Sunday, December 24, 2006

Milan Kundera and The Art of The Novel

I just finished Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. There are lots of little interesting things in it, but I’ll just mention a couple that caught my attention.

The book was published in 1985, and Kundera doesn’t foresee the end of the Soviet empire. In an amusing bit about translation, he explains why good translation is so important to him. It’s because his books couldn’t be published in Czech. He was an unperson there. It’s a small country and there aren’t a lot of Czech speakers elsewhere in the world. So he was dependent on translators to provide him a readership, and wanted them to do their job well.

Imagine being in that situation. What if you were a writer not quite of Kundera’s Olympian stature? Who’s going to translate your works?

The other thing that amused me was the word “Kafkan.” This appears to be Kundera’s alternative to “Kafkaesque.” He has a lot to say about Kafka, who looms large for him as a key writer. Kafkan refers to kinds of situations—endless bureaucratic labyrinths, for example. Kundera might even classify those impossible phone navigation systems as Kafkan—getting an answer from them is like Joseph K. getting to the Castle. Another Kafkan situation is the file, the report on an individual taking the place of the individual—the file is the real thing, and the person is just a shadow. Another Kafkan situation is that of the punished seeking the offense—you are locked in a jail and tortured, so you conclude you must have done something! Obviously this can apply to the spurious admissions of torture victims in show trials, but Kundera makes it out to be more of an interior problem. The accused concludes for himself that he must have done something wrong. A relatively recent case of this was the Sheriff up near Olympia who came to believe that he had raped his daughters and participated in bizarre satanic rituals, after being accused and jailed for these crimes (which never happened). The final Kafkan attribute is that the situation seems to be a joke, except for those in the joke—where the situation is a nightmare.

Kundera provides examples from Communist Czechoslovakia, but rightly points out that the thing Kafka had identified is a world ruled by offices, by bureaucracy. He is careful to point out that Kafka wasn’t thinking about the future—he wasn’t warning anyone of anything. He wasn’t political, and the ideas in his novel feel so true today. They are as true in the capitalist world of credit reports and extended warranties as they were in the Communist world.

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