they beat up another small boy, and Jaromil feels proudly that he is establishing his independence.


Munich comes, then the German occupation. Jaromil’s father disappears. His mother falls into the hands of a surrealist painter, who tries to use this naive and hopeful woman as a blank canvas on which to express his ideas of revolutionary art: his refusal to see her as she is drives her into a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile Jaromil, annoyed with his own delicate fair hair and receding chin, glowers at the mirror and cultivates his poetry as a token that he is the elect, the destined mouthpiece for forces of the Unconscious. He develops a second, fantasized identity as “Xavier,” the man of shining impulse who bursts open drab lives and makes sacrifices for the revolution.

The main action of the novel takes place after the communist triumph of February, 1948 (when Jaromil’s uncle slaps him in the face for identifying himself with “those direct and simple men who laugh at nuances”). He turns against surrealism, and argues that the revolution has the right to destroy and replace all art, even his own (Kundera told Liehm that at this time, in a school debate, he had claimed that “even though socialism might bring about a period of cultural darkness, I would continue to support it”).

Jaromil, now publishing a few poems in Rude Pravo and circulating, a horrid but fascinating infant prodigy, round the drink parties of the intellectuals, has three aims. He wishes to escape from the humiliation imposed by his fond mother, to be free of any origins more cumbersome than clouds of glory (“He is free who is spat out from the sky and touches the earth without a pang of gratitude”); he also seeks a perfect and absolute love (he finds it annoyingly difficult to lose his virginity), an “Unio Mystica” with some fearless child of the people. Mostly, he wants to be noble, to die by fire in the service of the revolution as a young poet should.

La vie est ailleurs“—Life Is Elsewhere—was one of the slogans on the Sorbonne walls in May, 1968. Jaromil rejects the native things and people of his own life, convinced that a more “real” life is somewhere else: He joins a circle of poets who read their verse to the cadets of the secret police (one of Kundera’s most masterly scenes), and there encounters that janitor’s son, now grown up into a vigilant hunter of the class enemy. He begins a love affair with a shopgirl, redheaded and plain, treats her with neurotic cruelty, and finally, in the climax of the book, throws her into the hands of the secret police in an orgy of poisoned emotions: “the majesty of duty grows out of the bloody, wounded body of love.”

It is a subtle, highly constructed satire. It is also heavy with literary reference: Kundera evokes Keats (“You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you!”) as he describes Jaromil’s absolutism toward his mistress, and Lermontov’s fatal duel as he recounts Jaromil’s absurd death (from a chill caught deliberately on a balcony, after he has been insulted at a party). Scenes from the lives of Shelley, Rimbaud, and Nerval are briefly switched on like amplifiers. There is a little too much of this showmanship: the novel, which seems to me even better than the famous Joke, does not need these allusions.

If Kundera has become such an antiromantic, equating Czech lyricism with arrested development, what is his idea of classical maturity? He is very interested in middle-aged amorists, men who have been through the cataracts of political and emotional experience and turn into resigned, sardonic, but still kindly sensualists who deliberately limit the damage they do to their women. In Life Is Elsewhere, a ruined ex-officer working in a factory amuses himself with constellations of girls and contrives to be their friend as well as their seducer.

Many of these amorists turn up in the stories collected as Laughable Loves. In a long and speculative introduction, Philip Roth speaks of Kundera’s ” ‘amusement’ with erotic enterprises and lustful strategies,” his highly classical interest in the planned seduction and the way in which the most cunning or perversely devised approach to a woman may turn back into a joke at the planner’s own expense. And for Kundera, the opposition of romantic monogamist and disabused womanizer has a relation to his preoccupation with the poet-versus-novelist argument: in the long, reflective story called “Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead” a man has been divorced, with the result that “the one-woman apologetics (and the illusion of infinity) melted away, and in its place came an agreeable taste for and boldness in the pursuit of women (a pursuit of their varied finiteness).”


In the famous story “The Hitchhiking Game,” a man and his girl going on holiday together pretend to be strangers who have picked each other up for a quick throw, and then find that their comic masks are revealing true features. In “Edward and God,” an ambitious young teacher is laying siege to a godly virgin, and stages an interest in religion. When the unattractive headmistress sees him at church, Edward is obliged to seduce her instead, to save his job. Figures of eight continue to knot themselves: when the virgin finally relents, he is enraged with her abandonment of her principles and throws her over. You arrive at the last page, having got the step of this little minuet, expecting to find Edward suffering a genuine religious conversion. But Kundera is there waiting for you, with an ominous grin: good stories are not quite so neat….

Some of the stories are too discursive, in the old Mittel-europa manner, for Western taste. “Symposium,” about an evening of drink and sexy talk between doctors and nurses in a hospital, is overloaded with clever dialogue and mocking soliloquy. But the best pieces—like “Nobody Will Laugh”—are astonishing and touching. Kundera’s characters discuss Don Juan with enthusiasm. But it was Casanova, a more observant and kindly amorist, who died—a forgotten librarian—in Kundera’s own country, and fertilized the soil.

Alan Levy, author of Good Men Still Live!, is an American journalist who worked in Prague until he was arrested and deported with his family in 1971. His book about the events of 1968, Rowboat to Prague, was published in 1972. The title of the new book, a Czech saying in times of adversity, is dedicated to a Prague taxi driver called Karel Capek (namesake of the Czech playwright, but no relation to him). Levy first met Capek when he hailed his cab, a few days before the invasion. They started talking, and Levy asked his driver where he had learned such good English. “The prisons of our country in the nineteen-fifties,” Capek replied, “were the best education for everything in this world.” He had been in camps and jails, as a political prisoner, for eleven years.

The two men became friends. Capek contracted to take Levy’s children to school every morning in his cab, and as the days passed, Levy began to hear more of his story. The invasion came: Capek decided, as Dubcek fell and the Husák regime installed itself, that he had taken enough prison education for one lifetime, and in 1969 he and his family drove in the Warszawa taxi across the border to Austria. He landed up in Cicero, Illinois, as a factory worker. Alan Levy followed him there with a tape recorder: out of their days and nights of talk and reminiscence came this book, the story of Karel Capek’s life.

Of all the accounts of life in the labor camps of Czechoslovakia, this is the fullest and most detailed that I know. It does not have the literary and intellectual brilliance of Jiri Mucha’s Living and Partly Living, his prison diary kept with a hidden stub of pencil in the mines. It tells us nothing much about the special hell of the show-trial prisoners, described in many books of which Artur London’s The Confession remains the best. But it is the tale of a life, a magnificent record of the way in which the anonymous thousands behind the wire tried to stay alive, proud, and sane.

As a boy, Karel Capek took part in the rising which helped to liberate Prague at the end of the war (he gives an account of the unexpected and important part which the renegade Ukrainian troops from the Vlasov army played in throwing out the Germans). He was then, and still remains, contemptuously anticommunist, and after February, 1948, he crossed the border with a friend into the American zone of Germany after smashing up a communist office. Here some amateurish efforts were made to enlist him and a group of other Czech refugees as agents; they crossed the border again with a gun and some brass knuckles, determined to work against the regime in ways which they had hardly thought out. Their ring was swiftly broken up, and in August, 1949, Karel Capek, aged nineteen, was sentenced to fourteen years’ hard labor.

He went from Pankrác jail in Prague to the grim prison at Bory, plucking feathers and adding spit and urine to weigh them up to the day’s quota. Then it was the uranium mines of north Bohemia, Camp Unity, Camp Fraternity, Camp Equality, in dark tunnels where the sparkling black lumps of uranium ore promised their discoverers sterility and death. An unsuccessful attempt to tunnel a way out of one of these camps earned him three weeks of torture and other barbarity at the Convent of Our Lady, the local security police headquarters. Then it was Camp Prokop, working sixteen-hour shifts as the Russian demand for uranium increased, and eventually a blessed attack of jaundice which brought Capek for a few weeks to a civilian hospital at Karlovy Vary. And it was here, in the terrible year of 1953, that he discovered from the other patients and the nurses that all Czechs did not, after all, believe that the slave laborers were justly punished and that “good men” did indeed still live.

More camps: Vojna and Bytiz, where a fake forest supported by wires hid the huts from public view. Capek’s work became easier to bear; there was a building site and then a cozy boiler room. Rumors of amnesties came and died, but suddenly, in May, 1960, Karel Capek found himself standing alone and free on the pavement in Prague. Nine years of private life followed, until his next new start. And in Cicero, Levy found him promising his wife that she would be allowed to die in Prague.

The Case Worker, a first novel by the young Hungarian writer George Konrád, has been widely praised in the West. “One of the truly significant books of the decade,” according to the blurb. This sort of praise is out of proportion. The Case Worker is horrific, and Konrád possesses both the power to see and the power to describe what he sees. But there is much to make reservations about: his violent, remorseless battering of the feelings causes monotony, his rhetorical seizures which spatter the reader with a hundred hot adjectives in a few sentences are, it seems to me, the easy but wrong way to the effect he wants.

The novel, written in the first person, is about the life of a social worker (which Konrád once was). In the early part of The Case Worker, he is reminiscing: a young man cracking up under the pressure of grotesque human misery and brutality which are forced on him daily. Listening to his clients is “like swallowing fistfuls of mud”; his job, he realizes, is impossible, and anyway he would be a moral monster if he performed it: “my job is to sell indifference and normalcy…the policeman is there—and so am I—to put things right with a few swift and well-tried stratagems.” Like Miss Lonelyhearts, the narrator is gradually being sucked down into the appalling world of those he is meant to help: the alcoholics, the failed suicides, the exhibitionists. On his military service, in the Stalinist years, he was employed to sweep old minefields: a “cleaner” job, he felt, than civilian life at the time. Now he is sweeping the human minefield of Budapest’s poor, and it is exploding all over him.

In the second part of the tale, the case worker lands himself with a hairy, speechless, and incontinent monsterchild whose parents have poisoned themselves. In a long fantasy, he evokes the child’s fate if he were to leave it in a lunatic asylum, then decides to keep it, and moves into the room occupied by its dead parents: “God bless this being who guzzles, pisses and fiddles with himself, this being pampered by the blissful present…he is the hero of the here and now.” Presently the case worker becomes a case for another case worker.

What is memorable about the book is neither its narrative structure nor its tirades: Konrád’s real achievement is, in fact, his evoking of a “case,” the brilliant, economical creation of a character in a trap. He is a very talented writer, but The Case Worker is the sort of abreacting, subjective novel which does not yet prove him a gifted novelist and which, by its nature, can’t be repeated in variation or developed upon. Konrád’s next work will probably tell us more.

This Issue

August 8, 1974