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East Meets West -- A Chat with Kundera

Millions of Chinese readers got to know the work of Milan Kundera through his best-seller The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the late 1980s. Since then, thanks to Yu Zhongxian and other translators' painstaking endeavors, more and more of Kundera's works have been introduced into China, bringing about a Kundera fever in the 1990s.

In The Art of the Novel (1985), Kundera, while living in Paris, announced he would never give an interview. However, when Yu Zhongxian, who translated Kundera's Testaments Betrayed, The Farewell Waltz and Laughable Loves into Chinese, visited France in August, this private old man readily agreed to meet him.

On August 5, Kundera and his wife Vera Hrabankova hosted a visit from Yu in a restaurant on the floor below their house on Recanner Street.

'Don't Like the US'

Since Milan Kundera was born on All Fools' Day, 1929, it seems appropriate that he likes to play jokes both in his works and daily life. In Testaments Betrayed he claims that the life of a novel comes from its humor. Before their meeting, Yu offered on the phone to wear a peaked cap in case Kundera would not recognize him. The playful old man replied, "Never wear an American-styled peaked cap," adding, "I'm just joking."

Since his conversation was full of humor, it's often hard to tell what's serious from what's not. The same can be true of his fiction. For instance, the protagonists in both The Joke and Laughable Loves fall into the trap of lying somewhere between humor and seriousness.

Nevertheless, what he said about the "peaked cap" was probably not a joke, since American culture is among the things Kundera dislikes the most.

Personally, Kundera doesn't like the United States including George W. Bush and his administration, as well as all American-fashioned modern culture. During their chat at the dining table, what concerned Kundera was the question whether or not China was modeling itself on the US and becoming a second America in the future. Yu admitted that culturally, some Chinese had shown the tendency of emulating the US. Specifically, he said, American movies had flooded Chinese cinemas, and the Oscar was held in high esteem. "As a result, some French literary trends won't be widely accepted by Chinese intelligentsia until they have acquired a gilded reputation in the US first," Yu said.

Actually, Kundera's dislike of the US has gone to extremes. "I don't like (north) American literature,” he claimed. Nonetheless, Kundera has cherished a deep love for Latin American literature. Many Latin American writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa are his good friends.

Emigrating from former Czechoslovakia, Kundera is not well disposed towards French people either.

Yu complained at first: "For people living outside of Paris -- the center of Europe, they have to acquire a wider knowledge so as to be able to speak with French people on an equal standing." Echoing Yu's opinion, Kundera said the French didn't have to know more about other people, other cultures, since they were living right at the "center." "They consider that they needn't know much, as it's up to others to know about the French," Kundera said, adding that Americans are even more so. "So in this respect, personally, I have a similar feeling to what Chinese people have," he said.

When asked if somebody was writing a biography of him, Kundera replied "no." True enough, Kundera does not like his private life to be brought into sharp public focus. He only allows other people to pay attention to his work.

Immortality the Favorite

Kundera recommended a young Italian named Massimo Rizante to Yu. Massimo is sorting out research material on Kundera's novels published in different countries. "You look quite modern, so you can contact Massimo by means of email," Kundera told Yu.

By far several monographs on Kundera's novels have come out in print, including Maria Nemcova Banerjee's Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera and Francois Ricard's Agnes' Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera.

Kundera's French-version of Ignorance, which was published in 2003, has a conspicuous spot in all bookstores in Paris. Kundera jokingly called it his "deimes work." Answering Yu's question regarding the meaning of "deimes," the old man said in a playful manner: "That means, I shall not write any more. From now on it's Vera's turn. She writes, and publishes in my name."

Kundera classified his own work into two categories. The first includes six novels written in French and seven translated from Czech, with which the author is satisfied. From 1985 to 1987 Kundera went over these seven French translations, concluding "they have the same value as that of the original Czech works."

The second category includes literary works written before his first novel The Joke (1967), such as Man, a Wide Garden (poetry, 1953), Monologues (poetry, 1957), The Owner of the Keys (play, 1962), and The Art of the Novel (essay on Vladislav Vanèura) (1960), all of which are "worthless" in Kundera's opinion.

"Then which one is your favorite?" Yu asked.

This question really put Kundera in a fix. After some hesitation, he said, "Well, hard to say which one I like the most. Comparatively speaking, I have a tender spot for Immortality."

Milan Kundera: A Private Writer

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929 in Brno, former Czechoslovakia. After World War II he jobbed as a worker and jazz-musician. Between 1948 and 1952 he attended Charles University in Prague to study musicology, literature, aesthetics, film direction and script writing.

While still a teenager and full of enthusiasm, Kundera joined the ruling Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1948. However, two years later he was expelled for "anti-party activities." Kundera used this incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his first novel The Joke. He was re-admitted to the Communist Party in 1956, but was expelled again in 1970 for the second time.

In 1975 Kundera became guest professor at the University of Rennes in France. He was deprived of Czechoslovakian citizenship in 1979 and since 1981 has been a French citizen.

In 1982 Kundera completed The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Paris. It was this novel that made Milan Kundera an internationally famous author.

Immortality (1988) was Kundera's first novel written in French. In fact, it was the most French of Kundera's novels. There are no Czech but French protagonists in Immortality. A criticism of modern civilization towards the end of the twentieth century, Immortality is primarily a European novel with French overtones.

Kundera is an extremely private person. He guards the details of his personal life as a secret, which is, he once said, of "nobody's business." He strictly controls public information about his life. For example, in the latest French editions of Kundera's works, his "official biography" consists of only two sentences, "Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 and since 1975 has been living in France."

The reason of doing so lies in his belief that literary texts should be perceived on their own merit without the interference of extra-literary reality.

(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, September 3, 2003)

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