As a child, staring at an old atlas, Czechoslovakia was a country that somehow fascinated.
The spelling of the country’s name, the pronunciation, the shape of it on the map.
I was twenty-four by the time I saw the place for myself, arriving there three years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, so no visa necessary, the country was open now to European travellers.
Prague. That’s where I first ran out of money for food, and had to eat on alternate days, lying on public benches to conserve calories, nose bleeding.
Getting kicked awake in the mornings by railway station guards in pale green uniforms with wooden-handled revolvers in their waistbands.
I’d first been introduced to the novels of Milan Kundera four years earlier, by a guy I met who had written a book on film while he had been unemployed for three years.
Perhaps the connection between this person and Kundera was that Kundera had been a film lecturer at one point, or, more correctly, a lecturer on world literature within the Film Faculty of Charles University (where Milos Forman, director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was one of his early students).
The first Kundera novel I read was The Joke.
The novel struck me as a powerful and dark meditation on endurance, suffering and revenge.
It had a different texture than any other novel I had read before.
Next, I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
With this one, I broke the rule of making sure not to see the film before reading the novel.
One night, my film-book-writing friend had taken me along to the cinema to see the Daniel Day Lewis/Juliette Binoche film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Later, I watched this film on video many times, quite obsessed with it, before reading the novel.
Unusually, for me, this familiarity with the film did not seem to hamper my reading or appreciation of the book.
Perhaps because the film concentrated on the story, but the novel had more to do with what my film-buff friend might have called “the notes Kundera had taken between the story”.
Next, I read Immortality.
The big, hardback version of Immortality was a book I saw in the hands of several disparate readers over several years– a forestry student, a psychology student, a philosophy student, a nurse…
All seemed to enjoy the thick, black-covered book equally.
I used to go into bookshops on Union Street in Aberdeen and always notice the black hard-cover of Immortality, propped up and lurking on a prominent table, to catch the roving eye.
My favourite section of the book was probably that dealing with Goethe and Hemingway’s friendship in the Afterlife, Kundera’s audacity at imagining them so.
The last Kundera novel I read was Life is Elsewhere.
A novel functioning wonderfully as an indictment of certain varieties of poetry and poet, particularly of Jaromil, the novel’s poet-protagonist – perhaps the embodiment in the Mirror of Art representing Kundera’s look backwards at himself as the once-youthful, once-idealist Poet-Revolutionary.
As in all the novels, Kundera looks out at us, and in at himself, through the hectic, kaleidoscopic lens of his experiences with the Czech Communist Party in the late 1940s and 1950s onwards…the dashed hopes, the brutalised Ideals.
Jaromil, Shelley, Rimbaud, are all held hard under the prosaic, forensic lens in this novel, throwing up dazzling and troubling facets, which no other scientist-jeweller could probably have brought out in their examination.
Perhaps one of the lessons of Kundera’s work is that perspective is everything, a slight shift along the spectrum here or there and, yes, suddenly black can seem white, or maybe really become white?
And then there is Kafka.
Kafka is perhaps the literary ghost always at Kundera’s elbow.
Not often mentioned, but always standing there, hollow-eyed, staring.
And yet Kafka is perhaps the writer of the midnight soul, as opposed to Kundera, the novelist of the evening gloaming.
Kundera is haunted no doubt; but Kafka has more the capacity to haunt others.
Or, no, it could be that Kafka catches the ghost, stalks it and brings it howling into the house, a terrifying sight - but then it is Kundera we turn to for forensic examination of the creature, he holds its face still under the lamp of a kind of science and lets us at least pretend to become familiar with it.
We need both these arts of course.
And wonderful that one country gave us these two technician-priests to take on two sides of that task; even though, of course, that country, since I lay there hungry and bleeding on its benches, has split into two countries…perhaps like the split in psyche between Kundera/Kafka…or the binary fission of the original prototypical cell…or just like two ghosts, who knew each other well, but then, somehow, at sometime since, must have separated silently in the night.