At the beginning of “Immortality”, by Milan Kundera, an older woman makes an innocent gesture as she leaves her younger swimming instructor. The gesture – a wave of the hand – strikes the instructor, and the eavesdropping narrator, as humorously out of place.
Yet, that slight gesture sets the narrator off on a long metaphysical meditation about the nature of human interactions. Gestures, he posits, are infinite. That same wave may have been made by a school girl down the street earlier that day or a powerful queen in the ancient past. People are not immortal; gestures are.
Milan Kundera is one of the reasons that I live in Brno.
I read all of his books during high school and college when my Czech heritage was buried deep beneath the American parts of my biography. In many ways, Kundera and his books were my only connection to Czechoslovakia and the upheaval perpetrated upon my family by the Soviet Union and Communism. He represented more than just a flag or the few pieces of wooden artwork on the walls of my family home: he was an internationally respected literary figure whose name carried some je ne sais quoi. Václav Havel and Miloš Forman were well-known personalities that brought pride. Ivan Lendl, Martina Navrátilová, and Jaromír Jágr were famous athletes. But Kundera really spoke to me.
In my early 20s, Kundera became the “it” writer for my social group. I felt validated because I had been reading him for years, so I took extra pleasure in discussing his books.
One hiking trip in particular was memorable. Two journalism friends and I argued up and down a mountain about which book was better: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” or “Immortality”. All of us were fresh out of college. The natural setting and the highfalutin political theories and the deep literary analysis seemed like such an adult, coming-of-age activity. Like many of these types of arguments, it ended in a draw: we figured whichever book you read first was the one you liked best.
Kundera is in every sentence that I write because he has had a profound influence on my punctuation. Colons. Semi-colons. Long dashes. These are not marks that are exclusive to Kundera, but I admire the way that he used them to bend and flex his sentences. This is not to say that I am a blind follower. I, personally, hate exclamation points and reserve them only for important and emotional moments (It’s a boy!). Kundera imbues his writing with an inner glow with exclamation points, and it works for him. This Facebook generation, however, overuses exclamation points terribly (See you later!!!).
Supposedly, Kundera reworked a translation of “The Joke” because he was annoyed that an editor had replaced his semi-colons with periods. The story may be apocryphal, but I would fight that fight, too. In fact, I am willing to argue tooth and nail for using the Oxford comma.
Kundera also helped me organize my writing into small, easily digestible pieces, with indirect transition that moves the narrative a step to the side before it returns to the overall theme, sometimes with numbered sections.
On a more personal level, I found Kundera’s books in late puberty when the opposite sex was a great mystery. The adult relationships within his books were endlessly fascinating. They are, in my opinion, infinitely more complex than any science fiction or fantasy world.
For years I asked almost everyone I met in the Czech Republic about Milan Kundera. At first, I wanted to show that I knew more about this country than a tourist. Sometimes I just wanted to drop the knowledge in an (insecure) attempt to bolster my academic bona fides. Mostly, I just wanted to know the town in which the ending of “The Joke” takes place. The only real marker given in the book is the Morava River. Was it a town to which my family had connections? Litovel? Olomouc? Uherské Hradiště? Ostrožská Nová Ves?
Pretty much everybody recognized the name Kundera, mostly from studying for high school graduation exams, but few had actually read one of his books. Some condemned him for living as an expat in France. Most didn’t really have an opinion.
Eventually, I came across a woman who knew something about Milan Kundera. She knew where he lived in Brno during his youth, and explained that he went to Gymnázium Brno, třída Kapitána Jaroše.
She had an actual connection to the man himself, too.
Milan Kundera performed a small gesture for me not long ago.
He has lived in Paris for many years, his photo has rarely been taken, and he has not given many interviews. My friend, nevertheless, had occasion to visit him. She brought my copy of “The Joke” with her and he signed it:
To Bruno. Milan Kundera. Paris 31.III.2016.
I’m told that he asked who I was. When told that I was a Czech-American who wrote for the Brno Expat Centre website, he said: “That’s interesting.” It is childish, perhaps idiotic, but I cannot express how amazing it is that Milan Kundera said that a fact about me was “interesting”. Wow!
Neither Kundera nor I will live forever. His name will, no doubt, reverberate through the centuries as a voice of creativity and passion. Hopefully, mine will somehow live on as well.
Yet, like the wave at the beginning of “Immortality”, his small gesture – a master of his craft providing inspiration for an admirer – will no doubt surpass us both until the end of time.
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