Milan Kundera: high peaks, deep chasm

Hari Jagannathan June 20, 2010
Who’d have expected an author’s fortunes in Hardywood to fluctuate so much with a single novel-screening? In the past, popular authors have been dumped unceremoniously, but has there ever been an author who, in a single novel-screening, has impressed the viewers greatly, and then, only a few hundred or so pages later been discarded with unspeakable disgust?

Indeed a high peak, and then a deep chasm.

Milan Kundera’s novel “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” was the first translation screening in Hardywood; in that sense, his debut was historic: Hardywood has always been hesitant in allowing translated novels, believing that in a translation, expression cannot be effective as it is no longer the author’s direct touch, and that there is a degree of adulteration that comes from the translator. But the qualms were dispelled, thanks to strong campaigning by President Steinbeck.

When the screening was started, there was instant confusion in Hardywood as to whether the book contained a single story or a series of stories. But whatever it was, the screening got off to a roaring start, and pages tumbled upon one another in a hurry. In the second “story” – it was not clear then if the story was part of a greater plot that could only be seen from an eagle’s eye view – the viewers in Hardywood had glimpses of Kundera’s pervasive use of sex and eroticism. There were sporadic protests, yet the fast-paced nature of the screenings made us forget all, and then Kundera started to climb the peak.

Thoughts, stunningly insightful opinions, and intellectualism flowed amply, and viewers were glued to their seats, disbelieving that an intellectual book could run so quick. But indeed it did. It ran fast and steady like a rushing river. The quotes, the sentences, the great use of repetition, open-ended speculation, made Kundera seem as luminous as any intellectual author ever known to Hardywood. In fact, there were several who said that he was the best, till the decline began. His image is a little tarnished now.

Maybe Kundera overdid it; he “overspoke” himself time and again, repeating some ideas, and then started to fray the nerves of the viewers with his pontifical outlook. In every story, the central character – and indeed every other character - always made love; there was love making time and again, the motions of love-making, the descriptions of love-making, the descriptions of the perverted thoughts that ran in the characters’ minds. It was much too repetitive and frustrating for the audience. Kundera’s technique relied on exposition of a character based on the character’s behaviour while having sex; it was effective to an extent, but to a strict extent only, and then he went beyond and crossed the border, not unlike the “border” that some of characters of the last story cross.

By that time, the viewers were merely going through the motions, as another orgy was introduced, and more eroticism was spilled from an already overflowing pail. At the end of it, Kundera was in a chasm. Whether he’ll be given another screening or not depends on the temperament of the people of Hardywood, on how long they hold a grudge against him. Experts from the Novel Industry say that the damage is merely temporary, and that Hardywood will accept another fresh screening from him in the next year or so.

The most classic example of an author who has come back from the dead is Joseph Conrad, who was all but thrown out after “Heart of Darkness” but then re-emerged strongly a year later with “Lord Jim”. Likewise, in spite of what happened, Kundera is good, they all say in Hardywood; he is very creative, his ideas on human behaviour ring exceptionally true, he is a genius at expostulating character. It shouldn’t be long then, before he appears again!
Hari Jagannathan Hari Jagannathan Balasubramanian is assistant professor of Industrial Engineering at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Amherst. He blogs at Thirty letters in my name.
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