Kundera is Immortality. Immortality is Kundera.
If I were to liken the four books I’ve read of this Czechoslovakian author (who speaks fluent French), I’d say that his prose in each novel are like pearls on a string. Each pearl is lovely to look at and hold, and together, they form a sparkling and seamless reflection of his deepest philosophical thoughts. He’s a black pearl with his unabashed, brilliant perversion.
But of all the Milan Kundera titles I had the privilege of reading, only Immortality has that immortal quality of remaining in the pages of a novel. I cannot imagine it being depicted as a film. I believe Unbearable Lightness of Being had a movie depiction in the 1980s or early 1990s. That was somehow possible. But I doubt that anyone can actually capture the essence of Immortality in the big screen. It’s too good, too intricately woven to be depicted otherwise. Clearly, there are things that remain in novels. He even had one character, Professor Avenarius, expound on this idea: “The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothings but the nonessential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold.”
There is something so strange about the author in this novel. All throughout the novel, he is interspersing his way in and out of the world of his main characters. Interestingly, this novel was borne out of Kundera’s inspiration from a gesture of an old woman in a health club. Imagine that! One gesture leads to gesticulations of this smart man’s thoughts finally distilled into a work of prose that had me thinking harder than I have ever thought for any other book I have read this entire month.
And in the book’s setting, his main character, Agnes, possessed the immortality of the other great people he mentioned like Goethe and Hemingway.
“Agnes looked upon old men with envy; it seemed to her that they aged differently: her father’s body slowly changed into its shadow, it dematerialized, it remained in the world merely as a carelessly incarnated soul. In contrast, the more useless a woman’s body becomes, the more it is a body, heavy and burdensome; it resembles an old factory destined for demolition, which the woman’s self must watch to the very end, like a caretaker.”
It had a haunting quality that will make you think, will make you sad, and will make you strangely nostalgic as if you are an old person sitting on a rocking chair and ruminating on days gone past in the throes of old age. The mixing of the setting, the mingling of Kundera with his main characters and the intersections between recollection and present-day made the novel’s structure unlike any other. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez posed a challenge with his punctuation-hating patriarch, Kundera posed a challenge to the reader with the numerous layers of philosophical insights discussed in the midst of a well-woven and non-linear storytelling.
Kundera’s other main characters are all well-developed, even putting in a surprise character in the end who was used to tie all the philosophical arguments together from earlier chapters. I had a love-hate relationship with the characters of Paul and Laura. But they way they were characterized as a couple in love by Kundera completely floored me: “It was summertime. Laura closed her shop and the two of them left for a two-week seaside vacation. The waves dashed against the shore and their call filled Paul’s breast. The music of this element was the only kind that he loved passionately. He discovered with happy surprise that Laura merged with this music; the only woman in his life whom he found to resemble the sea; who was the sea.”
In the novel, the themes of sibling rivalry and complicated father-child and husband-wife relationships were portrayed. They were not depicted in the usual sappy and predictable way that sells like hotcakes these days. It was under the grand scheme of eliciting words that produce more words in the head. “Yes, the essence of every love is a child, and it makes no difference at all whether it has ever actually been conceived or born. In the algebra of love a child is the symbol of the magical sum of two beings.”
What I like the most about the book is the numerous metaphors that Kundera is notoriously an expert in. In Unbearable Lightness of Being, he mentioned love as a metaphor. In Immortality, he had metaphors for every person. If Laura was the sea, there was also corresponding metaphors for husbands and fathers. “The world of roads was the world of fathers. The world of highways was the world of husbands. And Agnes’s story closes like a circle: from the world of roads to that of highways, and now back again.”
I was chuckling at the relevant themes that I noticed. It was during the height of celebrity scandals of morning talk shows when I got to this part of the book: “Fame adds a hundredfold echo to everything that happens to us. And it is uncomfortable to walk the world with an echo.“And with the non-stop reports on a politician’s messed-up love life, I also found an equally appropriate quote from the same book: “Humor can only exist when people are still capable of recognizing some border between the important and unimportant. And nowadays this border has become unrecognizable.”
And I realized that in any age or century, this thing holds true. Saliently, other universal precepts like suffering were touched on albeit a little lightly: “In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.” (I might have a master’s degree already from this university, basing from my blogging activity and increasing self-absorption these days. LOL)
The whole book is quite MEATY for the brain that genuinely loves to probe beyond the gestures depicted in the surface, for the lack of a better word. It plumbed the depths of my head using concepts usually reserved to depict the emotions of the heart. No word put to waste. Everything had its purpose. It was like in that old novel I read which he also wrote (the title is The Farewell Party) that revolved around a blue pill. In this case, the world revolved around a woman’s single gesture at a health club. I am no literature expert (although I certainly wish I knew the technical terms for these literary phenomenon that these great writers have in common) in the college degree sense of the word, but I enjoy reading as one of my hobbies. And this title, Immortality, enchants me. I am so fascinated at how something can emerge out of the two-dimensional world of words printed on paperback. It elicited a world within a world within a world, if I may add. The sense of shame of the public’s prying of artists’ lives posthumously that literary greats struggle with were depicted anew, just like his exposition in The Testament (an essay in nine parts).
Again, all his creations are pearls on a single string, gems of words that are consistently aligned with each other. If I were to become a competent writer of anything, I’d like to have my own pearl necklace of words like he did. But my occasional lack of logic betrays me so I can probably just hope for a hodge podge of buttons on a basket than a pearl necklace. Nonetheless, this literary genius is one of my writing inspirations, without a doubt.
And for those who like to make literary necklaces, here’s a comforting thought from the same: “…that those who create (statues, poems, symphonies) deserve more respect than those who rule (over servants, officials, or whole nations); that creativity means more than power, art more than politics; that works of art, not wars or aristocratic costume balls, are immortal.”
Indeed. I bow in genuine and perpetual obeisance, Mr. Kundera.