"Americans have developed an admirable fondness for books, food, and music that preprocess other cultures. But for all our enthusiasm, have we lost our taste for the truly foreign?" McCulture by Aviya Kushner
I came across this in an article at The Wilson Quarterly and found myself quite disturbed by the reality of it, and I quote: “It’s not that Americans aren’t interested in the world at all. It’s just that we seem to want someone else to do the heavy lifting required to make a cultural connection. As the Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcón observes, Americans would rather read stories by an American about Peru than a Peruvian writer translated into English.”
Of course, this reality doesn’t exist in my world, as I read mostly foreign translations anyway, and the reason I do -- well, there are several reasons -- is because I want to experience humanity outside of my own cultural biases. I want to appreciate the language differences and the differences of opinion. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a place in literature for what I call “the tourist eye” and by that I mean when writers set stories outside of their native lands, as do I in all my novellas. But you have to take care when you do that, especially when you are espousing opinion on the culture or the politics of the land you are using as the backdrop. I, myself, try to focus on the characters so that I don’t accidentally misstep. If you take care, the tourist view can work quite well, depending on the nature of the story. Character-centric stories can get away with the tourist eye, but cultural and socio-politically-centric stories cannot.
But back to translations ... Over the holidays I finished reading “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, which is one of the finest existentialist novels of all time, originally published in French and then in the author’s native Czech. This is another book I am ashamed to admit I didn’t get around to reading until now. In this case, seeing the movie doesn’t count.
The story, taking place in the Prague Spring of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, tackles a lot of heavy subject matter, and the major theme, at least how I saw it, was oppression: the oppression of love, marriage, sex, family, war, religion, and the communist regime. Each of the main characters is oppressed in their own way by their own ideals, philosophies, and their own idiosyncratic view of the world. The way Kundera blends all these elements effortlessly into the lives of just a few interconnected people is sublime. Our story beings with Tomas, a Czech surgeon and intellectual. Tomas is an unrepentant womanizer. His philosophical view is that sex and love are two distinct affairs with little contradiction between them. His conquests are many, but each situation -- each woman -- has something unique to her womanhood, and that uniqueness is like a secret, one that can only be revealed during the act of sex. So by this perspective -- the devout appreciator of a woman's unique sexual identity -- his adulterous escapades have become justified explorations of humanity. He feels no love for these women; his only aim is to metaphorically dissect the essence of their being. Love he reserves for his wife, Tereza.
Tereza comes to Tomas a wounded bird, a symbolic image we see later in the story. She is a gentle soul, though neurotic to the enth degree from a childhood of oppression at the hands of her mother. She perceives herself as weak. She is ashamed of her body and feels disconnected and unworthy of her own soul, so she never condemns Tomas for his infidelities, instead preferring to suffer as a martyr in silence. Tereza is a special character in this story as she is the only character where we have full access to her subconscious mind. Kundera here allows us to psychoanalyze Tereza through her dreams, which are very disturbing. Equally disturbing is the dissident photojournalism Tereza becomes preoccupied with early in her marriage: Prostitutes and Russian tanks. Again here, the oppression of her marriage juxtaposed against the oppression of the occupying regime is portrayed very skilfully by Kundera. Tereza’s oppression in life manifests itself in these photos and in dreams of death, actually dreams of execution, for she is no more than a burden, a weak pitiful soul and one who Tomas feels obligated to take care of. Tereza really doesn’t understand that Tomas truly loves her, and this is one of many misunderstandings Kundera opens up for discussion in the novel. The most monumental of them all being when Tomas likens the Czech Communists to Oedipus. It was an unintentional comparison, but Tomas would still suffer greatly for it at the hands of the Communist propaganda machine. During the ensuing interrogations, we get a true taste of Tomas’ convictions, and in that, we the reader, can find it within our boundaries to put our faith in Tomas’ love for Tereza, no matter his actions to the contrary.
Then we have Sabina -- Tomas’ favourite mistress -- the artistic anarchist who finds satisfaction in the act of betrayal. She has declared war on everything in her life that she considers “kitsch” including her privileged puritan ancestry and Socialists. To Tomas, Sabina is the singing, soaring bird of freedom, and Tereza, the injured crow on the verge of death. For Tomas, Sabina is the manifest expression of one’s subconscious desires, which is in stark contrast to his own nature. Tomas seeks to expose in others that which he cannot express in himself, so in Sabina, he finds the self he will never truly know. This self-discovery by proxy plays out again in the interactions Tomas has later with his estranged son.
Our fourth character is Franz: Sabina's lover after Tomas. Franz is a learned man, a professor and an idealist to self-destructive proportions. Sadly, Franz falls in love with Sabina, not for who she really is but for what he idealizes her to be: a romantically tragic Czech dissident. Sabina is not a liberal nor is she even one iota romantically inclined, but this doesn’t stop Franz from placing her on a pedestal. How could he not? Franz’s wife and daughter are social sycophants, and his life outside of Sabina disgusts him, so Sabina makes logical sense to him. He is a kind and compassionate man, but a life of books and academia, sans all visceral experience, have left him devoid of the great kindness and the great compassion he aspires to, not to mention: the great love. Shame really, and the reader can feel for Franz when the ideal comes crashing down around him. During a sexual epiphany, he feels confident that Sabina has fallen in love with him as well. He promptly confesses his indiscretions to his wife and leaves her only to find that Sabina had already made up her mind to leave him, and leave she did -- disappeared from his life in a breath. Franz takes another lover -- a homely student of his -- although he continues to pine for Sabina, and he proceeds to live as an outcast, fallen from grace until he decides on a whim for the first time in his life to actually participate in a political march from Thailand to Cambodia. Here he finds that the courage of his convictions is nothing more than fallacy. Here, the man of long wanderings will return to where he never felt he belonged. A man of delusion returns to reality.
Lastly, and my personal favourite character in the entire novel: Karenin, the faithful canine companion to Tomas and Tereza. This part of the story was really heart wrenching, and I fell to tears many times over the course of the Karenin chapters. Kundera talks a lot about religion in these final pages, specifically man’s dominion over beast, and he makes it clear that our translation of that proclamation is a bit misguided. The beasts were not thrown out of Eden. So, Karenin, to me, represented true freedom, purity of spirit, and the opposite of oppression. Much like Winnie the Poo, Karenin was happiness in life simplified: routine, devotion, and unconditional love without selfish motivation or personal prejudice. Tomas and Tereza both, in the end and in their own ways, come to realize Karenin’s significance, as will the reader, no doubt. "Here lies Karenin.” His tombstone says. “He gave birth to two rolls and a bee.”
One can appreciate this novel on so many levels, technically for the non-linear plotline, the various points of view represented -- political, theological, and philosophical -- and the third person omniscient narrative that is biased to the core so we can appreciate the direct interjection by the narrator who never once attempts to hide that he is the author. At the heart of it, it is an essay about the human condition, but its scope is much broader in that it dissects, much as Tomas would have, the unique effects various forms of oppression have on that condition. Kundera’s passion for his characters is duly noted in one of many interjections by the author directly into the narrative. In addition to the very human story of relationships gone astray, we are allowed the privilege of experiencing that moment in Czech history where the country had lost its will and its identity. We are allowed to experience it not through the eyes of a journalist or a tourist, but through the eyes of a true witness. And that is why I love foreign translations. It’s not just about different scenery. It’s about a connection, and in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, readers should have no trouble making a connection, cultural or otherwise.
Cheryl Anne Gardner