Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed

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This was probably the most intellectually challenging book I’ve read all year. Translated from the French, it’s a massive essay on a broad range of topics including but not limited to: Continental European music of the last hundred years, authorial intent, friendship, the evolution of the novel, Kafka, Stravinsky, translation and the role of the translator, conducting and the role of the conductor, Janacek, the difference between satire and irony and the inherent temporal blindness of the human condition. These concepts build on each other in complex interlocking matrices, supporting each other like an elaborate living latticework. The more you know about Continental novelists and composers, the easier the read will be. At the very least, you need to have a passing familiarity with Kafka and have a general understanding of the history of Europe in the last hundred years. Even with the requisite background information, it’s a tough read.

Near the end of the book, he touches on  “trials” (held in the court of public opinion) in general, and specifically by the desire to make a “bastard” out of an artist or thinker at the center of a scandal, to demonize both the creator and the creation because of the creator’s unpopularity (being on the wrong side of history, being unlikable or caustic in private life, having supported the wrong people or movements). Kundera’s perspective is drawn heavily from the post-fascist and post-communist history of mainland Europe, but it’s characteristic and representative of a larger, human tendency: the need to demonize, to accuse, and condemn the offensive. We feel a need to find out who the demons and the bastards are so that we can condemn them loudly and publicly. Their alleged sins -lately- might be misogyny, homophobia, or racism. We take things out of context and take the speaker to task, boycotting anything they are involved in. Like the European tribunals and the American trials of the Red Scare, we de-contextualize while we equate the maker with his media. Everything is offensive. If so many people are incapable of picking up on satire, Kundera asks, what hope does the author or artist have that his sense of irony will be picked up? If a nasty word is ontologically offensive, then so is every subversive use of the same word.

It’s impossible to even communicate a sense either of the overall ideas in this book or any single specific one; everything is so interconnected. Any thoughts must be pruned to such an extent in order to be removed from their context within the book that they will be almost unrecognizable. Testaments Betrayed is a challenge, but only because it’s insightfulness is so densely packed.

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