In this dark farce of a novel, set in an old-fashioned Central European spa town, eight characters are swept up in an accelerating dance: a pretty nurse and her repairman boyfriend; an oddball gynecologist; a rich American (at once saint and Don Juan); a popular trumpeter and his beautiful, obsessively jealous wife; an disillusioned former political prisoner about to leave his country and his young woman ward. Perhaps the most brilliantly plotted and sheer entertaining of Milan Kundera's novels, Farewell Waltz poses the most serious questions with a blasphemous lightness that makes us see that the modern world has deprived us even of the right to tragedy. Written in Bohemia in 1969-70, this book was first published (in 1976) in France under the title La valse aux adieux (Farewell Waltz), and later in thirty-four other countries. This beautiful new translation, made from the French text prepared by the novelist himself, fully reflects his own tone and intentions. As such it offers an opportunity for both the discovery and the rediscovery of one of the very best of a great writer's works.
The whole mood is profoundly sexist, and there's no evidence to suggest that Kundera intended any irony by setting the story in a fertility spa: this is still the old world where men sit around discussing life, the universe and everything, whilst women fulfil themselves by having babies. If their husbands can't manage it, there's the good doctor to cure them with his magic syringe.
As so often with translations, the (UK) English title seems to have been thought up by someone who hasn't read the book. There is neither a party nor any dancing in the book, but Farewell Waltz (corresponding to La valse aux adieux, the title of the original French edition) makes sense in a way that The Farewell Party doesn't: you can have a metaphorical waltz, but who ever heard of a metaphorical party?
Razena, a nurse at the clinic, is pregnant and has decided renowned trumpet play Klima is the father of the child - not the clumsy and desperate teenager Franti. Klima is horrified at the news and tries to talk her into having an abortion, using a rackety reverse psychology tactic dictated to him by his band. Political liability Jakob is at the resort to say his good-byes to a couple of friends before leaving the country for good. Olga desperatly wants to be his lover rather than his sort-of stepdaugther, once at least. Klima's wife is torn by her jealousy and scared of finding proof at the same time. And doctor Skreta, who himself might be the father of all the children concieved through insemination at the clinic, tries to give American millioneer Bertlef subtle hints to adopt him as his son.
It's a clever and fast-paced weave Kundera gives us here, full of twists and even with a bit of "ticking bomb" suspension in the form of a tablet of poison being mixed in with medical pills. It would undoubtedly make a good film or play.
What brings the rating down by at least one star for me is the book's stale sexism. Even though there are as many female characters as male ones in this polyphonic novel, the tilted balance is striking. The men think and talk about existence, religion, friendship and the nature of women. The women think about the men they are hot for. In the book's concluding "solution", it becomes rather unpleasant and cynical in (as far as I can tell) a rather unintended way.