For Milan Kundera, laughter is an act of protest. "Nothing is more persecuted in a totalitarian regime than laughter," the dissident Czech novelist said the other day in his Montparnasse apartment. "It is laughter that demasks the nonsense of totalitarianism. It is laughter that shouts 'the emperor has no clothes' and enables people to resist the stupidity of the regime and keep their interior distance from it.
"When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, it was the most tragic moment in the history of my country," added the man the French call "the master of derision." "But I have never seen such an outpouring of laughter and humor in all my life." As the rain drums down on the skylights of Kundera's fifth-floor flat, one can almost hear the tank treads clanking over the cobblestones of Prague.
His books are rich with sophisticated but tender political wit. Despite their innocuous titles ("The Joke," "Laughable Loves"), they have been banned in Czechoslovakia since 1968. When his most recent novel, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," was published in France two years ago, the Czech government revoked his citizenship.
"In the Prague Spring [of 1968] there was a euphoric skepticism, this mockery of socialism, when the Russians invaded," continues Kundera, whose soft voice competes with the storm outside. "People lived as if it were a carnival. The streets were full of posters ridiculing the Russian Army. The Czech people switched all the street and town signs, and the Russians found themselves in a labyrinth. It was absolutely comical. The Czech people saw the arrival of the Russians not as tragic or pathetic but sheer stupidity and nonsense. It was the reaction of derision, their only defense."
Kundera now is recognized as one of Europe's most distinguished contemporary writers. His works have been translated into 20 languages, and one of his plays "The Owner of the Keys," first produced in Czechoslovakia in 1962, has run in 14 countries. His novel "Life is Elsewhere," won the Prix Medicis for the best foreign novel published in France in 1973. "The Farewell Party," the story of an emigrant leaving central Europe for the West, was awarded the Premio letterario Modello, for the best foreign novel published in Italy in 1976. "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," translated into English, was published in the United States by Knopf last fall. It received rave reviews from the New York critics.
Elizabeth Pochoda, literary critic for the Nation, said that unlike Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, Kundera's literary canvas is more farcical than tragic, perhaps lighter and more touching. She added, "His a comedy deep enough for tears."
When Kundera won the Prix Medicis, the Czech government granted him a travel visa for the first time since 1969. With it, he moved to France in 1975 with his wife, Vera, and taught literature for two years at Rennes University. Subsequently he went to Paris where he now teaches a seminar on Franz Kafka at the Hautes Etudes (school for advanced studies).
"Kafka was a simple Europe and a great humorist," Kundera says, describing the Prague-born novelist on whose writings he grew up. "The spirit of Russia's totalitarianism is a cult of history that takes itself much too seriously. The small nations of central Europe have never pretended to make history. They have always been its victims. Hegel and his cult of history could never have been a Czech or Hungarian. Kafka could never have been a Russian. The spirit of central Europe is mockery of socialism, the humor of the minority. My humor is very much like that of Philip Roth -- the Jewish humor of irony."
On the street, Kundera could be mistaken for a Norwegian forester, with his handsome smile and his broad shoulders stuffed into a blue wool sweater. His long delicate fingers and smooth complexion, however, soften the first impression of brute solidity.
Born in Brono, Czechoslovakia, in 1929, Milan Kundera is the son of famous Czech pianist Ludvik Kundera. "Until the age of 15 I assumed I would be a composer or pianist," said Kundera, who spent a year on the road as a jazz musician in the late 1940s after he was expelled from the Communist Party and blacklisted at the university. "I grew up listening to my father practice Bartok six and seven hours a day. Imagine what a monsterous snob I must have been, a 13- year-old who loved Bartok. My only excuse was that I adored my father."
Kundera's writing is musical and his personality is capable of the varied moods of a Bartok symphony. He can be angular and intense, coarse or refined, academic or informal. Now he lets out a booming lumberjack laugh; now he withdraws brooding, shrinking back into a large black beanbag cushion that seems toswallow him up.
Kundera: "A man without a past becomes a shawdo." On the opening page of "Laughter and Forgetting" he writes: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
He leans forward into the light and rattles a long index finger to make a point: "The biggest Russian horror is not the Gulag [prison camp], but the Russian's rewriting of history. People in power rewrite history to justify themselves by changing the history that went before them. After one generation even the intelligent people don't know what happened."
In his new novel he writes: "The only reason people want to be master of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies andhistories are rewritten. They want to erase hundreds of thousands of lives from human memory and leave nothing but a single unblemished age of unblemished evil."
As Kundera speaks, his wife translates. He speaks French and is learning English from Vera. I pose questions in French; Kundera chooses to answer in Czech, and Vera translates back into English. Occasionally, Kundera answers my halting French with his own halting English. In the linguistic confusion, Vera starts to translate her husband's English into Czech for me, and then, realizing her error, explodes with laughter. She is a small, bright-eyed woman with a quiet intelligence and beauty. Vera, an impressive photographer, has a presence every bit as imposing as her husband's.
The novelist shrinks back into the shawdows near the wall. "When I started writing 'Laugther and Forgetting,' I knew it was the end. Such a book was totally unacceptable and it was the occasion they were waiting for to take away my citizenship. I could be given three years in prison simply for writing that [Gustav] Husak was the president of forgetting. By law, the president is protected against criticism."
The passage in his book which would earn him a prison term is, "If Franz Kafka was the prophet of a world without memory, Gustav Husak is its creator. . . . Husak, the seventh president of my country, is known as the president of forgetting.m The russians brought him into power in 1969. Not since 1621 has the history of the Czech people experienced such a massacre of culture and thought. . . . I find it highly significant . . . that Husak dismissed some 145 Czech historians from the universities and research institutes. One of those historians, my all but blind friend Milan Hubl, came to visit me one day in 1971 , in my tiny apartment on Bartolomejska Street.
"'The first step in liquidating a people,' Hubl said, 'is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.'"
The world forgets significant trends in history because of the "journalistic rush" to capture events, current events which sparkle the morning after with the "dew of novelty" but are soon lost, Kundera says. It is part of what he calls the blackbird theory of history.
"Over the last 200 years," he states, "the blackbird has abandoned the woods for the city -- first in Great Britain at the end of the 18th century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr Valley. Globally, the blackbird's invasion of the human world is beyond a doubt more important than the Spaniards' invasion of Southern America or the resettlement of Palestine by the Jews. . . ."
"[When] the blackbird goes against nature and follows man to his artificial, anti-nature world, something has changed in the planetary order of things. And yet nobody dares to interpret the last two centuries as the history of the blackbird's invasion of the city of man. We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us."
History constantly attacks Kundera and the characters in his novels. They become tangled in the thicket of their histories, ashamed of their past, in some cases tricked by their memories, or abandoned in reminiscences. He recounds his own history in an effort not to forget:
"I was 10 years old when the war broke out," he recalls, cupping his hands behind his head and focusing pensively on a far corner. "Not many people remember that before World War II Czechoslovakia was one of the most democratic countries in Europe. It was a parliamentary democracy with an atmosphere of great liberty and it resisted, until the last moment, fascist tendencies which existed in the rest of Europe. The President of the country was a philosopher. Even after the war, for three years there was a kind of euphoria, the sort that exists today in France [after the election of socialst President Francois Mitterrand]."
Amid the euphoria in 1947, Kundera enlisted in the Communist Party. "As a young boy I wanted to manifest freedom. The Communist Party was the expression of maximum nonconformity. All the Czech avant-garde were Communists, all the people I admired, the painters, and writers. There was a certain beauty and poetry to the revolution. There was Utopia-talk of a society where intellectual wouldn't be closed off in solitude from the people."
Kundera writes in "Laughter and Forgetting": "And so it happened that in February 1948 the communists took power not in bloodshed and violence, but to the cheers of about half the population. And please note: The half that cheered was the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half."
But the honeymoon soured. For political reasons he was expelled from both the party and university in 1948. "I was a student of 19 and spent the next several years doing many strange jobs: road construction, playing jazz -- a very bad form of jazz with a group of friends in small-town dance halls. At the time I thought it was the blackest period in my life. Today, strangely enough, I see it as one of the very best."
In 1956, after the 20th Centuries of the Communist Party, Kundera was reinstated in the party (only to be banned again in 1970). In the early '50s he had left his music and became involved in film and literature. "I came to literature through music," he explains. "The aesthetic imperative was much stronger than the political imperative. I did literature and film as one does music, to create a work of art. Composition in literature and music was exciting and efficient. You could relate in five pages something that took place in a second. In a single phrase you can capture something that took place over 10 years."
Eventually Kundera was appointed a professor of film at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague, and in the 1960s was closely associated with Czech New Wave film. Among his students was Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Hair"). "Forman and I were about the same age, but he came to school later than I. I was his teacher in Prague in 1959. It was a great period in literature, painting, philosophy, and music. In the 1960s we could teach absolutely whatever we wanted.
"[Former Czech Communist Party secretary Alexander] Dubcek was the climax of this period and during the process went so far that eventualy life in Czechoslovakia and life in Russia were completely different. The Russians couldn't tolerate it any more."
Kundera elegantly writes of what he calls the totalitarian temptation: "People have always aspired to an idyll, a garden where nightingales sing, a real harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man . . . where the world and all its people are molded from a single stock and the fire lighting up the heavens is the fire burning in the hearts of men, where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and anyone who refuses his notes is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect."
During the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia's outburst of creativity and assertion of independence, "the borders were opened," Kundera says, "and notes began abandoning the score of Bach's grand fugue and singing their own lines. The spirit was unbelievable. A real carnival. . . . Russia, composer of the master fugue for the globe, could not tolerate the thought of notes taking off on their own." And so in August 1968 the tanks rolled into Prague.
"Soon after the Russians occupied my country," he recalls, "I lost the privilege of working. . . .The secret police wanted to starve us out, cut off all means of support, force us to capitulate and make public confessions. . . ."
At that time Kundera had a one-room apartment on Bartolomejska, a short street in Prague, and "all the buildings except two -- one of which I lived in -- belonged to the police."
Despite the constant surveillance, Kundera continued to write and his reputation grew in Europe, where most of his books were published. By that time he had already published three collections of poems, two plays, several novels, and volumes of short stories.
"The most depressing thing is that I wasn't attacked personally by the Czechj police. My reputation protected me. But the police persecuted all the people connected to me. I had to consider the consequences of chatting with friends because I was under constant watch. It was a terrible risk for my friends but they came anyway to prove to me that they weren't afraid. They were menaced, harassed, and arrested."
Kundera later wrote: "I realized I had been chosen as a mailman to deliver to people warnings and punishments, and I began to feel afraid of myself."
As Kundera begins to recount his decision to leave his homeland in 1975 and teach in France, the doorbell rings. Vera answers it. The man at the door is a French writer who is collaborating with Kundera on a screenplay version of "The Farewell Party." The script, nearly finished, is stacked neatly next to a portable typewriter in a tiny office off the living room. Next to his desk is a mattress on the floor and on the wall a photograph of his father in Prague.
Kundera has already written and directed a film based on "The Joke"; the shooting of "The Farewell Party" is scheduled to begin this fall. As his friend enters the room Kundera fights to free himself from the clutches of his cushioned chair. They disappear to begin the final editing of the script.
Two mornings later I returned to Kundera's apartment with breakfast for three: a bag of croissants and pains aux raisinsm from the patisserie down the street. He came to the door in a yellow, crimson, and purple jersey that read in large letters "PENNSYLVANIA." It was a souvernir from a lecture he once gave in Philadelphia. I arrived on a French national holiday, a day that was warm and sunny, and Kundera was grumbling that the swimming pool he normally exercised in was closed. "It's the best form of exercise but I do get bored." Vera chimes in: "if only someone could be swimming in front of Milan with a book , he could read and swim all day."
Kundera had spent the previous day lecturing on Kafka and that is where the conversation began. "Kafka had a total vision of the bureaucratization of totalitarian society. I see him in a mirror for all history, not just for the period in which he wrote. Yesterday I compared Kafka and Orwell. Both had a certain vision of society and saw there was no place for human freedom when life is totally manipulated by social power. Orwell's books read like political science fiction, but Kafka was basically an unpolitical man and the totalitarian experience didn't exist in his time.
"Today in Prague, Kafka is the most read author. In the west, he is considered to be a hermetic author. That is, his vision is seen as a metaphor of merely subjective ventures. In Prague his writing is seen as hyperbole of the real and objective life in which he lived. He knew totalitarian society because he understood the totalitarian temptation that is the eternal temptation of man."
"What is this eternal temptation? The desire of one person to dominate another?" I ask. He pauses and grins. Vera looks at him and says, "Ah, they are concrete, these Americans! Things are not simple with them." She smiles at her husband impishly. "Yes, Milan, what ism eternal temptation?"
"That is a good question," he replies. "When I say 'totalitarian temptation" to French people they are enthusiastic because it is a beautiful phrase and they think in abstractions. You americans want to know what it means.
"It is not only the desire to dominate but is the old dream of a society where everyone is subjected to the common will, one common aim, where nobody has any secrets, where there is no difference between public and private life. Some interpret that as a poetical Utopian dream.
"Totalitarianism isn't total hell. It's together hell and paradise.The real concrete hell of totalitarianism is the loss of private life, the depersonalization of man. Life without privacy loses its basic human value. The Utopia of the surrealist is to live in a glass house and destroy the border between the public and the private. There's a certain nostalgia about the Utopia and harmony of the collective. Psychologically, the history of communism is a desire for harmony. That is one difference between Russia and the West.
"IT may surprise you, but countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary are part of what is called the West, which I think of as a cultural, not political territory. It is a civilization based on Christianity that has gone through the Gothic style, the Renaissance and Reformation, and has an art and tradition of tolerance, democracy, and inidivualism."
Kundera makes a crucial distinction by choosing to speak of central Europe, not Eastern Europe. "Culturally, central Europe is part of the West. After 1945, after the Yalta Conference, it became a part of Russian civilization. They had the same poliical system, but completely different cultural traditions.The mentality is quite different, and those countries have never accepted their annexation by Russia, as you can now see in Poland."
People in the West misread central Europe and its exiled artists, he says. He offers as a case in point France's treatment of Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czesla Milosz. "I happen to like Milosz very much, but between him and France there is a great misunderstanding. He was a challenge for the West because politically he was unclassifiable. He was badly accepted by the left wing which classified him as reactionary. The right wing called him a communist. Nobody wanted to understand he was a great writer. It is too bad but the 'isms' -- capitalism, socialism, and communism -- are dust in people's eyes.
"I am of the central European tradition the culture of Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, and Czeslaw Milosz. The tragedy is that this great culture was absorbed and smothered by the Russians.Psychoanalysis and structuralism was born in central Europe. Writers like Kafka created a new aesthetic art that carried on from Proust. The greatest revolution in modern music came from central Europe; Schoenberg, Bartok in Budapest. Between 1910 and 1940, the most exciting music was in central Europe.
"The drama of central Europe, from the point of view of the artist, is the story of the West that cannot keep its Westernness. Individualism, pluralism, the idea of democracy and discussion, the Cartesian principles of doubt and skepticism which is positive were all destroyed by communism. But it is not enough to create a political art to criticize the regime. That is the worst that can happen. Art and literature lose their value when they become propaganda, either communist or anti-communist."
Kundera's books have been praised by critics in the United States, but the Czech noelist is painfully aware how reticent most Americans are to learn foreign languages or to even read translations.
"The capacity of America to isolate itself and not accept the rest of the world is not only disappointing, it is a tragedy.All this talk about defending the freedom of expression. The Western tradition comes from the renaissance of richness in cultural variety and freedom of thinking and individuality and was born 400 years ago. To preserve freedom of culture means defending that tradition and memory in all its geographical richness. Americans have no right to pretend they are defenders of freedom if they are willing to let a culture like central Europe be buried."
Does this European novelist see American culture as a bland melting pot, a cultural wasteland? "I've been in America for a very short time and each hour I thought something different. The process of deculturization exists not only in America but throughout the world. What I don't like is the way the modern world has replaced culture with journalistic thinking.
"It is quick thinking that simplifies. It must simplify because the audience is large. It is thinking that is centered on actuality. It has a short memory. Cultural thinking is slow and sees the complications and nuances of the world. It never loses its memory. This is my global view of America," he says with a wry twist of his mouth, "and this is a journalistic answer."
When Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975, he brought with him his memories but had to leave behind his audience. "Suddenly I have quite a different public. The Czech public I knew quite well. I would see them in the streets and they told me what they liked and didn't like. Suddenly I am in Paris and I don't see my audience. There is a perverse, bizarre sort of liberation but it is also something tragic. I must formulate my work so that it is understood by everyone. I have become more universal. Czechoslovakia becomes an imaginary country, a microcosm of the world."
The approach is universal yet personal, but he is not writing fairy tales for the children. He deals frankly, often graphically with the complex issues that affect today's world: politics, the family, loneliness, metaphysics. He does not avoid sexuality.
The emigre novelist and his fictional characters crossed their share of borders, both external and internal. The final chapter of "Laughter and Forgetting" is entitled "Borders." Kundera writes: "It takes so little, so infinitely little for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history, human life -- and herein lies its secret -- takes place in the immediate proximity of that border. . . ."
Borders between countries are easier to walk away from than what Kundera calls the "borders we carry with us." Commenting on one of his characters, he says, "I feel Jan is wrong in thinking that the border is a line dissecting man's life at a given point, that it marks a turning point in time, a definite second on the clock of human existence. No, in fact, I am certain the border is constant with us, irrespective of time or our age."
Kundera plays down his notoriety as a crosser of borders and he repudiates the mystique that accompanies shibboleths "dissident" and "emigre novelist." He refuses to be the object of any such canonization. "If you consider yourself a hero you will never endure suffering. To survive you cannot take yourself too seriously."
Shortly after returning to the US, I received a postcard from Kundera. It was postmarked Oxford, England, and on the front was a photograph of a gargoyle, half-banshee, half-Mel Brooks, on the bell tower at New College. Kundera had scribbled on the back in black ink and Vera had corrected his grammar in blue: "I rethought about our interview . . . the sense of our discussion was: The greatest danger of suffering (of persecution, etc.) is to consider oneself a hero. To feel oneself a hero is to become an idiot.
"I am in Oxford to learn English (I suffer and I am an idiot).
"All my best, Milan."