Even before the first page of “Encounter,” Czech-French author/critic Milan Kundera lays out his book’s roadmap. These signposts come in the fragment of a larger line. Kundera writes:
“…an encounter with my reflections and my recollections, my old themes (existential and asethetic) and my old lives…”
What follows the quotation is exactly that. Some segments are pieces he wrote several decades ago. Others were written in the present. One splices his old work, not with revisions, but instead with his current thoughts on the same topic. A few chapters are more long form essays, sometimes broken up thematically, sometimes not. Throughout it all, we, the reader are encountering great works of art, iconic artists, historic social movements, and European history spanning several centuries through through Kundera’s perspective.
Its not until nearly page 100 of “Encounter,” when writing about Martinique and the island’s literary community’s response to movements in the 1940’s does Kundera explicitly state what an encounter is. He writes, “Not a social relation, not a friendship, not even an alliance: an encounter which is to say a spark, a lightning flash; random chance.”
“Encounter” shares similarities with the previously reviewed “Changing My Mind” by Zadie Smith and “The Possessed…” by Elif Batuman in that all three books examine the meaning of literary works and writers who have influenced each author. With Kundera, however, most of these works get a few pages at most. It is the rare book to have a fully fleshed out chapter. Smith and Batuman give us the plot and all the characters before jumping into the analysis. Kundera is giving us “a lightning flash” with each work instead of a “friendship.” Kundera is interested in telling us his opinion of the work and artist.
The flipside of these brief encounters with writers, books, artists, paintings, political movements, composers, and the whole lot of folks and ideas that are crammed into the book is that Kundera presumes his readers know whom and what he is writing about. This goes back to a subject Zadie Smith discussed: the roles of the reader and writer. Being uneducated in the ways of Roland Barthes, who gets name dropped as part of an erudite joke in “Encounter,” I came away from this book feeling as if Kundera’s intention wasn’t to educate the uninformed, but instead to, at the age of 80 at the time of publication, let the world know where he stands on these matters.
As much as Kundera is presumably addressing a more educated and enlightened circle, his political mindset, as liberal as it may be, ends up being so very wrong when writing about NATO’s actions in Serbia. In the book’s final character, where Kundera addresses Malaparte’s two novels on World War II in Italy, he mentions NATO’s military action in Serbia and Kosovo. Kundera’s argument is that the Europe of the second half of 20th Century is a “New Europe.” It is a place born out of the defeat of an entire continent as it was both liberated and occupied at the same time. Kundera notes that there is one exception. He writes, ” Which is why Serb cities had to be bombarded for many long weeks in 1999: in order to impose, a posteriori, the “vanquished’ status on even that part of Europe.”
I could write how Kundera seems silly when describing NATO’s horribly late reaction to the actions of Milosevic and the Serbian government as an effort to finish off the vanquishing of Europe some fifty years after it began. The funny thing is I don’t have to since Kundera himself did it earlier in the book. In an earlier “encounter,” he writes about Phillip Roth’s use of sex in the novel as a development in our history. Kundera’s analysis is the counterpoint to his bombing claim.
“The acceleration of history has profoundly transformed individual lives that, in centuries past, used to proceed from birth to death within a single historical period; today a life straddles two such periods, sometimes more. Whereas history used to advance far more slowly than human life, nowadays, it is history that moves fast, it tears ahead, it slips from a man’s grasp, and the continuity , the identity, of a life is in danger of cracking apart.”
Kundera’s wrongness stems less from a disregard for the lives of those in Kosovo, but from the fact that today’s history has slipped from his grasp. It is an irony that a critic like Kundera would appreciate, if he could see it.