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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apologizer," as Alain is haunted by memories of his mother, who abandoned him before he was born, turning him into a man forever feeling like an intruder on the world.

Alain clings to a single picture of his mother and throughout the years carries on a long, wide-ranging conversation with her, through which he works out the problems of his own existence. Why did she leave him? Why is he the way he is? Why didn't she have the abortion that she wanted in the first place? Along the way, Alain imagines his mother in other women that he encounters, like his girlfriend and a woman who nearly knocks him over on the street--whom, it turns out, was having a moral dilemma much similar to Alain's mother. Was it actually, somehow, his mother, repeating her life over and over and bumping into her yet unborn son on the street? Welcome to Kundera-ville.

Along the way, Kundera offers up a few of the kinds of philosophical insights that make his writing so pleasurable -- if at times a bit circuitous -- to read. Commenting on the fact that each era of human society seems to prize and to be captivated by a different part of the female body, he writes:

"...if a man (or an era) sees the thighs as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation?...the length of the thighs is the metaphoric image of the long, fascinating road (which is why the thighs must be long) that leads to erotic achievement."

He continues this way until he arrives at the navel, which seems to him the current era's obsession, and wonders what that says about modern day culture, while then intertwining that with the main character's memories of his mother.

At the center of this story is the question of what is our spiritual inheritance from our parents. How do things like the circumstances, the times, the culture surrounding, and even the very act of our conception put us inextricably on a path toward happiness or unhappiness, willfulness or docility, confidence or shyness, or even...a life of apologizing for ones own existence.

If the story seemed a bit lumpy and uneven, lacking a sense of consistency, I think it's because
Kundera is a long form guy with big ideas that don't translate well into the short story format. However, for me, the short story is the currently preferred delivery system for authors like Kundera, so I'll take a little bit of the choppiness if it means I get to take away some of his bits of philosophy to chew on for the next few decades.

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