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East Meets West
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Happiness: From the West to the East, how do people understand Kundera?

"This is a world of popular departures, and our goodbyes are proclaimed everywhere. But none of us is adept at farewells."

Recently, the world mourned the passing of Milan Kundera in Paris. The writer's profound global impact captured the attention of people from all corners of the world. Xing Gao, a celebrated writer and translator known for authoring Kundera's biography, holds a deep familiarity with Kundera's literary body of work and scholarly endeavors.

What kind of writer was Kundera? These inquiries were explored in a recent interview by East Meets West with Xing Gao, shedding light on Kundera's literary and philosophical contributions, as well as his impact on a global scale, including within China.

Xing Gao, poet, translator, and Doctoral Supervisor, long served as the editor-in-chief of World Literature. Published works include monographs, essays, and poetry collections such as Milan Kundera Biography'and Loneliness and the Embrace of Loneliness. He also edited foreign literature books like Poems within Poetry and Novels within Novels and has received awards and medals such as the Chinese Crown Poetry Translation Award, One-Way Street Bookstore Literary Award, Renhe Journal Person Award, Czech Jan Masaryk Silver Medal, and many more.

Milan Kundera is one of the most widely read authors in the world, and he is also a master of successful anonymity. The stories he weaves and the questions he raises linger in the minds of readers. Yet, he himself has chosen to keep his life and experiences concealed from the public and media. What motivated you to undertake the biography of such a "invisible" renowned writer like Kundera?

Writing Kundera a biography is actually an impossible task. In fact, I didn't write the book as a biography; it is just a compendium of his life and works, as far as possible. My original intention in writing Milan Kundera Biography was to find clues in his work, to get closer to his life through various ways; after all, his work is more or less autobiographical. The focus of the book is on his novels and theories of fiction, hoping to present the reader with a novelist's image of Kundera.

Milan Kundera attends an event in Paris, France, in 2010. Credit: Visual China

Milan Kundera has always been a controversial writer, both in terms of his literary outlook and his life story. You have said that Kundera is an easily misunderstood writer, how do you interpret this statement?

Because of his birth and upbringing, Kundera is particularly susceptible to being misinterpreted as a socially defiant writer, which is precisely the last thing he wants to be. Kundera preferred to appear as a pure novelist. Kundera's work raises the "fundamental of reality" to the height of the art of fiction, and this is precisely where his brilliance lies, and his extraordinary talent is reflected in this artistic elevation.

Whether in the East or the West, understanding Kundera entails recognizing this fundamental aspect. Kundera, from a vantage point of existence, contemplates and navigates reality, elevating and presenting it through the lens of art. The themes he explores delve into the core of the world and the human condition, such as existence and the circumstances of humanity.

Milan Kundera, Paris, 1984. Credit: Visual China

Kundera enjoyed referencing Gustave Flaubert's quote, "The artist must strive to make posterity believe that he has never lived." However, even though he has passed away, Kundera is destined to remain impossible to ignore. His works, ideas, and perspectives will continue to be read and discussed. In your view, what contributions did Kundera make to the realms of both novels and novel theory?

In the form and art of the novel, Kundera made bold explorations and innovations, forming his own unique style. For example, he believed that all genres can be freely used in a novel as long as they are useful for the expression of the novel itself. In Kundera's novels, there are strong colours of cross-genre, and he often breaks the continuity of the story for free expression. Stories that seem to have no beginning and no end actually serve his themes and philosophical thoughts.

Kundera had a deep artistic education and heritage. Born into a family of musicians, he was knowledgeable about music, art, film, and other art forms, and these accumulations allowed him to bring more form and beauty to his novels. His novels are witty and humorous, and the transitions between the various themes are smooth and clever, full of questioning and scepticism. At the same time, he introduces playfulness into his works, telling readers that human nature and the world are not as simple as they seem.

Milan Kundera. Credit: Visual China

​In Kundera's view, the novelist should become a "prospector of existence". Writers have to face the problem of how to deal with the relationship between reality and literature and art. Kundera often said that the philosopher's task is to answer questions, while the novelist's responsibility is to raise questions. This statement broadens the scope of the novel in many ways.

Certain European and American writers have, at times, believed that the novel is on the brink of extinction, suggesting that it has exhausted all its possibilities. Yet, Kundera, whether through his own creations or his expansion of novel theory, continually demonstrates to us that the novel cannot meet its demise; on the contrary, its potential is boundless and endless.

As early as the late 1980s, Milan Kundera's works were translated and introduced to China, sparking a wave of translation, reading, imitation, and admiration. Prominent Chinese authors like Mo Yan and Yu Hua have been loyal readers of his works. In your perspective, why do Kundera's works enjoy a high level of acceptance in China? How does the general public's reception of his works differ from that of writers?

I think this is closely related to Kundera's writing style, novel pursuit and writing method. As a matter of fact, whether in the East or the West, Kundera's novels are truly appreciated by both and there are readers for all groups.

A reader reads this Czech novelist's works at the Milan Kundera Library in April 2023 in Brno, Czech Republic. Credit: Visual China

In addition to in-depth thinking and exploration of existence, Kundera's novels are full of interesting details, some readers may pay more attention to the "metaphysical contemplation" expressed in these works, including the exploration of the world and human nature; while readers with a relaxed reading mindset will be attracted by the subtle plot and details of the novel's story, which is also one of the most remarkable things about Kundera. In my opinion, the answer to these phenomena can be found in his writing strategy and pursuit of fiction. 

Back to the perspective of Chinese readers, Kundera's way of dealing with the relationship between reality and literature should be said to be more in line with our aesthetic preferences. His works, in fact, spring from the soil of reality. Building upon this foundation, he elevates the material in an exceptionally liberated and artistic manner. This combination caters to the readability and thought-provoking nature of his works, effectively meeting the reading expectations of numerous Chinese readers.

As the world has gone through turbulent changes in recent years and people's social lives and ways of thinking have changed, what do you think is the significance of continuing to read Kundera's work?

Kundera has left us a rich legacy, and his relentless search for existence, for the world, and for humanity will continue to inspire us. The distinctive style of his novels, with the humour, playfulness and scepticism, is particularly valuable to us. Time and again, Kundera's novel writing and theories of fiction remind us that we should survey the world and explore human nature with a deeper and more complex gaze. Kundera often said that the world is not as simple as it appears. The many changes that have taken place in the world in recent years have demonstrated the importance of this concept of "complexity and subtlety". Deep thinking based on this will help us to cope with the changes and understand the ever-changing world and the intricacies of human nature. His works tell us that there is no simple right and wrong, black and white, positive and negative, and that thinking and exploring in the true sense of the word is the proper posture of a novelist, and that only works created with such a posture can have lasting value.




East Meets WestKailun Sui

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