Is Jaromil still alive among us? Is the quintessential introspective shy prototype of a poet is still well and kicking? Or has the glitz and glamour of globalized uniform culture of loud vulgarity left no space what-so-ever for the Jaromils?
This is what I asked myself for innumerable times while reading “Life is elsewhere” by Milan Kundera that I perceive as the best work by the author (and I am saying this keeping the other works as eminent as The Unbearable lightness of being or The Immortality in mind). Life is elsewhere is neither a period drama woven around some representative characters intending to invoke longing for the days by gone in the hearts of the readers, nor is it a staunch political work in the strictest sense of that term. In fact Kundera never intended to be a political voice vociferating against the political regime only. His writing was very political but not on the verge of being propaganda. In this regard he very much reminds us of his contemporary Ivan Klima.
Particularly for this reason of being deprived of any such generic quality, Life is elsewhere has a charm of its own. The novel is woven around the protagonist Jaromil, going back to his birth and events prior to that leading to his arrival, his agonizing boyhood and adolescence, his coming of age in a place and time where the revolt has become the institution and hence leaving no space for the youth to express itself. At times it seems that being a poet was more of a fate for Jaromil than a choice, like for the most of the bards whom poetics follow as a silent docile muse; another moment it would seem that Jaromil is, in fact struggling to unbuilt himself and his surrounding and poems are but the by-product of his untimely ungainly struggle. Kundera, with his usual effortlessness, depicts, scrutinizes over and analyzed the relation Jaromil has with his mother, other members of his small family, his only amorous companion who is clearly not his equal in any sense and yet becomes another means of his effort to undo himself and come to terms with the mundane reality presented to him by a society and a state that is hell-bent to remain arid and make the likes of Jaromil sterile.
In the first reading Life is elsewhere remains the story of the existential crisis of a struggling writer against a political back drop that is somewhat unfamiliar for those who never lived under the iron rule of communism. But then its attempt to be transpired into the story of everyman comes in light. The tyranny that communist regime and the arid society bestows upon Jaromil becomes the story of every society of every age and Jaromil, like a hero of Greek tragedy, becomes something more than a poet who meets his end prematurely in an abrupt turn of event. Without any swagger or bravado, Jaromil is elated by the author to the stature of a hero to whom only a few can relate (in spite of Kundera’s best effort Jaromil does not represent everyman, at least not to every man).
So Life is elsewhere is a novel for a few, like most of Kundera’s works are. A very few would read this great piece of literature, even fewer would like it, and perhaps a very few like me would adore it and continue to adore it years after reading the novel, for in some obscure way, Jaromil would have become a part of our conscience.