Milan Kundera (1929-) is, I am sure, best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I have read, but a long time ago. The reason the cover of the copy I own, which I bought somewhere, second-hand, a long time ago, doesn’t say “By the author of” etc is that The Farewell Party, published in French and English in 1976, but not, interestingly in the author’s native Czech, is Kundera’s fourth novel and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is his sixth. As a side note, The Farewell Party is apparently now known as The Farewell Waltz.
The setting of The Farewell Party is a rural mountain spa in an unnamed country, presumably Czechoslovakia, and in time, between Dubcek’s Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism in 1989. Kundera went into exile in France in 1975, his Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979, and he was granted French citizenship in 1981.
So is the story a satire on communism, or indeed a criticism of Czechoslovakia? Maybe, but only very gently, and only if you read through the antics of Dr Skreta, the head of the spa, to a general criticism of Czech bureaucracy. The style of writing I find difficult to describe. It is spare and the author feels distant from his multiple pov protagonists. Reading Ivan Čapovski’s Miles Franklin last month I was reminded of Ana Kavan’s Ice – and that’s about all the ‘modern’ European reading I’ve done in the last few years – and The Farewell Party has the same feel, a sort of remoteness from the action.
During my searches I came across “[this] is Kundera’s most accessible novel”, not necessarily a recommendation, “a comedy in the form of a burlesque”, with apparently “multiple layers that explore themes of love, hatred, and fate”. I wouldn’t be a lit. student (again) for quids.
The story begins at a single point, nurse Ruzena is pregnant, and spirals out from there.
Ruzena had been born in the resort town, both of her parents still lived there, and she wondered whether she would ever manage to escape from that teeming nest of women.
Two months earlier she had slept with the trumpeter, Klima after he performed at the spa. Her workmates urge her to phone him. Klima takes the call during a rehearsal. He offers to ‘arrange’ things. “How do you mean ‘arranged’?” He was at a loss, not daring to call the thing by its real name ..
Ruzena is indignant. Klima is terrified. After years of womanizing this is the call he has always dreaded. His bandmates strategize. In the end they decide he should pretend to be in love with Ruzena. He will divorce his wife and Ruzena will terminate her pregnancy so they can start their lives together afresh. He organizes to drive back to the spa the next day …
… which is his wife’s birthday.
This beautiful lady was afraid of women, and saw them everywhere. She never missed a single one. She knew how to detect them from the tone of Klima’s voice when he greeted her at the door and even from the smell of his clothes.
So when he arrives home with a huge bunch of roses she understands immediately there’s a woman in the case. The damned bureaucrats have decided I’ll have to spend all day tomorrow at a stupid conference about the role of music in the building of socialism, he tells her. She goes along with him. They go to a movie, then home to bed. Finally, she is named: He lay next to Kamila. He knew that he loved her immensely. So ends the First Day.
Second Day. Klima arrives at the spa and goes straight to the rooms of Bartleff, a rich American undergoing the cure. They discuss women, they discuss Ruzena. They are sure that Dr Skreta will perform the abortion.
Dr Skreta has a wildly successful IVF practice. We are gradually made aware that the doctor is in all cases using his own semen. More and more women are having babies with Skreta’s prominent nose.
Days pass. The number of protagonists increases. Jakub, a dissident politician arrives with his ‘ward’. Skreta had some time ago given him a suicide pill in case he couldn’t stand imprisonment. Jakub is on his way to exile. His ‘ward’, Olga wishes to become his mistress.
Skreta persuades Klima to give a free performance with Skreta as his drummer.
Franta, a young local man is stalking Ruzena. It seems they had once been lovers. He believes they should now be married.
Franta was younger than Ruzena, and it was his misfortune to suffer from the inexperience of youth. When he grows up he will become aware of the transitory nature of the world and he will learn that no sooner does one woman disappear from the horizon than a galaxy of other women come into view.
Kamila comes up to the spa thinking to catch Klima out at his ‘free perfomance’, falls in with a film crew, and is almost seduced herself.
Somehow Jakub’s suicide pill gets mixed up with Ruzena’s sedatives.
Ok, perhaps it is a burlesque. A fun read and an interesting read.
Milan Kundera, The Farewell Party, King Penguin, London, 1976. 184pp. Translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi.