To Tell You the Truth

As if he hadn’t already shown how difficult it is to make good decisions, Kundera also shows how people go through life misunderstanding each other. If you are to believe Kundera, such misunderstandings are inevitable because people’s life experiences are so different. Kundera devotes a whole chapter to “Words Misunderstood.” between Sabina and Franz. He says, “If I were to make a record of all Sabina and Franz’s conversations, I could compile a long lexicon of their misunderstandings. Let us be content, instead, with a short dictionary.”

For instance, Franz:

… assumed that Sabina would be charmed by his ability to be faithful, that it would win her over.

What he did not know was that Sabina was charmed more by betrayal than by “fidelity.” The word “fidelity” reminded her of her father, a small town puritan.

Their very different view of parades is another example of how their personal experiences provide very different views. “Franz felt his book life to be unreal. He yearned for real life, for the touch of people walking side by side with him, for their shouts.” On the hand, Sabina felt that “behind Communism, Facism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”

An even more basic misunderstanding probably doomed their relationship

A man who loses his privacy loses everything, Sabina thought. And a man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster. That was why Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only by doing so could she live in truth.

Franz, on the other hand, was certain that the division of life into private and public spheres is the source of all lies: a person is one thing in private and something quite different in public. For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public.

Not too surprisingly, this sense of irony pervades the novel. My favorite irony in the novel is Franz’s discovery that “the girl with the glasses was his real life.” He is dead a few minutes later, and Kundera suggests, “In death, Franz at last belonged to his wife. He belonged to her as he had never belonged to her before.” Even in death, though I doubt an imaginary character can ever really die, we face the unexpected.

It’s bad enough that we only have one life to live and can never really test our solutions, but to make matters even worse we are told that most of us live our lives with very different perceptions of reality than those closest to us. Considering the obstacles that Kundera points out, it’s not surprising that Franz and Sabina’s relationship falls apart. The only real surprise is that Tomas and Tereza manage to maintain a relationship.

Of course because semantics was one of my favorite English subjects, these kinds of misunderstandings come as no great surprise to me. But I’m sure most of us, including myself, slip into the mistake of assuming that other people understand us when we try to communicate our ideas and feelings.

Now I tend to see these novels as a means of self-discovery, but as Jonathon Delacour pointed out about an earlier blog entry, this same kind of miscommunication is probably inevitable in communication between people from different backgrounds. If people who are lovers can’t communicate effectively, how can we ever expect groups like the Israelis and the Palestinians can do any better? All we can really hope is that the leaders of these people try to do what is really in the best interest of their people and try to overcome the mistrust that may well be inevitable.