Au Revoir, Milan Kundera
On July 11, 2023, the world said goodbye to Czech-born French novelist, Milan Kundera. The renowned author has left an indelible mark on the literary world with his insightful and thought-provoking works. Celebrated for his unique blend of philosophy, psychology, and fiction, Kundera's writings delve into the intricacies of human existence, exploring themes of love, identity, memory, and the challenges of living in a complex and absurd world.
Born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Kundera's early years were shaped by the political and social turmoil of his time. He witnessed the rise of communism in his homeland, a period marked by censorship, restrictions on artistic expression, and the suppression of individual freedoms. These experiences deeply influenced his writing and fueled his exploration of the human condition under oppressive regimes. And being born out of the depths of such oppression, Kundera places special importance on the idea of freedom. He believes that writing can liberate oneself. He creates a sophisticated cluster of people in fictional settings so that the readers may pose questions onto their own lives, through voyaging on the journey of the characters. Milan Kundera's stories are much more than plot progressions–rather, they are a philosophical journey inward.
His most famous text, a novel which has become synonymous with him, is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (first published in 1984). Kundera never expressed any interest in dictating the external appearances of the characters; he felt they were unnecessary additions in the temperament of human existence. Instead, he magnified the inner lives of the characters in the writings he penned. In this formative piece of novel, he divided human existence into two philosophical concepts-- lightness and heaviness. He argues that the "lightness of being" refers to a sense of freedom, spontaneity, and detachment from moral or societal expectations, while the "heaviness of being" represents commitment, responsibility, and the burden of choices. Human beings are plagued by both, and have to regulate between the lightness and the heaviness of being. Sustaining this philosophical concept, Kundera introduces an assortment of characters, all experiencing the throes of life in the backdrop of 1968 Prague Spring, which was a period of political liberalisation in Czechoslovakia.
In the novel, Kundera brilliantly employs his characters to embody different perspectives on the lightness of being. Tomas, a successful surgeon, embraces a philosophy of lightness, indulging in relationships without emotional attachments and pursuing a life free from commitments. His pursuit of lightness grants him a certain freedom but also leads to a sense of emptiness. In contrast, Tereza, Tomas's wife, represents the heaviness of being. She seeks stability and longs for a deep connection, finding comfort in the permanence of love. Tereza's struggles with the complexities of relationships highlight the burdens and responsibilities that come with emotional attachments. Her perspective challenges the notion of lightness, showing the depth and significance of human connection. Sabina, an artist and one of Tomas's lovers, embodies a different approach to lightness. She embraces her sexuality and rejects traditional notions of morality, believing that embracing the transient nature of existence is liberating. Sabina's perspective emphasises the individual's freedom to define their own values, unbound by societal expectations.
In an interview with Jordan Elgrably, Kundera talks about the ambiguity of the characters in his novel. According to the author, the purpose of the novel is to understand the individual truths of a kaleidoscope of characters. He encourages the readers to dive into the ambiguity of the characters, rather than trying to simplify their lives. Kundera believes that as readers, we would be encouraged to tackle the ambiguities and complexities of life, without extracting them from our existence. Kundera's texts, through this intermingling of fiction with philosophy, feel at once personal and yet unattainable. Reading a Milan Kundera text is not a simple feat, but rather, the readers are forced to question their own life and existence alongside the characters themselves. There is no moral superiority in his texts, which gives a refreshing insight into heavy topics such as sexuality and extra-marital affairs. Kundera's exploration of the lightness of being raises profound existential questions about the nature of human existence. He challenges traditional views that associate heaviness with meaning and permanence. Instead, Kundera suggests that lightness grants life its richness and vitality. Moreover, Kundera questions the impact of choice in our lives. He argues that the lightness of being emerges from the freedom to make choices without being weighed down by the consequences. This philosophical perspective resonates with the readers, prompting introspection and contemplation about the choices we make in our own lives. Kundera urges his readers to never be bogged down by choices, but rather exercise one's own rhetoric to make conscious decisions that help take control of one's life.
Indeed, losing Milan Kundera is a substantial loss to the literary world. Here was a writer who made you think as well as feel. But at least, his readers can be comforted to find his brilliant musings in the nooks-and-crannies of every word and punctuation which he very generously left in the palm of his reader's hands.
Tasnim Naz is an academician of English Literature in Bangladesh University of Professionals. Her research interests are Feminism, Diasporic Study and Postcolonial Studies. Reach her at [email protected]