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Book Reviews

Milan Kundera. Trans. Linda Asher. HarperCollins, 1996. 156 pp. $21.00.

Fans of Milan Kundera can be divided crudely into two camps: the Laughers and the Immortals. Laughers favor the sprightly, Scheherazade humor of Kundera's earlier books, slim books like The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Immortals prefer to curl up in bed (I like to imagine a narrow, thin-mattressed cot) with the Czech author's later, more solemn, even stern novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality. In spite of its lumbering title, Kundera's latest novel should bring a smile to the faces of Laughers everywhere.

Actually, whether a reader is a Laugher or an Immortal has less to do with preferring humor over gravity than it does with tolerance for Kundera's authorial presence. In the tradition of eighteenth-century novelists like Diderot, Richardson, and Sterne, Kundera is prone not only to lengthy philosophical digressions but even thematic explications of the story at hand. In the earlier novels, these asides read much more coyly, even self-deprecatingly, than they do in the later ones: by the time we reach Immortality, one suspects that Kundera, while composing the novel, had one hand on the typewriter and the other down his pants. (Kundera has admitted in interviews that he composed Immortality to be totally unfilmable. We Laughers wonder if he proposed it to be totally unreadable as well; at any rate, the hardcover has become a staple of bookstore remainder tables everywhere.)

Kundera is again with us from the very first page of Slowness, reading over our shoulder and whispering in our ear, but he has returned to a wry, witty tone that any Laugher should find pleasant, if not downright engaging. The narrator and his wife are taking a spontaneous holiday, cruising down a country highway, in search of a romantic chateau. Ruffled by the impatience of the other drivers on the road, the narrator asks: "Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folksong, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?" And hereupon hangs a tale, which you can be sure is plenty full of ambling, roaming, loafing, and bedding down.

Many tales, actually. Tales from the pleasantly amusing to the laugh-out-loud ribald. Dovetailed by an episodic, pass-the-baton narrative, these vignettes reveal the human comedy in the most unlikely of settings: an AIDS charity banquet, famine-stricken Somalia, even the White House office of Henry Kissinger. It may be that the story of Monsieur Cechoripsky's melancholy wanderings at an international conference for entomologists is comically successful because "humor in the academy" is usually done so poorly (God save us from another Moo). but it s more than likely due to the fact that instead of satire Kundera employs a kind of bittersweet, even forgiving tone that elevates the story above mere irony.

Of course. Kundera still revels in the pleasures of philosophical discursion, but rarely has he been so lyrical in his observations. A devoted young lover's fascination with the sensitivity of his older mistress is an ode to the resplendence of obsessive devotion: "he feels an irresistible impulse to fall to his knees and to stay fixed there as if witnessing a divine miracle." A recurring motif in the novel, this "staying fixed": a deliberate slowing down of the business of life in order to watch things closely, feel things deeply, and laugh from deep, deep down.

For all its delights, the recurring jokes, the occasional cutting to a parallel storyline based loosely on Les Liaisons dangereuses, and its musical narrative structure, Slowness is not a perfect book. I've never liked excessively political readings of literature, but here even I cringed from time to time at Kundera's simmering misogyny. Kundera often falls flat in his ruminations on popular media; it's been a problem since Immortality, in which his take on the evils of "the camera eye" is banal at best. Still, these moments are few; they re far outweighed by Kundera's laughing, dancing story, which, in the final third of the book, traipses toward a comic finale as evocative of the Marx Brothers as it is of Rabelais. [Joseph Allen O'Rear]
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Author:O'Rear, Joseph Allen
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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