Saturday, February 25, 2012

Books: Art and being human

Title: Encounter
Author: Milan Kundera
Publisher: Harper (2010)(HB)
Price: RM76.90

This is the fourth book of essays by this Franco-Czech author and, possibly, the most challenging. Encounter looks deceptively light (large fonts, easy style, 178 pages), but is weighed down by its content – it took me longer to read this book than it did to read 1Q84, a book with 925 pages. It is not the type of book one would read from start to the end. Fact is, I had to put it down several times, pace about, ponder over what I have read, re-read it (often several times) before moving on.

I read the first chapter on Francis Bacon five times (at least). “In painting, we leave always too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough,” Kundera quotes Bacon. Wow! Exactly what I have been trying to tell my writers for years – write it the way it is, the way you see it, don’t write what you think it is, the way you think everyone sees it. This is our conundrum: everyone has the ability to think, to make choices. We will protest against anyone who dares to deny us that. Yet, we can only think and talk like everyone else, and do everything that is habit, everything that is in fashion. (Even our protest is after a fashion.) We will continue to live by habit, to die by habit. Coke is habit,  racism is habit; we will embrace it. We can only regurgitate. Yet in art, one must steer clear of habit, of cliché.

Encounter is full of pithy observations like that. In the next chapter, he talks about the comical absence of the comical, in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I had to laugh. It is normal to associate laughter with humour, but I have always found it strange how people can laugh when there is nothing funny. Have you noticed how (some) people start laughing almost as soon as they identify the person at the other end of the phone, and continue to do so throughout the conversation, for forty-five minutes if it takes that long. Presumably, the person at the other end is doing the same. When, at the end of the call, one asks, “What was so funny?” the reply would normally be, “Oh, nothing funny; just my friend.”  So, if not in response to humour, was the laughter simply one of joy in a friend? For company? For filling up gaps in conversations?

Encounter has dozens of little interesting observations. I will mention one last one from the last chapter in the review of The Skin by Curzio Malaparte: Because … America had never lost a war, and because it was a country of believers, its citizens saw its victories as divine will confirming their own political and moral certainties. A European, weary and sceptical, defeated and ashamed could easily be dazzled by the whiteness of those teeth …”

Not just the Europeans.