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Milan Kundera

April 25, 1999

Editor's Note: In November 1998, Milan Kundera wrote the following letter in celebration of Carlos Fuentes's 70th birthday. This month Mr. Kundera reached the same milestone, and Mr. Fuentes has responded. (Book Review is grateful to Alfred Mac Adam and Linda Asher for help with the translation.)

Dear Carlos:

It is your birthday, and an anniversary for me as well: we met for the first time 30 years ago in Prague. It was a few months after the Russian invasion, when you, Julio Cortazar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez came to express your concern for us, the Czech writers.

Seven years later, I left Prague to live in France at the same time you were Mexican Ambassador. I met you again, and what I met was a friend. I was an anguished exile. You supported me discreetly. You also tried to help other Czech friends. Often, my wife Vera and I were your guests in the embassy where you sometimes put us up (at the time we didn't live in Paris). I remember our breakfasts, when we would chat endlessly.

It was then I began to be obsessed with the idea of Central Europe, for reasons closely connected to my own fortunes (the kidnapping of that part of the West by Russia) but above all, because of the Central-European cultural specificity, which has existed since the Middle Ages. My intention to understand and define that identity coincided with the discovery that you and I made of the extraordinary similarity between Latin America and Central Europe, the two regions of the world most deeply marked by the traumatic experience of the baroque. For a writer, to be marked by the baroque means having a familiarity with a certain fantastic, magical, oneiric imagination. (By the way, that species of imagination is rather alien to the French. I've often wondered how it was possible that Surrealism was born in France. The answer:? It was born not as art but as ideology.)

We also, you and I, found another similarity between our two regions of the world: Central Europe and Latin America have played a decisive role with regard to the 20th-century novel, the novel after Proust and its new esthetic climate. First, during the '10s, '20s, and '30s, came the Central European pleiad: Kafka, Musil, Broch, and Gombrowicz; then, during the '60s, came the Latin American pleiad.

I have been shaped by two loyalties. Loyalty to modern art and loyalty to the novel. These loyalties never converge, because the avant-garde (modern art in its ideological version) has always relegated the art of the novel to a place outside of modernism, considering it something whose time has passed, something fatally conventional. Later--during the '50s and '60s--when the belated avant-gardes tried to create and proclaim their own novelistic modernism, they did it by following the path of pure negativity: the novel without characters, plot, story and (if possible) without punctuation. These novels proudly declared themselves anti-novels.

It's curious. Modern poetry never claimed to be anti-poetry. Since Baudelaire, poetic modernism sought to radically approach the essence of poetry, its most secret specificity. In that sense, I've always imagined the modern novel not as an anti-novel but as the ultra-novel. The ultra-novel concentrates on that which only the novel can say. The ultra-novel revives all the neglected and forgotten possibilities the art of the novel has been accumulating over the four centuries of its history.

Twenty-five years ago, I read "Terra Nostra." I read an ultra-novel. Your book was the proof that such a thing existed, that such a thing could exist. Fifteen years later, I found the same magic in your "Christopher Unborn": the great modernity of the novel with all its fascinating and difficult newness.

A warm embrace, Carlos!



So, my dear Milan, the two of us have turned 70! How illusory, how surprising it seems to me to have reached such an age. Perhaps the memory of our meeting in Prague in 1968 is too vivid for me. I simply cannot forget that moment, which was both tragic and exhilarating at the same time, a moment when our political confidence was put to the test, when realities replaced illusions, and when, nevertheless, our hopes did not collapse in the face of indifference. It was the year of Prague, Paris and Mexico. In Czechoslovakia, the noble attempt to implant socialism with a human face was brutally quashed by the Kremlin in the name of communism. In Paris, the youthful critics of post-industrial, consumer society demanded that "imagination seize power." In Mexico, the mortal calm of the authoritarian regime of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) was broken by young people who asked to have in their everyday life the things they'd learned in schools: democracy, criticism, freedom.

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