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??? COHPAnATIST IMAGES OF THE CROWD IN MILAN KUNDERA'S NOVELS: FROM COMMUNIST PRAGUE TO POSTMODERN FRANCE Martha Kuhlman She would have liked to tell him that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and the image ofthat evil was a parade ofpeople marching by with raisedfists and shouting identical syllables in unison. (100) "Parades" is one of the words in Sabina's "Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words" from Milan Kundera's 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness ofBeing (Nesnesitelná lehkost byti). Having been forced to march on May Day in Communist Czechoslovakia, Sabina will not participate in demonstrations of any description, even those in support of Prague Spring. Her French-educated lover Franz, by contrast, "saw the marching , shouting crowd as the image of Europe and its history" (99). Following Walter Benjamin, critics have studied representations of the crowd in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French and English Uterature , analyzing the tension between fear ofthe masses and the desire to blend with them.1 But little attention has been granted to post-World War II authors, who, having lived through both communism and fascism , revisit the same anxieties with even more urgency: Where is the dividing Une between the individual and the masses? How is the crowd contained within a fictional frame, and what connotations does it have? Kundera, a writer whose fiction traverses Eastern and Western Europe, World War II, StaUnist Communism, and contemporary France, brings a uniquely varied perspective to this question. This essay wül examine how the crowd enters into Kundera's works through the double lens of Czech and French experience, creating a site of fascination and anxiety that disrupts the form and substance of his art. Suspicion of mass movements and crowds is a central preoccupation of Kundera's novels, from The Joke (¿ert, 1967) to Identity (L'identité, 1997). Whether describing a delegation of intellectuals marching for medical aid for the Cambodians, student protesters in Paris of 1968, French postmodern "imagology," or Communist May Day parades, Kundera 's narrators seem equaUy disapproving: "The brotherhood ofman on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch" (Unbearable Lightness). What does this statement signify, and how did Kundera reach this conclusion? What is "totaUtarian kitsch," and how are his novels, in both form and content, a specific reaction against it? Lastly, how does the crowd function as the common denominator between his Czech-inspired novels and his French works? In what follows, I will consider how the context of Communist Czechoslovakia informs his early work and then compare how the trope of the crowd is deployed in his recent French novels. Vol. 25 (2001): 89 IMAGES OF THE CROWD IN KUNDERA'S NOVELS Jaromil ("jaro"—spring), is the young poet-protagonist of Life is Elsewhere (¿ivotjejinde, 1973), a novel that describes the moment when the Communists first came to power. The narrator observes with ironic detachment how impressionable Jaromil is swept into the revolutionary furor of 1948. Enthusiastic over the Communist party coup, Jaromil begins to speak in slogans, teUing his skeptical uncle that "the working class would wring his neck," 'délnická trida ti zakroutí krkem' (152).2 When he uses revolutionary jargon, he transcends himself, emptying his identity into a coUective swarm that is both monstrous and magnificent: Jaromil discarded his own speech and chose to act as a medium for someone else. Moreover, he did so with a feeling of intense pleasure; he felt himself to be part of a thousand-headed multitude, one organ of a hydra-headed dragon, and that seemed magnificent. (128) Jaromil rezignoval na svou ree a zvolil radëji moznostbyt mediem nëkoho jiného. Ale nejenom ze tak ucinil, ale ucinil tak s pocitem intenzivního pozitku; zdálo se mu, ¿eje soucástí tisicíhlavého davu, zejejednou ? hlav tisícihlavého draka zástupu a pfipadlo mu to velkolepé. (152) Jaromü's perceptions are narrated in style indirect libre,3 opening a critical space between the character's thoughts and the narrator's judgment . At the same time that Jaromil feels "intense pleasure," he is Uquidated into the mass body—a "thousand-headed crowd," 'tisícihlav- ého...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 89-109
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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