sometimes witty book reviews
TW denial of informed consent, abortion, misogyny, male-rights movement
Plot: Ruzena is a nurse working at a fertility spa in former Czechoslovakia. She finds herself pregnant to a famous, already married, trumpet player named Klima. But Klima loves his wife and loves cheating on his wife because of the thrill it gives him. He does not want a child. Klima organises with his rich American friend, Bartleff, to meet the chief doctor of the spa, Dr Streka, to organise an abortion. Jakub is about to leave his homeland and has come to the spa to give back to Streka a suicide pill his asked his friend to make for him during his period of political persecution. But Streka won’t take it back. Jakub tells only one other person about the pill – his ward Olga. Olga is staying at the spa and Jakub also staying nearby for a few days before he leaves for good. Ruzena is one of Olga’s nurses. Franta is a mechanic who thinks Ruzena’s child is his. Bartleff is in love with Ruzena from afar. Klima’s wife, Kamila, resolves to leave her husband after so many tortured years because Jakub says one thing to her.
Suddenly, Ruzena is dead, Olga seduces Jakub and Streka convinces Bartleff to legally adopt him.
This all happens in a five day period.
Apparently it’s a comedy.
You know those authors that you just hate because you like them so much. They’re men, they’re white and they’re exceptionally good at writing. They’re not outrageously ill-tuned to how not to write female characters, but cruelly and calculatingly misogynistic:
He often tried to visualize his own birth. He imagined his tiny body sliding through a narrow, damp tunnel, his nose and mouth full of slime. That mucus smeared him, marked him. Yes, that female secretion penetrated so deeply that throughout the course of Jakub’s life it exerted its secret power over him, summoning him at will and ruling the various mechanisms of his body. He had always felt a distaste for this humiliation, and re resisted it at least to the extent that he never gave his soul to women, that he safeguarded his freedom and solitude, and that he restricted the “reign of music” to certain limited hours of his life.
That’s Kundera and this book. Unfortunately, he is also annoyingly good at writing. His prose cannot be dismissed as misinformed mansplaining. It’s actually mesmerising:
In the characteristic tension of her body (she always reminded him of a taunt violin string, and he had told her once that she had the soul of a violin) he suddenly glimpsed the whole essence of her being. Yes, it happened now and again (these were miraculous moments): a single motion or gesture of hers would reveal to him the entire history of her body and soul.
Kundera is very good at describing the de-sensitised, systematic processes of ingrained misogyny. For instance, Jakub learns that the good doctor has been giving women miracle cures for infertility by injecting them with his own sperm without consent. Streka calmly explains the process and offer Jakub the chance to participate in small-scale his eugenics program. The two calmly discuss this. The clinical removal of emotions and consideration of the women’s autonomy is astounding. Another example: a scene in which Klima’s jazz band calmly discuss the options for ‘solving’ their friend’s ‘Ruzena problem’. They variously offer to kill or main her, suggest that he drive her to suicide, and lay out several plans to manipulate her emotionally into having an abortion. Each suggestion is serious, each scenario calmly discussed. Eventually, they collectively decide to woo her into thinking Klima loves her and want a few more years ‘just us’ before having a child. Kundera exposes the argument of how one can see these ideas as feasible, nay, logical – as long as you remove the woman’s individual worth.
It’s like manual on mansplaining. The cognitive processes of how the average white, wealthy, straight man thinks, but you get to see how they arrived at their dumbfounding conclusions, blow by gendered, patriarchally conditioned blow. It’s fascinating. Indeed, quite compelling. Kundera also does a few things that perhaps indicate that he knows exactly what he’s doing, tearing apart the thought process of the patriarchy without actually saying the word ‘feminism’ (which may not have been a fully fledged concept when he was writing anyway?*). He gives his women autonomous and independent decision making skills. Male and female characters reflect on their personal desires, chiefly sex drives and preferences, without references to sweeping gender generalisations. He does not construct women’s internal monologues entirely around the men in their lives. He has a keen sense of the way women are made to feel like two separate people in daily life: their internal selves, and the external self attuned to the male gaze.
“I picture my soul with a big chin and a sensuous mouth, yet my actual chin is small and my mouth is small, too. If I had never seen myself in a mirror and had to describe my appearance by the way I know myself from the inside, the picture wouldn’t at all look like me! I am not at all the person I look like!”
This is an excellent, deeply satirical view of gender relations in post-Soviet states in the mid 1970s. An phenomenal historical document. However, in the wrong hands, it is well argued fodder for a male-rights movement. But, like most Kundera, it is very well worth reading. It’s short. The prose is icily precise – chillingly accurate. You can sacrificially burn the book after you’ve finished. But I personally am going to file it under ‘resources for outlining how straight men come to their privileged conclusions’.
Reading suggestions: Keep calm.
*I am not an expert on either the historiography of feminism nor former Czecheslovakia.