Click here for a slide show. We were moving too fast. From Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, we had to get back to Prague in two days, because we had a flight to catch. The obvious place to stop for the night was Brno in the Czech Republic. I was pleased about this, because the city was an object of literary curiosity. If there’s one writer, for me, whose paving stones are worth walking on, it’s one who was born in Brno.
I fell hard for Milan Kundera in my early 20s. First I was smitten by The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Then I worked my way through his earlier books The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which were more overtly political and given to flights of magical realism. I dallied, too, with later works like Slowness, written long after the author had fled Communist Czechoslovakia and settled in France. But my first love remained The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I reread it once or twice a year, and I often foisted copies on others like an evangelist spreading the gospel.
Gradually, the book faded into the background of my life, along with impassioned discussions about how best to understand the world. When someone recently asked me to name my favorite book and to explain why—I seldom hear that kind of question anymore—I had a ready answer to the first part of the query, but I realized that I could not remember why I considered the book so important. I had forgotten the content.
So, before this trip, I picked up a new copy, having long ago lost the last one I owned. I thought that maybe in Prague, or in some anonymous small Czech town (both settings in the book), I would appreciate the story even more. But I was also braced for the possibility of disappointment. The infatuations of youth can’t be counted on to maintain their hold.
When I cracked it open again, I was engrossed. I remembered that I loved the book because it suggested new ways of thinking about the soul, the body, betrayal, love, history, and freedom. Philosophical explorations of all these themes hang on a plot about a Czech couple who suffer through the personal trauma of infidelity and the national trauma of totalitarianism.
And now here I was approaching Brno. Kundera had long ago moved on; he is of the world now, a French citizen who has written his last several books in French. But the city, I thought, must have contributed something.
First we stopped about 12 miles short of Brno in the town of Slavkov u Brna, better known to historians as Austerlitz. In December of 1805, between Austerlitz and Brno, Napoleon’s army met the combined forces of Russia’s Tsar Alexander and the Austrian Emperor Francis. Twenty-thousand soldiers were killed.
This seems to me, now, highly relevant to the opening of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which the author explains the idea of eternal return, a notion explored by Nietzsche. Eternal return posits that every occurrence recurs an infinite number of times. (Time is infinite, but there are only a finite number of events, so eventually anything that happens will happen again.) If this “mad myth” is true, Kundera suggests, everything we do matters. If it’s not true, then even the most horrific events are ephemeral and thus forgivable. Nothing matters.
I wonder if he could have been thinking about the Battle of Austerlitz. Does it matter that 20,000 soldiers died painful deaths on this field? Does it matter that the French army “won”? Or do we in fact live in a world in which “everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything is cynically permitted” as Kundera writes? A world “that rests essentially on the non-existence of return?”
Modern Austerlitz is tidy and whitewashed and contains a Napoleon Restaurant. We left and rode across the now-serene countryside to Brno and plunged amid the cable cars and evening traffic.
Brno is regarded by Praguers with the usual disdain people in cultural capitals reserve for second cities. It does not have literary and puppet festivals like Prague, at least not ones tailored to an international crowd. The biggest event on the calendar is the Brno Motorcycle Grand Prix every August.
We didn’t have much time. We checked into a hotel and went out walking. I saw people gathered on the steps of the Janacek Theater during an intermission. They were dressed up and lit up in the broad entryway to the great square Stalinist building, as though they themselves were on a stage. The largest opera house in the Czech Republic, the theater is named for Leos Janacek, the composer who spent most of his life in Brno. A statue of him adorns the lawn.
Kundera’s father was a musicologist at Brno University, and Kundera himself was briefly a jazz musician. His work, not surprisingly, contains many musical references and analogies. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Sabina, a painter who has fled the country, attends a gathering of fellow Czech émigrés and wonders afterward what binds her to them:
[T]he culture? But what was that? Music? Dvorak and Janacek? Yes. But what if a Czech had no feeling for music? Then the essence of being Czech vanished into thin air.
My favorite musical reference, though, is about motifs that occur and recur throughout our lives, coming back again and again like variations on a tune:
While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs … but if they meet when they are older … their musical compositions are more or less complete.
We lose our desires to shape others and be shaped. I stopped pressing the works of Kundera on other people around the time I began to lose those desires.
The center of Brno is made up mostly of 18th- and 19th-century facades and traversed by cable car tracks. Over dinner in a crowded, candlelit restaurant, L. and I agreed that this trip would have been perfect if we could have spent three nights in every place where we spent one. Cities had become a blur, which made me think of a passage in Kundera’s book. When Sabina is asked by her lover if she would like to go to Palermo, she tells him she has already seen a postcard of the city, and that in her mind, “it has the same hotels and cars as all cities. And my studio always has new and different pictures.”
Her statement is very anti-travel. Can traipsing through the world, sampling a hotel here and a restaurant there, be as creatively productive, or as absorbing, as sitting still and focusing the mind?
In fact, we probably need to traipse and sit still, so that one activity can feed the other. But I was ready to make the switch back to my “studio.”
I left Brno the next morning, and headed to Prague, to Paris, and ultimately to my desk. L. had become one with the bike. He moved his hips and the machine obeyed. In an empty warehouse parking lot, I tried riding the bike myself, but it didn’t respond so well. As I let go of the clutch and felt it speed up, I was excited and then scared. Slowing down would have been easy: I just had to squeeze the clutch with my hand or use my foot to push down on the rear brake. In the moment of excitement, though, I forgot how.