This interview is condensed from two conversations Philip Roth had with
Milan Kundera after reading a translated manuscript of his "Book of Laughter and Forgetting"--one conversation while he was visiting london for the first
time, the other when he was on his first visit to the United States. He took these trips from France; since 1975 he and his wife have been living as
Èmigrès, in Reenes, where he taught at the University, and now in Paris. During the conversations, Kundera spoke sporadically in French, but mostly
in Czech, and his wife Vera served as his translator. A final Czech text was translated into English by Peter Kussi.
PR: Do you think the destruction of the world is coming soon?
MK: That depends on what you mean by the word "soon."
PR: Tomorrow or the day after.
MK: The feeling that the world is rushing to ruin is an ancient one.
PR: So then we have nothing to worry about.
MK: On the contrary. If a fear has been present in the human mind for ages, there must be something to it.
PR: In any event, it seems to me that this concern is the background against which all the stories in your
latest book take place, even those that are of a decidedly humorous nature.
MK: If someone had told me as a boy: One day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would
have considered it nonsense, something I couldn't possibly imagine. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968,
every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe, just as over the past five decades 40 million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the
world paying any heed. Or Lithuanians. Do you know that in the 17th century, Lithuania was a powerful European nation? Today the Russians keep Lithuanians on their reservation like a half-extinct tribe; they
are sealed off from the visitors to prevent knowledge about their existence from reaching the outside. I don't know what the future holds for my nation. It is certain that the Russians will do everything they can to
dissolve it gradually into their own civilization. Nobody knows whether they will succeed. But the possibility is here. And the sudden realization that such a possibility exists is enough to change one's
whole sense of life. Nowadays I even see Europe as fragile, mortal.
PR: And yet, are not the fates of Eastern Europe and Western Europe radically different matters?
MK: As a concept of cultural history, Eastern Europe is Russia, with its quite specific history anchored in the Byzantine world. Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, just like Austria have never been part of Eastern Europe.
From the very beginning they have taken part in the great adventure of Western civilization, with its Gothic, its Renaissance, its Reformation--a movement which has its cradle precisely in this region. It was here, in
Central Europe, that modern culture found its greatest impulses; psychoanalysis, structuralism, dodecaphony, BartÛk's music, Kafka's and Musil's new esthetics of the novel. The postwar annexation of
Central Europe (or at least its major part) by Russian civilization caused Western culture to lose its vital center of gravity. It is the most significant event in the history of the West in our century, and we cannot
dismiss the possibility that the end of Central Europe marked the beginning of the end for Europe as a whole.
PR: During the Prague Spring, your novel "The Joke" and your stories "Laughable Loves" were published
in editions of 150,000. After the Russian invasion you were dismissed from your teaching post at the film academy and all your books were removed from the shelves of public libraries. Seven years later you and
your wife tossed a few books and some clothes in the back of your car and drove off to France, where you've become one of the most widely read foreign authors. How do you feel as an ÈmigrÈ?
MK: For a writer, the experience of living in a number of countries is an enormous boon. You can only understand the world if you see it from several sides. My latest book, which came into being in France,
unfolds in a special geographic space: Those events which take place in Prague are seen through West European eyes, while what happens in France is seen through the eyes of Prague. It is an encounter of
two worlds. On one side, my native country: In the course of a mere half- century, it experienced democracy, fascism, revolution, Stalinist terror as well as the disintegration of Stalinism, German and
Russian occupation, mass deportations, the death of the West in its own land. It is thus sinking under the weight of history, and looks at the world with immense skepticism. On the other side, France: For
centuries it was the center of the world and nowadays it is suffering from the lack of great historic events.
This is why it revels in radical ideologic postures. It is the lyrical, neurotic expectation of some great deed of its own which however is not coming, and will never come.
PR: Are you living in France as a strange or do you feel culturally at home?
MK: I am enormously fond of French culture and I am greatly indebted to it. Especially to the older
literature. Rebelais is dearest to me of all writers. And Diderot. I love his "Jacques le fataliste" as much as
I do Laurence Sterne. Those were the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel. And their experiments were, so to say, amusing, full of happiness and joy, which have by now vanished from French
literature and without which everything in art loses its significance. Sterne and Diderot understand the novel as a great game . They discovered the humor
of the novelistic form. When I hear learned arguments that the novel has exhausted its possibilities, I have precisely the opposite feeling: In the course of its history the novel missed
many of its possibilities. For example, impulses for the development of the novel hidden in Sterne and Diderot have not been picked up by any successors.
PR: Your latest book is not called a novel, and yet in the text you declare: This book is a novel in the form of variations. So then--is it a novel or not?
MK: As far as my own quite personal esthetic judgment goes, it really is a novel, but I have no wish to force this opinion on anyone. There is enormous freedom latent within the novelistic form. It is a mistake to
regard a certain stereotyped structure as the inviolable essence of the novel.
PR: Yet surely there is something which makes a novel a novel, and which limits this freedom.
MK: A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist's desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in
the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy: The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified
whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting.
PR: Laughter has always been close to you. Your books provoke laughter through humor or irony. When your characters come to grief it is because they bump against a world that has lost its sense of humor.
MK: I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror. I was 20 then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn't fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor
was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.
PR: In your last book, though, something else is involved. In a little parable you compare the laughter of angels with the laughter of the devil. The devil laughs because God's world seems senseless to him; the
angels laugh with joy because everything in God's world has its meaning.
MK: Yes, man uses the same physiologic manifestations--laughter--to express two different metaphysical
attitudes. Someone's hat drops on a coffin in a freshly dug grave, the funeral loses its meaning and laughter is born. Two lovers race through the meadow, holding hands, laughing. Their laughter has nothing
to do with jokes or humor, it is the serious laughter of angels expressing their joy of being. Both kinds of laughter belong among life's pleasures, but when it also denotes a dual apocalypse: the enthusiastic
laughter of angel-fanatics, who are so convinced of their world's significance that they are ready to hang anyone not sharing their joy. And the other laughter, sounding from the opposite side, which proclaims
that everything has become meaningless, that even funerals are ridiculous and group sex a mere comical pantomime. Human life is bounded by two chasms: fanaticism on one side, absolute skepticism on the other.
PR: What you now call the laughter of angels is a new term for the "lyrical attitude to life" of your previous
novels. In one of your books you characterize the era of Stalinist terror as the reign of the hangman and the poet.
MK: Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise--the age old drama of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one
another. Andrè Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted
deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to
crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever
smaller and poorer.
PR: In your book, the great French poet Eluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?
MK: After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the "poesy of totalitarianism." He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for
comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard's Prague friend, the surrealist Zalvis Kalandra, to death by
hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade's execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.
And not just the poet. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium. This has by now been completely forgotten but it is the crux of the matter. People like to say: Revolution is
beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in
the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to
condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarianism poesy which leads to the gulag, by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are
still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre,
while the smoke of Kalandra's body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.
PR: What is so characteristic of your prose is the constant confrontation of the private and the public. But
not in the sense that private stories take place against a political backdrop, nor that political events encroach on private lives. Rather, you continually show that political events are governed by the same
laws as private happenings, so that your prose is a kind of psychoanalysis of politics.
MK: The metaphysics of man is the same in the private sphere as in the public one. Take the other theme
of the book, forgetting. This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the
past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life. This is the problem of my heroine, in desperately trying to preserve the vanishing memories of her beloved dead husband. But forgetting is also
the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting . This is what is currently happening in
Bohemia. Contemporary Czech literature, insofar as it has any value at all, has not been printed for 12 years; 200 Czech writers have been proscribed, including the dead Franz Kafka; 145 Czech historians
have been dismissed from their posts, history has been rewritten, monuments demolished. A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self. And so the political situation has brutally illuminated
the ordinary metaphysical problem of forgetting that we face all the time, every day, without paying any attention. Politics unmasks the metaphysics of private life, private life unmasks the metaphysics of politics.
PR: In the sixth part of your book of variations the main heroine, Tamina, reaches an island where there are only children. In the end they hound her to death. Is this a dream, a fairy tale, an allegory?
MK: Nothing is more foreign to me than allegory, a story invented by the author in order to illustrate some thesis. Events, whether realistic or imaginary, must be significant in themselves, and the reader is meant
to be naively seduced by their power and poetry. I have always been haunted by this image, and during one period of my life it kept recurring in my dreams: A person finds himself in a world of children, from
which he cannot escape. And suddenly childhood, which we all lyricize and adore, reveals itself as pure horror. As a trap. This story is not allegory. But my book is a polyphony in which various stories mutually
explain, illumine, complement each other. The basic event of the book is the story of totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children. All totalitarianisms do this. And
perhaps our entire technical age does this, with its cult of the future, its indifference to the past and mistrust of thought. In the midst of a relentlessly juvenile society, an adult equipped with memory and
irony feels like Tamina on the isle of children.
PR: Almost all your novels, in fact all the individual parts of your latest book, find their denouement in
great scenes of coitus. Even that part which goes by the innocent name of "Mother" is but one long scene of three-way sex, with a prologue and epilogue. What does sex mean to you as a novelist?
MK: These days, when sexuality is no longer taboo, mere description, mere sexual confession, has become noticeably boring. How dated Lawrence seems, or even Henry Miller, with his lyricism of
obscenity! And yet certain erotic passages of George Bataille have made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps it is because they are not lyrical but philosophic. You are right that, with me everything ends in
great erotic scenes. I have the feeling that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation. Hugo makes love to
Tamina while she is desperately trying to think about lost vacations with her dead husband. The erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located.
PR: The last part, the seventh, actually deals with nothing but sexuality. Why does this part close the book rather than another, such as the much more dramatic sixth party in which the heroine dies?
MK: Tamina dies, metaphorically speaking, amid the laughter of angels. Through the last section of the book, on the other hand, resounds the contrary kind of laugh, the kind heard when things lose their
meaning. There is a certain imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous. A person asks himself: Isn't it nonsensical for me to get up in the morning? to go to work? to strive for
anything? to belong to a nation just because I was born that way? Man lives in close proximity to this boundary, and can easily find himself on the other side. That boundary exists everywhere, in all areas of
human life and even in the deepest, most biological of all: sexuality. And precisely because it is the deepest region of life the question posed to sexuality is the deepest question. This is why my book of
variations can end with no variation but this.
PR: Is this, then, the furthest point you have reached in your pessimism?
MK: I am wary of the words pessimism and optimism. A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters
is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out in the world, that world
turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question.
There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than
questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the
novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.