Monday, August 22, 2011

Paul Maliszewski | Review of Milan Kundera's The Farewell Waltz


Review of Milan Kundera's The Farewell Waltz
by Paul Maliszewski

The Farewell Waltz, Milan Kundera. Valcík na rozloucenou (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1979). Translated from the Czech as The Farewell Party by Peter Kussi. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976/New York: Penguin Books, 1977/London: Faber and Faber, 1993). Translated from the Czech as The Farewell Waltz by Aaron Asher. (New York:HarperCollins, 1998).

Published originally as The Farewell Party in 1976, Farewell Waltz joins other recent new translations overseen by Milan Kundera of The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The novel is, at heart, a farce, with the characters thrown into every combination of discomfort and embarrassment, but the disarmingly bright face of this farce masks Kundera's existential concerns.

Where a conventional farce might look to a series of misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and quickly slammed doors to flummox the characters and eventually reveal their weaknesses and frailities, in Kundera's novel the stakes of the farce are higher: several characters' lives are imperiled an dno one emerges unaltered by their fateful plotlines. Like Vladimir Nabokov before him, Kundera cannot seem to help himself to a little touching up here and there when translating. Kundera's translation is never fussy and shows no evidence of imposing the style of his recent short novels, written in French, on a book that is more intricately plotted and stylistically floppy eared. In all aspects the translation servies the work well. The writing in Farewell Waltz is sharper, the word choice nearly always more exact and econoomical. The earlier book's health-resot town setting becomes, simply, "the spal." The "childless women" in the opening paragraph of the earlier book become the more precise "women unable to bear children." Isolated and taken out of context these examples may seem nitpicky, but accumulated over the entire text they begin to cloud the clarity of Kundera's writing. Late in the novel, with Kundera drawing together all the threads of this dark comedy, the narrator parenthetically projects the dim future of one of the characters.

The earlier translation characterizes hims as "an uncomprehending Cain, a courier of disaster." Neither is right. The character has not, like Cain, killed his brother. Neither is he uncomprehending exactly. In the new translation, the charcter is a leper who brings disaters on loved ones, wandering, Kundera writes, "like a milaman of misfortune." That single phrase brings many of the book's themes together, comgining as it does the banal and the bureaucratic with the philosophical, the mythical, and the fate stricken. [Paul Maliszewski, The Review of Contemporary Fiction]

Copyright (c)1998 by Paul Maliszewski

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