Love in the Time of World Crises:
Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being
and Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club
Literature, let’s say, entertains history, the way we entertain an idea; it also entertains itself, never at a loss for conversation or amusement; and in its more radical forms it invites history to think again.
Michael Wood, Children of Silence (13)
They speak of politics as ‘facts’. As though no one had explained to them the difference between ‘facts’ and that ‘reality’ which includes all the emotions of people and their positions. And which includes also triangular time (the past of moments, their present, and their future). They speak of politics as the decisions of governments and parties and states, like the eight o’clock news.
Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there and who is absent and why. Who misses whom when the coffee is poured into the waiting cups. Can you, for example, afford your breakfast? Where are your children who have gone forever from these their usual chairs?....What reproach do you wish to utter? And what reproach do you wish erased?...Who imported this small, shiny teaspoon from Taiwan?....Politics is the number of coffee-cups on the table, it is the sudden presence of what you have forgotten, the memories you are afraid to look at too closely, though you look anyway. Staying away from politics is also politics.
Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (43-44)
This chapter will compare the use of romance tropes in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) to resist the popular nationalist rhetoric surrounding the Prague Spring and the Suez Crisis, respectively. The novels transcend parochial nationalist collectivities and offer alternative visions: more pertinent ones, which juxtapose the political discourse with an individual’s personal, lived experience of the nation, and wider ones, which locate the nation vis-à-vis other nations, among international players and as part of a more universal political-historical discourse. These counter-national imaginaries suggest that any understanding of the political identities of Bohemia and Egypt necessitates locating these countries as part of a wider world. Yet the transnational ‘world’ imaginaries Kundera and Ghali suggest are very different. ‘Supra-national’ in the former and ‘cross-national’ in the latter, these perspectives suggest different ideas of political affiliation and the political Other.
Love and Bildung
As formation narratives, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Beer in the Snooker Club depict two individual journeys of national conditioning. The link between the ‘novel of education’ and nation-building has often been drawn, with the Bildungsroman (perceived as having been formally ‘launched’ with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795-96)), the rise of the nation-state, and the rise of the novel being more or less synchronous.16 There is still some debate about what specific formal or thematic characteristics are indispensable to the Bildungsroman (see Swales; Buckley; Beddows), including opinions that the term Bildungsroman may refer to quite different things in different literary traditions (see Miles; Gottfried and Miles), or may be a form that ceased to exist in the twentieth century (see Moretti The Way of the World).
Nevertheless, the references to Bildungsroman remain, as does the link between Bildungsroman, ‘nation-building’ and societal affiliation –a link clearly indicated in recent works referring to the ‘European’ (Summerfield), ‘Spanish-American’ (Doub), ‘African’ (Collins) and ‘Arab’ (Hallaq; al-Moussa) Bildungsroman. Despite the different language-cultures and sometimes periods these studies work with, they share a common understanding of the Bildungsroman similar to that described by one of its earliest proponents, William Dilthey: “The…[Bildungsromane] all portray a young man of their time: how he enters life in a happy state of naiveté seeking kindred souls, finds friendship and love, how he comes into conflict with the hard realities of the world, how he grows to maturity through diverse life-experiences, finds himself, and attains certainty about his purpose in the world” (Dilthey 5:336). Additions or changes to this ‘core’ formula are then considered as culturally-specific and intentional deviations, such as the ‘feminist’ Bildungsroman (Bolaki), the ‘feminist British’ Bildungsroman (Fraiman), or the ‘French’, ‘German’, ‘Russian’ and ‘British’ Bildungsroman (Moretti The Way of the World).
Towards the ends of ‘attaining certainty about his purpose in the world’, the protagonist then needs to experience, or find, by Dilthey’s formula, friendship and love –rehabilitative social relationships which signal the protagonist’s assimilation into society and adaptation to its mores, and therefore indicate that society itself is flourishing with the well-being of its individuals. Love affairs become part and parcel of the development process, integral to the formation of the individual and the well-being of the nation. In this formula the love affair becomes a trope for two ‘kinship’ myths at the same time: the nation-kinship myth, that is, the idea of the family being a nucleus unit of the nation, and the Bildung myth, or the ability to form a suitable relationship indicating one’s potential to achieve social assimilation and lead a meaningful existence. The successful love affair often points to the protagonist’s ability to function as a responsible member of society, a citizen proper who will, with a suitable spouse, be the wise progenitor of future suitable candidates for the nation. Hence, J H Buckley, writing specifically on the English Bildungsroman, states that the protagonist needs to go through at least two love affairs or sexual encounters in order to signal his progress to social maturity: “one debasing, one exalting, [and both] demand[ing] that in this respect and others the hero reappraise his values” (17). Meanwhile Franco Moretti expounds on this idea by arguing that love relations in nineteenth-century novels of formation were presented differently among various ‘national’ corpuses according to social mores and artistic traditions; the common depiction of adultery in the French Bildungsroman was countered, for example, by marriage in the English Bildungsroman of domesticity (Moretti The Way of the World).
Rather than a full cycle of growth to maturity, the formation narratives in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Beer in the Snooker Club offer more accurately and simply a cognitive transition, a move from one point of ‘knowing’ to another, where maturity is not necessarily the resolution but an off-chance and the real focal point is the process of gaining experience. The protagonists’ political conflicts and their moment(s) of self-enlightenment are dramatised and posited as somehow representational of a collective experience (hence the ease with which both texts have been read as ‘national allegories’) and the general ‘human condition’. By depicting individuals who are strongly sceptical of the state’s ideals of national belonging, the novels do not simply depict the assimilation or lack thereof of the protagonist-citizen, but stress the seemingly inevitable conflict between individual and community, community and governing-structure. As part of the nation but also as an intelligent worldly outsider who is able to critique it, the individual can consequently refute popular or emergent ‘national’ histories and what such histories threaten of historiographic distortion and collective forgetfulness.
The two protagonists, Tomas from The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Ram from Beer in the Snooker Club, thus attempt to transcend the noisy rhetoric and jargon of politicians and state-politics in order to address the more important matter of locating individual identity vis-à-vis the nation-state and the larger world. Developing as political events rage in the background, the love stories at the heart of the novels bring these identity affiliations to the fore. The significance of political crises is that they serve to temporarily mobilise the nation (or at least much of it) and later, perhaps for centuries and even atavistically, become part of the rhetoric of national self-definition. Because the protagonists, caught in the urgency of the political situation, are also questioning the fundamentals of their countries’ political policies, the decisions they take towards women gain political resonance, creating the personal-political dimension which exemplifies the nation as an individual lived experience in juxtaposition with, or even in contradiction of, the collective experience claimed by state propaganda and historical accounts.
Two Transnational Communities
Both novels recount similar plots of (younger) men facing politically-determining choices, and although both men resist the minimizing nationalist ideologies concurrent in their countries and seek to widen them into transnational concepts, the two novels give different perspectives of the transnational. Kundera transcends the post-Prague Spring state to envision a ‘supra-nation’ of Europe, a regional bloc that he perceives as a world in itself. He emphasises the shared nation myths of Europe and Bohemia to resist the Orientalisation of Czech culture behind the ‘Eastern Europeanness’ of the Wall, Iron Curtain, Orthodox Church, or Slavic semantic family (Kovačević), and works into his argument a small nation/large nation discourse17 that calls to save Czech history from local provincialism on the one hand and foreign barbarism through Russification on the other. Kundera’s supra-nation transcends the local-national level by asserting that the cultural boundaries of the Western European bloc actually include more of the peoples of Europe, but restricts this expansion by considering Europe not just as a regional bloc in the world but as the world: the maker of history and the marker of time. What happens outside Europe’s geographical boundaries happens as if on another planet, occasionally noteworthy like an infrequent eclipse but otherwise distant and unconnected. Perceived as global, Kundera’s supra-nation is presented from the top down, emphasising the grand narratives of history even as it questions them, and often heavily engages in totalising power discourses of distinctiveness and exceptionalism.
In Beer in the Snooker Club Waguih Ghali constructs a ‘cross-national’ vision of Egypt which opposes the political discourses and slogans in Nasser’s state, from anti-Zionism to Arab socialism, by highlighting all the communal and individual identities these discourses exclude. The cross-national perspective transcends the nation by linking individuals together around the world, focusing on a common ‘humanity’ rather than common ‘citizenship’. The novel resists political labelling by pointing to myriad contra-definitions of what it may mean to be ‘Egyptian’. Ghali’s cross-nation is depicted as a personalised alternative to, and confessional escape from, the political situation. As such, Ghali’s cross-nation describes Egyptian society not from the top down, but by digressions and divergences, often through chance encounters with representatives of Egypt’s classes and communities: street boys and rich playboys, and janitors and cultural attachés. At its most general the novel expresses Ram’s nostalgic lament for a lost communal knowledge and way of doing things. Although he clearly critiques Nasser’s regime, the narrator fails to offer a precise political alternative (or, tellingly, a clear narrative closure). As Kundera, via his supra-nation, expresses weariness of both the Czech Communist Party and the Czech dissident intellectuals, and transcends or resists the political situation by weaving his narrative into broader Western philosophies, Ghali’s cross-national vision expresses weariness with nationalism in general, and wishfully dreams of a global cosmopolitanism.18
Kundera seems to accept the division of the world into political alliances based on homogenous cultural traditions and ethnicities; what he has more trouble with is where the Czech nation (or Bohemia) is placed. Because the political strength and therefore the historical image of ‘small nations’ is so precarious, the novel’s protagonist Tomas wishes for either greater freedom to choose his own political destiny or the freedom to forego choice altogether. Ghali, on the other hand, resists the distinctive East/West dichotomies that would in his time eventually be named the Cold War, and which would place Egypt, probably beyond any degree Ghali imagined, at the crossroads of whimsical political pigeon-holing: today anti-Zionist, pro-Jewish and pro-Palestinian, tomorrow anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian, and the day after, anti-Jewish and pro-Palestinian; today pro-British and French, tomorrow anti-imperialist; today pro-American, tomorrow anti-Western; today indifferent-Arab, pro-Soviet; tomorrow pro-Arab, anti-communist. Rather than desire stronger political agency, Ram, the main protagonist, yearns to bring down the political binaries that bind people into marked-out mutually-exploiting groups.
Both cross-nations and supra-nations embody different visions of a ‘world’ perspective. They can also be seen to draw on the different ‘international’ conceptions common through the twentieth century, particularly apparent during the Cold War period in regional alliances whether intended for expansionist political power such as the USSR, or for the sake of defending oneself against similar superpowers, such as NATO. ‘Sovietism’ and the concomitant communism affected Czechoslovakia and Egypt in the 1950s-60s in radically different ways, but projected in both countries a similar political discourse on local and foreign policies. This discourse proclaimed “internationalism and condemned…chauvinism in [its] ideology, programs and propaganda” (Tomaszewski 67). At the same time: “[It] tried to gain the confidence of the major nations of each [allied] country by playing on patriotic feelings and the traditions of the majority including the traditions of national struggle for independence and/or unification...a task of reconciling the national tradition with internationalist ideology and current political needs” (Tomaszewski 67).
Soviet influence took various political forms according to each country’s particular situation. In Czechoslovakia, which was eventually directly annexed as a satellite state, the popularity of Sovietisation was always tentative, primarily as Russia had frequently appeared in Czech history as an unsatisfactory but ‘lesser evil’, a saviour from other hostile, often German(ic), powers. Although the Communist Party had won the elections of 1946, consolidated its hold on power in the coup of 1948, and quickly commenced refashioning Czechoslovakia into an extension of the Soviet entity (Sayer 14), even Czech and Slovak communists in sympathy with Russian ideologies had had early on “ideological difficulties with Karl Marx’s derogative opinions about their nations and his condemnation of national movements (notably in 1848) among Slavic nations” (Tomaszevski 68). In Egypt, Russian culture was familiar in literary and journalistic circles, while Egyptian communists, often working illegally, had helped spread Soviet ideas (Ginat), but after the Suez Crisis the Soviet Union came to be seen as a formidable ally against ‘Western imperialism’, clinched as the relationship was with agreements of trade, military and monetary aid, and the exchange of professionals and soldiers. Inasmuch as Egypt was actually able to determine its own destiny, in the 1960s it was still much freer to steer its own course in relation to the Soviet Union than was Czechoslovakia. Indeed, the polemics of non-alignment could even afford Nasser a dual privilege. The first was of cracking down or continuing to crack down on communists in Egypt (and thereby eliminating political dissent). The second was of kowtowing to Soviet influence by advocating socialism and adopting such measures as the haphazard re-division of national wealth and nationalisation (thereby increasing his own and the army’s populist appeal) –all in the autocratic set-up eventually dubbed ‘Nasserite socialism’.
‘The March of Protest’
The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Beer in the Snooker Club deal with the political forces that shape an individual’s identity. Both novels present strong historical background, focusing respectively on two events which had transnational political reverberations: the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1956 Suez Crisis. The first, “the most radical social experiment in the communist Eastern bloc during the turbulent events of 1968, brought Czechoslovakia to the centre of world attention” (Sabatos 1827). Coming to symbolise resistance to the Soviet/communist dystopia, the Prague Spring would become a symbol for non-violent resistance and (later) anti-communist protest. The Suez Crisis largely signified the end of British (and later) French colonial influence in the Middle East and North Africa, pushed Gamal Abd El Nasser and the Arab cause temporarily to the forefront of international politics, and would become a popular symbol for anti-imperialism. Both were appropriated locally as national symbols and signalled an end of an ‘era’. Havel’s description of 1968, for example, carries the same resonances as Ghali’s depiction of 1956 in Beer in the Snooker Club:
It was the end of an era; the disintegration of a spiritual and social climate; a profound mental dislocation. The seriousness of the events that caused this transformation and the profound experiences that came with it seemed to alter our prospects completely. It was not just that the carnival-like elation of 1968 had come to an end; the whole world crumbled…[O]ut of the rubble of the old world a sinister new world grew, one that was intrinsically different, merciless, gloomily serious. (Havel 8)
Both events were considered historical landmarks of regional significance in their time, and had immediate local and regional economic effects. Traditionally thought of as distinct, the two are at least indirectly related.19 The Czechoslovakian alliance with the Soviet Union post-World War II would enable the USSR to harness Czechoslovakian industrial plants. In 1955 the arms which the USSR agreed to supply to Nasser would come from Czechoslovakia (hence the name ‘the Czech arms deal’ or sometimes ‘the Egyptian-Czech arms deal’). The news that Nasser had obtained huge numbers of weaponry from the Soviet Union (although supplied by Czechoslovakia) aggravated the British and French for what it signified of Soviet influence in the Middle East, probably helping to precipitate the attack on Suez. The attack on Suez exacerbated Arab-Israeli hostility; and a continued series of wars caused wide-ranging international-alliance restructuring, culminating in the embargo on oil production by Arab oil-producing states during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Although it had already been a project in the making, the creation of a European Regional Development Fund was hastened by the ‘oil crisis’ (which had made the price of oil shoot up for the oil-importing US and European countries). The Development Fund was hastily launched in 1974-75 with the purpose of transferring money from richer to poorer European countries, aiming to develop Europe’s infrastructure within the expanding EU borders, and with the ultimate objective of harnessing the potential of the whole bloc for some form of economic autonomy. Such movements for integration eventually helped (further) popularise and politicise EU discourse (despite reservations) from the 1960s until the recession and which Kundera, in the 1980s, taps into so vividly in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: the belief in a united European actor for the sake of peace and prosperity.
Beyond their regional contexts of political resistance, the events in Prague and Suez were also caught up in contagious waves of mass protest not in fact inherent to one or another ‘region’. Seen in a larger context, the raging sixties protests in Europe were part of the international resonances of protest in the post-War period (and which had in turn been preceded with more than sixty years of high-profile mass protest movements around the world): protests all calling for liberation from different oppressions. Highly-publicised resistance movements, whether non-violent, violent, or non-violent-turned-violent, had appeared early on, for example, in the British colonies such as the Indian Rebellion (1857), the First Pan-African Congress in London (1900) with a follow-up in Versailles (1919), the populist protests for independence in Egypt and Sudan (1919), and the rise of Ireland’s Sinn Fein. Just like the resistance movement in one British colony could influence that in another British colony, such movements could also influence others in non-British colonies, and sometimes the precise forms the protests took could influence calls for emancipation in non-colonial contexts. The connections between many of these struggles around the world have been explored.20 The African American Civil Rights movement in the United States, for example, started in the last few years of the nineteenth century and (not unrelatedly) reached its apex in the 1950s-60s, spurring self-styled Civil Rights movements in other countries although adapted to a colonial context, such as Northern Ireland in the 1960s. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa would be inspired by the African American Civil Rights movement, but also by the liberation struggles of sub-Saharan African countries and Gandhi’s call for passive resistance. The feminist movement in the UK and the US had had a long history too of non-violent resistance, and would eventually spur self-styled marches for women’s rights in the colonies in the early twentieth century (with feminist slogans and demands often suitably reworked in line with the national struggles for liberation).21
The Cold War period was marked by newly-minted, or re-minted as the case may be, international alliances, whether across previously hostile powers (such as The European Coal and Steel Community in 1951) or between newly-independent states seeking new support systems and ‘third ways’(such as the 1952 Bandung Conference). The rise of ‘international’ political alliances based on temporary and changing mutual interests often meant that certain crises would impact hitherto distantly-connected countries, which now found themselves allies in mutual (and novel) resistance objectives.22 These new mutual objectives would often be accompanied by cultural exchange.23 Despite these alliances for peace and mutual benefit the Cold War marked a continuation of strife in much of the world. All through the century this translated into higher numbers of refugees and migrants, and larger and wider-spread diasporas. Homes were found for re-settled war victims at the expense of the new dispossessed, just as socialist restructuring and sequestration replaced former powerful elites with new ones.
The ‘contagion’ of resistance against all kinds of oppression then in one or another part of the world did not happen suddenly or in isolation. The symbols and consequences of resistance were often captured in people’s imaginations through the images of street protest and smiling politicians’ handshakes which often circulated in international newspapers, but debate around such issues also took place in boardrooms and in parliaments, some of whose represented publics had invested interests overseas. It is not therefore incidental or unrelated that the French, British and Israeli assault on Suez, for example, would prompt large-scale protest in England, that hundreds of thousands would protest the Vietnam War in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, or that in the year 1968 it would appear as if a domino-effect of protests had hit Europe. It was no coincidence either that student protest in the 1960s and 1970s was as common in Paris as it was in New York24 and Cairo.25 Further motivating the impetus for ‘solidarity’ (and the effectiveness of the idea of ‘solidarity’ as a catchphrase) were the sceptres of communism and socialism, which had long moved beyond the ‘haunting’ stage and were comfortably ensconced in state capitals.26 The march of (street) protest in 1968 in Prague was only one manifestation of a wider global flux.