Thursday, 23 February 2006

Review: Farewell Waltz, Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a delightful book, but one that is not without irregular features — but we know that often the most beautiful face is less than geometrically perfect. Kundera writes passionately, like a drunk whispering banalities into your ear. As the whispering grows softer you strain to hear what is being said. It is not an easy book to read, but repays diligence generously. The last time I read a book that gave so much attention to a pill, it was Lolita — another uneven masterpiece. I’m not sure that this book fully deserves that epithet, but it contains some memorable events.

The characters seem to divide and multiply like single-cell organisms, but they are actually quite few. Their interrelationships are unnerving and possess an uncanny similarity to those found in real life, again like those in a Nabokov novel, such as King, Queen, Knave.

Klima is distressed. He does not believe that he is the father of Ruzena’s unborn child. Ruzena, stubborn and somewhat unpleasant, threatens to disturb the balance of Klima’s life with a revelation. Klima’s beautiful wife is jealous, suspecting that his visits to the spa town are related to another woman. On the other hand there is Jakub, older guardian of Olga, the willowy child of his old nemesis. We are in Czechoslovakia. Politics are dangerous and their consequences can ruin a child’s life. The spa also holds Bertlef, a rich, religious and spiritual American who can speak the language and is ill.

The way Kundera manages these individuals is masterful. Jakub is slightly poetic and muses on the meaning of life. His pill has given him a certain outlook on life that precludes dread and, now that he is about to leave the country for good, he rids himself of it. But his act has unforseen consequences, and drives the narrative through the second part of the book strongly. With deft strokes Kundera paints his scenarios. The hungry music of this prose resembles that of Saramago: a clean movement and one motivated by comedy.

If the treacherous world of women frightened her so, could she not find solace in the world of men?
  Hardly. Jealousy has the amazing power to illuminate a single person in an intense beam of light, keeping the multitude of others in total darkness. Mrs. Klima’s thoughts could go only in the direction of that painful beam, and her husband became the only man in the world.
  Now she heard the key in the lock, and then she saw the trumpeter with a bouquet of roses.
  At first she was pleased, but doubts immediately arose: Why was he bringing her flowers this evening, when her birthday was not until tomorrow? What could this mean?

Kundera mixes business with pleasure. But this novel, which starts as almost a romantic comedy, shifts gears and becomes something else. A meeting between Olga and Jakub is only one way the shadows emerge from the surrounding darkness.

“But Jakub! Nevertheless a hundred thousand people were put in prison! And thousands never came back! And not a single one of those responsible was ever punished! This desire for revenge is really just an unsatisfied desire for justice!”

The spell of the book is broken, as it seems intended, by the rather clumsy metaphoric use Ruzena makes of the band of old dog-catchers. This failure brings back the feeling that the story is not up to the mystery it purports to carry.

For Ruzena what she was seeing was merely a component of her own story: she was an unhappy woman caught between two worlds: Klima’s world rejected her, and Frantisek’s world, from which she wanted to escape (the world of banality and boredom, the world of failure and capitulation), had come to look for her here in the guise of this assault team as if it were trying to drag her away by a wire loop.

No doubt Czechoslovakia under communism was a terrible place, but the rather heavy-handed approach Kundera takes detracts from the immediacy of the message, which he must fork out at length and explicitly.

He scratched the dog’s back and thought about the scene he had just witnessed. The old men armed with long poles merged in his mind with prison guards, examining magistrates, and informers who spied on neighbours to see if they talked politics while shopping. What drove such people to their sinister occupations? Spite? Certainly, but also the desire for order. Because the desire for order tries to transform the human world into an inorganic reign in which everything goes well, everything functions as a subject of an impersonal will. The desire for order is at the same time a desire for death, because life is a perpetual violation of order. Or, inversely, the desire for order is the virtuous pretext by which man’s hatred for man justifies its crimes.

But what started out expressed as if whispered into your ear becomes a sad, idiosyncratic lament at the poverty of the human soul, like a sorrowful country-and-western song. However, Kundera manages to keep his sense of humour alive:

Old men are recognizable by their habit of bragging about past sufferings and making a museum of them (ah, these sad museums have so few visitors!). Olga realized that she was the most important living object in Jakub’s museum and that Jakub’s generously altruistic attitude toward her was meant to move visitors to tears.

The story is sometimes so amusing that you forget there was an author — as if it had emerged complete at the top of a flower’s stem. But the rigour of the fact that there are only five days in total is always there in the background, like a line of trees on the horizon, demarcating it clearly.

You’re not always sure how seriously Kundera takes himself. At other times his sincerity is overwhelming. In this case, you’re not sure:

The joyful shamelessness of the fat women in the pool was a necrophiliac ring dance around the transience of youth, a ring dance made all the more joyful by the presence in the pool of a young woman to serve as sacrificial victim. When Olga wrapped herself in the sheet they interpreted the gesture as sabotage of their cruel rite, and thus were furious.

The quiet irony of the book is not constant, but not less delightful for that. In another passage, the dispassionate eloquence is laced with humour and the enjoyment of an over-extended metaphor:

[Ruzena] felt she was a fugitive pursued by time. She realized that by tomorrow she would have to know what she wanted, and she knew nothing. In the whole world there was not one person she trusted. Her own family was alien to her. Frantisek loved her, but that was just why she mistrusted him (as the doe mistrusts the hunter). She mistrusted Klima (as the hunter mistrusts the doe). She liked her colleagues well enough, but she did not quite trust them (as the hunter mistrusts other hunters). She was alone in life, and for the past few weeks she had been carrying in her womb a strange companion who some maintained was her greatest chance and others completely the opposite, a companion toward whom she herself felt only indifference.

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