The Farewell Waltz (The Farewell Party)Click & Buy: Farewell Waltz

Novel in 5 parts, written in Czech, in 1976 published in France.
English translation by Peter Kussi.

Fiction: a Czech Comedy, an Argentinian Tour de Force

By SAUL MALOFF

Milan Kundera is one of the writers and intellectuals closely affiliated with that brief burgeoning, the "Prague Spring," Alexander Dubcek's doomed attempt to create enclave for "socialism with a human face," which ended brutally, before it could begin, under Soviet tanks in the cold summer of 1968. Kundera--a poet, playwright, musicologist, as well as novelist and short-story writer-- suffered the fate of the unrepentant; exclusion from the writer's union; loss of his teaching post at the Prague Film School; denial of passport; banning of his plays--familiar, depressing exactions of the State's revenge. An official pariah, he would not consent to practice what Isaac Babel called the "aesthetics of silence"; he went on writing and he has steadily gained a Western European reputation, including the 1973 Prix Mdicis Etranger for his novel "Life is Elsewhere." That novel and another, "The Joke," together with a collection of stories, "Laughable Loves," have been published in this country, though for some unaccountable reason he is not well know here. A pity, since he arrives not as a literary charity case, but as an uncommonly accomplished, original, disquieting writer.

Given his recent history, Kundera's new novel, like much of his previous work, reverses them again and again, until we see that the prevailing terms of the understanding were contained all alone in the fine print while our attention was slyly deflected elsewhere. Who would expect of a contemporary Czech novel the atmosphere of sexual farce more suited to the French or Viennese turn-of-the-century stage?

"The Farewell Party" seems washed in that light. The health spa and fertility clinic that is the setting is only a four-hour drive from the unnamed "capital," but it might as well be in another, timeless, world. The barren ladies, a kind of soggy chorus, splash about in the mineral waters, hoping by their miraculous immersion that flowers will bloom in the desert. And they do flower, the ladies, little suspecting that the source of insemination is the direct injection administered by the Mad Scientist, Dr. Skreta, from his own personal sperm bank. What better situation for mindless erotic frolic on a gaudily bedecked stage that seems constructed for no other purpose?

All the characters and circumstances--all stereotypes and caricatures--seem to confirm this, for example, Nurse Ruzena (a version of the saucy Maid), newly pregnant, possibly in consequence of "the fateful two hours" in her room at the Karl Marx House with Klima, the Philandering Husband of Kamila, the Betrayed Wife who, in her turn, comes within a stroke of enacting an orgiastic fantasy cinq. The characters spin and twirl, and the absurd situations accumulate in near- pandemonium. A new character enters and the atmosphere alters subtly; he is Jakub, a "rehabilitated" victim of a Stalinish purge, returned from the house of the dead, having been betrayed by an old friend, a Party official who is himself killed by his masters. Yet even Jakub, on his way to a new life in another country, seems destined to become another figure in the stylized pantomime.

Sexual comedy, then, burlesque; or so it seems. Throughout, the tone hold icily to that of high comedy, elegant, worldly, just as the narrative gracefully weaves it patterns until the inevitable design is wholly achieved. But in Kundera's work, comedy and farce, although they are persistent elements in his sense of life and practice of art, are always subverted and transformed by darker, more ambiguous tones.

What begins in light ends in shadow. Nurse Ruzena's father, a stout defender of the faith, thinks stray dogs are the vilest enemies of the people. Along with his cronies--a kind of Red Guard of ideological dog-catchers outlandishingly got up in paramilitary glad rags and brandishing long poles with loops--he is their scourge. Flat-out slapstick, in short, though slapstick with sinister political overtones. But their outrageous cavorting, instead of providing a mere comic interlude, proves decisive.

Unexpectedly, the shadows gather and swiftly deepen, enclosing Ruzena and Jakub, strangers to one another. Something in his face--ironic intelligence--infuriates her. Out of rage she struts and flashes her charms; instead of succumbing to them, his heart goes out to an imperiled "fat bulldog with an ugly human face." The dog-catchers want to call in the tanks. Ruzena, only a moment earlier contemptuous of the "foolish fanatics," becomes one of them; and aware of the life within her shouts at Jakub: "I'll bet you're the type that fills baby carriages with dogs." Their eyes meet with a "clash of sudden naked hatred."

The occasion is ridiculous, an argument over a rambling bulldog and some Keystone Kops; but in the enflamed vacuity of her face Jakub sees everything corrupt and murderous in his motherland; while for Ruzena his acerbic intelligence--his "hateful irony"--"seemed to be kicking her back where she came full range of motion, where she did not want to stay," to condemn her to a hated life as a nurse providing towels and sheets to infertile matrons in a provincial town. Jakub, a good man purified by his experience, suddenly wants to kill her, literally, though until now he has exempted himself from his judgment that all men are killers waiting for a chance.

The scene is brief, a turbulent passage in the even stream of narrative; but it is crucial and representative of the author's strategies. Following its eruption, Kundera's voice resumes its more temperate manner--courteous, witty, surgical, amused at the absurdity of it all, as if nothing remarkable had happened. But something has happened that casts its somber light ahead and behind. And it has deadly consequences: a girl actually dies, killed by inadvertence, "unintentionally." It is a little death, a minor disruption, soon forgotten by most of the characters, washed over by the flow of their lives. Jakub drives toward the frontier and his chosen exile, his head bursting with images of the flaming foliage, the gorgeous dying of his native landscape, desolated by the loss or his homeland.

Kundera, himself an internal exile in post-Dubcek Czechoslovakia, has fashioned the kind of novel still possible for an Eastern European writer who declines to submit in the face of crushing penalties. As if oblivious, he remains faithful to his subtle, wily, devious talent for a fiction of "erotic possibilities. . .and enterprises" (Philip Roth's phrase in introducing the American edition of Kundera's stories) in a setting "beyond justice." In the foreground, his women and men plot their intricate designs, while the clowns in their funny costumes prance about with looped poles on the hunt for woebegone pups, and babble about law and order. In the background is "the capital" from which authority flows. "The Farewell Party" is the kind of "political novel" a cunning, resourceful, gifted writer writes when it is no longer possible to write political novels.

 

 

 

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