Milan Kundera is a master of graceful illusion and illuminating surprise. In one of these stories a young man and his girlfriend pretend that she is a stranger he picked up on the road--only to become strangers to each other in reality as their game proceeds. In another a teacher fakes piety in order to seduce a devout girl, then jilts her and yearns for God. In yet another girls wait in bars, on beaches, and on station platforms for the same lover, a middle-aged Don Juan who has gone home to his wife. Games, fantasies, and schemes abound in all the stories while different characters react in varying ways to the sudden release of erotic impulses.
The themes all deal with aspects of human sexuality - mostly from a Man's view. The stories have a raw sense of humanity to them - sometimes it can be uncomfortable reading; however, it has an undeniably tender undercurrent. Even when a character behaves despicably, I remained sympathtic with the human behind the actions. It just feels irresistably honest, and it is quite easy to get seduced by such well-portrayed human complexities.
Among my favorite stories were "The Old Dead Must Make Room for the New Dead", which portrays the dilemma of whether to preserve a diffuse, but beatiful sensual memory or replace it with a graphic, but uglier version that will ultimately erase the former. "Edward and God" is another gem that deals with sexual longing and the fickleness of Religion (Atheism is cleverly presented just as irrational in its dogmatisms as Christianity).
Finally "The Hitchhiking Game" is a classic portrayal of how easily perceptions can be irreversibly altered.
I highly recommend this short-story collection; however, if you are reading Milan Kundera for the first time, I am tempted to recommened one of his more famous works...
The first two stories in the collection were not an auspicious start to my first Kundera experience. One of the stories focuses on a guy whose practical joke, if you will, goes a bit awry, and the other one introduces us to a man and an older woman who meet on the street years after their one-time fling. I liked nothing about them. The language seemed automaton-like, unnatural and not poetic at all. The stories themselves didn’t seem to have much of a point and were boring. I couldn’t detect any sharp psychological analysis that people kept saying Kundera was known for.
The only reason I kept on reading instead of abandoning it was because it moved fairly quickly, and I held out hope that maybe the other stories would be better. Good thing I did so. Starting with the third story and onward to the last one, the stories seemed to liven up for me. I’m not sure if this was because I gradually got used to Kundera’s style; maybe it really did just have to do with how specific stories resonated more with me. Sure, the language was still pretty average, but the ideas behind the stories tickled my brain and I found myself flipping page after page, smiling as each character demonstrated their foibles, played mind games on each other for kicks, deluded themselves away from certain truths, or awakened to how the effects of aging were disrupting their sense of self. Kundera is able to articulate/capture people’s psyche in such a precise way that a light bulb kept going off in my head.
So in the end, enjoying five out of seven stories is a pretty good record for a short story collection. Overall though, if this is indicative of Kundera’s style, then my reading preferences and his style aren’t quite a good fit. But I’m glad that I dipped into a bit of his work at least.