A kunderian year

Image: Jeffrey Czum


It took a long time for the message and meaning of Milan Kundera's work to be understood

The joke was Milan Kundera's first book published in the West. It was released in French, by Gallimard, in 1968, at the same time as the explosions of the rue de la Sorbonne. Boulevard Saint Michel, from school street and Latin Quarter were heard everywhere. He was a masterpiece. A masterpiece. A magical book. Lyrical. Intensely vibrant. But it went, of course, unnoticed.

Those young men – some not so young – were worried about destinies. The past was a burden to them. The tragic in life and in history had become an expedient old fashioned. The moment was new bossa, bossa nova. They wanted to prohibit or prohibit. Break hierarchies. Kill the father. Remove the suits. Burn ties. Break the formalities. Tear apart the family. Dismantle institutions. Demoralize authorities. Reframe references. Horizontalize relationships.

As a reaction, General Charles De Gaulle – the incarnation of authority and verticality – tried something in Baden-Baden. George Pompidou imagined compromises. Daniel Cohn-Bendit stirred up the masses. Former combatants of Verdun, The Marne, The Somme they remained perplexed. Comrades in the resistance to Nazism observed these young men as, generationally, ungrateful, immature, inconsequential, indecent and, often, even opportunistic and, often, cretins.

Raymond Aron even wrote verbatim that it was unacceptable for a country that is serious about France to allow a high school student of the quality of Daniel Cohn-Bendit to discredit a president of the Republic, hero of total wars, like General De Gaulle – and remember- If Raymond Aron didn't fall in love with the general.

But passed. Paris calmed down. The general “capitulated”. He lost the referendum in 1969 and left. He left power. He died the following year. On November 9, 1970. And times, from then on, began to change.

Times change, desires change.

The days of November 9 to 12, 1970 announced the changes. Entire generations in France, Europe and the world immediately realized the void. Since the news was spreading everywhere, no representative, no authority and no person who was minimally informed and sensitive to world events remained indifferent to the event.

Charles De Gaulle was the last giant among the giants of that century to say goodbye – Josef Stalin nor Winston Churchill caused such a commotion when they left in 1953 and 1965 respectively. Leaders from all over the world, therefore, interrupted their tasks to surrender in person to Paris, in those days of November 1970, to offer their last condolences to the French general who had liberated Paris in 1944, restored France in 1944-1946 and he presided over the country from 1958 to 1969.

More than eighty heads of state or government attended the religious service held at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on November 11, 1970. US President Richard Nixon. Soviet First Secretary Nikolaï Podgorny. The Shah of Iran Reza Pahlevi. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his predecessor Harold Wilson. President of Senegal Léopold Sedar Senghor. President of Finland Urho Kekkonen. Prince Charles representing His Majesty, Queen Elisabeth. Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassié. The brother of Emperor Hussein of Jordan.

Dozens of personalities such as the architect of the State of Israel David Ben-Gurion. Dozens to hundreds of comrades from the French liberation of 1944. Officers of the Legion of Honor and heroes of the resistance. The entire diplomatic corps stationed in Paris. All members of intermediate bureaucratic bodies. The entire French political class represented by President George Pompidou and personalities such as André Malraux, Alain Peyreffite, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Edgar Faure and others. Hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of anonymous people came from all over Paris, all of France, all of Europe and all continents to offer their last tribute.

Cardinal François Marty, in obedience to the general's instructions, gave a simple mass based on the Gospel of John. A penetrating silence took over all the interiors of the magnificent cathedral. Even its stained glass windows seemed to meditate. Orthodox, Islamic and Israeli entities were present and a plural choir concluded the service with pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. Orly airport suspended its operation from 11 am, mass time. All French public transport stopped its operations for one minute at 12pm. Florists from all over found themselves overwhelmed by demands arriving from all over the world. United States of America, Greece, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia. The leader of the People's Republic of China, Mao Tse-Tung, ordered eight special vans filled with roses, dahlias, lilies, chrysanthemums and violets decorated in the Chinese style.

Anyway, symbols count. Then came the mutations.

In the field of ideas, after the general's death, little by little, The joke by Milan Kundera, ignored until then, became popular with the public. Its success was such that it provided the means and inspiration for its author to migrate from Czechoslovakia to France. First to Rennes. Then to Paris.

Paradoxically, the more French, Europeans and Westerners read and commented on the book, the more Milan Kundera became disappointed. Those French, European and Westerners, for him, had neither felt nor understood the message.

The lyricism of The joke it was to deny the anguish of the illusions imposed by communism in Eastern Europe and not to confirm the naivety of the causeless militants on the streets of Paris. That was the impression of Milan Kundera, but also of many. Including people on the left and well on the left, like convinced communists like Georges Marchais.

But, at that time, it was already politically incorrect to report indecent acts. A good thinking and the unique thought of the French, Europeans and Westerners had already approved the achievements of the Dany le rouge. But as Milan Kundera was a outsider and he had nothing or almost nothing to lose, he had no problems announcing the gestating snake eggs.

In this sense, since 1975 he was integrated into the School of Higher Studies at the invitation of Pierre Nora and François Furet with the mission of enlightening Westerners about the pluralities of Europe.

It was clear, very clear, to the most erudite segments that 1968 was the road to Damascus of the generations that converted to deconstruction and unreason versus those who wanted to rebuild their pasts. The clocks in Europe, there, stopped striking the same time. The West began to be eaten from within Europe. That lost the possibility of some unity between Western and Eastern Europeans.

The Paris spring coincided with the Prague and Warsaw springs. While the French authorities worked hard to agree on solutions for the avant-garde revolutionary lyricism full of good intentions of the Parisians, tanks with ammunition and authorization to kill dispersed the Polish and Czech protests.

Those who were too enchanted by the events of Paris in 1968 ended up not noticing or taking note of any of it. And, worse, he didn't notice that the signs of the demands were being changed and the hands of the clocks of the European varieties were no longer showing the same time.

The French wanted to destroy authorities and traditions. This has always been known. What was ignored – and is ignored to this day – was that Eastern Europeans were less young, more popular, entirely moderate, without any lyricism, defenders of traditions, history, European culture, Christianity, modern art and, finally, from ethos of Westerners as instruments for overcoming the illusions of a confused, authoritarian, criminal and futureless communism.

After much scrutinization of these differences and convictions, Milan Kundera produced, in 1984, Kidnapped West to respond to academics and The unsustainable lightness of being to talk to the souls of Westerners.

Whoever calmly returns to The joke and The unsustainable lightness of being You will notice something very intriguing. The joke it was conceived in a lyrical style, too lyrical; It is The unsustainable lightness of being appeared in an integral and strongly ironic tone.

Why? A simple and quick answer would indicate that Milan Kundera was a genius – and he really was – and mastered all styles. A more measured reaction would recognize that between 1968 and 1984 times, desires, desires, priorities and sensations changed. The West fell into rubble and it became difficult to move through it with a clean face. Times have become too cynical and cynical for lyricism.

Milan Kundera passed away in 2023 still cultivating this conviction and no one was able to contradict it or follow it. May 2024 change this situation. May it be a Kunderian year.

*Daniel Afonso da Silva Professor of History at the Federal University of Grande Dourados. author of Far beyond Blue Eyes and other writings on contemporary international relations (APGIQ). [https://amzn.to/3ZJcVdk]

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