Milan Kundera: The Farewell Waltz – Book Review

Milan Kundera: The Farewell Waltz – Anna’s reading challenge

The first novel I read from Kundera was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his most acclaimed novel, and I have been fond of him ever since. There is a long list of reasons why I like him but here are just a few of them: to begin with, he has a very distinguishable, playful- yet intelligent style of writing. Kundera does not only write descriptive parts and dialogues into his novels but he also constantly addresses the reader and analyses the happenings and its characters. His themes are very extensive but in every novel he selects a handful to focus on. In The Farewell Waltz those were the various types of love, society’s influence on individuals and migration.

First English edition, 1976

I have chosen to focus on migration because of a personal choice; I am on my way to move abroad this month. The fact that Kundera discusses this issue in a couple of his books can be deduced to autobiographical reasons. He was born in communist Czechoslovakia but migrated to France when he was forty-five years old. In The Farewell Waltz, it is Jakub who, after being chased due to his political views and his actions, finally manages to get a permit to leave the country and move abroad. During his last days in Czechoslovakia we become aware of the motives behind his journey: he experienced what the communist regime did to its residents. They became ill-disposed after resigning themselves to how limited their possibilities were and they strove to drag anyone down who wanted to reach higher.  Sadly, that environment also gave power willingly in the hands of such people.

“I am not in favor of imposing happiness on people. Everyone has a right to his bad wine, to his stupidity, and to his dirty fingernails.” ― Milan KunderaFarewell Waltz

Another feature which makes Kundera so easy to relate to is that he often weaves bits of what we should call “Eastern-Europeanness” for want of a better expression into his books. In Hungary I think many of us know those poisonous people and many of us get an urge to run away from them. Jakub allowed his “memories to weigh down on his future” (a beautiful Kundera quote!) and he could only see corrupt people around him which distorted his vision of Czechoslovakia. Because of that, he unfortunately failed to see and appreciate the beauty the country had to offer, a beauty, which is not always visible at first glance.

As I have mentioned above, I am just in the process of moving abroad and there is a sentence in the novel which shocked me and left me profoundly shaken. It goes as follows: “But in that moment he (Jakub) knew that he was leaving his only native land, his home country and there will be no other.” I think this short sentence carries all the pain a person who is about to move can feel.  There are abundant reasons to migrate: love, welfare, political steadiness, freedom are all very attractive and just as Jakub states, it also grants a ground in which people may grow. But there are also abundant reasons in favour of staying, of which the most significant is that when you move abroad you do not just leave your family and friends behind but also the environment which shaped you into what you are now.

“In this country people don’t respect the morning. An alarm clock violently wakes them up, shatters their sleep like the blow of an ax, and they immediately surrender themselves to deadly haste. Can you tell me what kind of day can follow a beginning of such violence? What happens to people whose alarm clock daily gives them a small electric shock? Each day they become more used to violence and less used to pleasure. Believe me, it is the mornings that determine a man’s character.” ― Milan KunderaFarewell Waltz

I followed Kundera’s words, too, in after all going for it: “There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live through life as things come upon us without warning, like an actor going on cold.” Migration is always a difficult step to take and you can only decide whether you made the right decision once you are on the other side.

No time to read? Download the audiobook of Farewell Waltz here.



Vibes Columnist

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