On the Bookshelf: Five Weeks in a Balloon – Its epic run-on sentences and portrayal of African tribes


You’d read this if you had your hands on this sexy book!

Five Weeks in a Balloon – the lesser known of the Voyages Extraordinaire – was published in 1863. Beginning my reconnaissance into the genre of science fiction, I thought it only venerable and appropriate to start with the novels of the man coined one of, ‘The Fathers of Science Fiction’. To start with its primordial form makes it possible to realize the full evolution of the genre from its inception to its modern forms. (More to come on that in subsequent articles.)

As an interesting side notation, Jules Verne garnered significant disapproval from the French literary community during his lifetime. Verne was type-casted as a singular genre writer; his works unworthy of academic study. Verne was attempting a new type of adventure novel – a genre that literary critics claimed could not be done. He was also regarded as a children’s fiction writer, popularized because of the circulation of abridged reprints of his novels. Sadly, it was only posthumously that Verne received the recognition he deserved.

It is curious to wonder why his novels were type-cast as science fiction (or more accurately during that time, scientific). Especially since Verne did not associate his writings with the genre of science fiction, but rather consistently denied any scientific pretext in his stories.

It was ambiguous territory then, and also now for myself as I began reading. I was unaware of the requirements of science fiction novels. A science fiction buff eloquently put it as follows: science or technology, in some form, must be integral to the plot. Now, this is a broad definition, but for the intent of this article, it will suffice.

Through that lens, Five Weeks in a Balloon is indeed a science fiction novel if only by today’s standards and definitions. Verne had written about scientific inventions before they were ever fully realized in society. He wrote, with surprising accuracy, of the innovations of hot air balloons, space travel, submarines, airplanes, rocketry, Polar exploration, and African exploration. At the time of publication, little was known to Europe about the latter.

It would be crude not to mention his goal in his unconscious creation of the science fiction genre. He wanted to “depict the earth [and] at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style”. He wanted his readers to traverse the global terrain through his novels – a noble campaign indeed.

The style of Five Weeks in a Balloon is subtly tongue-in-cheek from sentence structure to chapter organization. I attribute run-on sentences as lending themselves to comic or ironic content. Something in the monotony and ridiculous repetitiveness of someone constantly rambling on-and-on-and-on that is inherently comical. Five Weeks in a Balloon is, fundamentally, a compilation of epic run-ons, with the occasional splash of structural variation for that resounding punch line.

We have always been cautioned against the excessive use of run-on sentences. I tip my hat to Verne for ignoring the stigma attached to run-ons. Run-on sentences, when used correctly, can be a powerful literary device. This novel is the best example I have seen yet. At no point did I feel that the long-winded run-ons distracted from the plot or the fluidity of my reading. However, what I did find terribly distracting was the amount of British vernacular and science-related words used. I found myself consistently cracking open my dictionary. Does anyone really know the difference between syenite and loam? Who knew ‘caleb’ is the Hebrew term for dog? Or that ‘grog’ is/was known as a very distinct and strong concoction of alcohol, popular among sailors. My point being, though distractive, I learned a great deal about that period in history. There is no real complaint from my end.

The other point I’d like to address is Verne’s controversial portrayal of the African Tribes. His depictions can be described in one of the two ways. To our politically correct modern society, the first description of Africans being ‘barbaric’ is jarring. His implications appear to be a product of old-world views of inferiority based on the caste system.

As for what Verne had to say about the novel was this: “I wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon, not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about Africa. I always was greatly interested in geography and travel, and I wanted to give a romantic description of Africa.”

The usage of the term ‘romantic’ gives me pause as to typecasting him as an old racist.

One such commentator suggested that the novel was a satire of African exploration and the ‘traveler’s tale’. I believe this second theory of portrayal to be the more likely candidate as to how Verne meant to convey Africa, according to his sentiments.

What the commentator indicated by the ‘traveler’s tale’ is a story of ludicrous occurrences (though rooted in truth) that becomes inevitably embellished for the entertainment and esteem of the ego. We are all guilty of hyperbole in some capacity; whether it is promoting your career in the most optimistic light for a judgmental family member, or exaggerating a courageous feat (a small fire became a conflagration where two children and four kittens were rescued from the eighth story of a building).

This theory lends itself to my interpretation of Verne’s very tongue-in-cheek style of writing. I am not discrediting the first theory; I am in fact merging them. His African characters were written in a prejudiced light though I do not believe this prejudice is reflective of Verne’s opinions or want of slandering the African race. It is more likely reflective of the view of the scientific communities of that era. Looking at this novel as a product of old-world views is doing literature an analytical discredit. When the emphasis is placed on how the prejudice was used as a literary device, this novel becomes a forebearer of modern thinking. The effect of this literary device is satire, and by satirization, the author is making a commentary on society; all these homeboys on their scientific high-horses are ridiculous, and bigots to boot.

The lesser known novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, does not disappoint. I recommend this book (and this author) to every science-fiction enthusiast, but also to those who aren’t. While major plot points are intrinsically scientific, it is, first and foremost, an entertaining read.

On the Bookshelf: ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ – The Manipulation of Structure


For those who aren’t familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, it is touted as one of the greatest American novels as well as one of the greatest anti-war novels. Whatever opinion you may hold on war in general, or more controversially Kurt Vonnegut, it was a remarkably inventive novel. An offbeat dark comedy satirizing the struggle of a veteran turned professional writer attempting to chronicle his experience of the war; (specifically, the Dresden bombing,) all with an innovative approach (or a F*&% you) to the standard structure of the novel. What I want to discuss is not the subject matter of Slaughterhouse Five but its use of structure in the book as a literary device.

Structure is the often forgotten, often neglected, red-headed-step-child of literary devices. Writers are aware of its existence and its importance in creating the overall theme of a novel, but seldom is it ever used or considered (effectively anyway) outside conventional forms. Usually, the focus is on diction, syntax, character development, irony, metaphors, etc., which is what makes Vonnegut’s heavy (and very effective) reliance on format so innovative.

Slaughterhouse Five is a brazen deviation from the ever-popular Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” format. He is not a pioneer in experimenting with structure, but he did take that experimentation to the next level with Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut masterfully manipulates the novel’s time-space continuum with the plot’s organization.

Without too much of a spoiler, the protagonist is a war veteran and a time traveler. The novel’s structure is crafted around the premise that time is ever shifting and mutable. Vonnegut uses this premise as the catalyst to shift the focus from one story to another story throughout the protagonist’s lifetime at any moment, with or without indication. My summation of it may serve to make it sound lackadaisical, but it yields some of the most intricate and strategic organization I have ever seen. Transitions between time periods are executed seamlessly. I never felt hopelessly lost in the telling of the story. However, there were times where I found myself so immersed in one particular story that when a transition occured, I forgot why the previous had begun, and what it was building off of. In this way, I felt my confusion was intentionally incepted by Vonnegut. In this way, the seemingly loose organization and structure of time echo that of the protagonists’ struggles with time and serve as the bedrock of relatability. The structure is a blueprint that exemplifies the fleetingness and aimlessness of time that the protagonist feels. The overall theme owes itself, mainly, to Vonnegut’s deviation of conventional structure and thus, structure, becomes one of the driving literary devices of Slaughterhouse Five.

Speaking of novels that push the acceptability of a story’s structural integrity, I’d like to elucidate the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by, my personal favorite, Milan Kundera. The author refers to this book as, “a novel in the form of variations.” Kundera experiments with the stereotypical structure of what makes a novel – unity by plot. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is made up of seven unrelated parts united only by a common theme – laughter or forgetting. Literary conservatives might argue that this format is the definition of a compilation of short stories rather than one homogeneous novel. However, this is precisely the tradition that Kundera is challenging with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – the mutable power of the novelistic form to adapt variations. Traditionally, what defines a novel is long synthetic prose. The intangible constraint that has seemingly birthed the rigid expectations surrounding the structure of a novel is popularity. Popularity guides conformity, as this is the requirement for marketability. Suddenly, we find the market saturated with the same story, devoid of imagination and teeming with repetition.

Hence, I tip my hat to authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Milan Kundera for pushing boundaries and opening doors.

The Loss Legacy of First-World Writers

I want to share an inner monologue I had while reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  As an aspiring writer gauging the merit of an established writer, this may come off as extremely self-deprecating, but this is not my intention.

I am committed to Kundera’s “legacy”. His is an apogee I may never surmount. Realistically, I thought about the level of greatness I was aspiring towards; Kundera, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Perhaps, my generation of aspiring writers is innately impaired. More than that, perhaps aspiring American writers (or any first-world aspiring writers) are aiming for a pinnacle that has closed its gates to us entirely. This concept stemmed from a very simple question.

What makes greatness?

First, let me establish what I perceive to be greatness versus legacy in terms of writers. The words are interchangeable, but for the sake of this argument they will take slightly different meanings.

To be considered a great writer is to be universally and timelessly acknowledged and lauded by fellow writers and academia in the field of literature, writing, and language. To have a legacy is to be withstanding throughout time, to be a milestone perhaps, but not necessarily recognized among peers or academia as a “Master of the Word”. Greatness is achieved through a prolific body or lifetime of work. Legacy can be achieved through one work that has a short burst of popularity that fifty years later might not ever be mentioned again. A distinguishing difference is that greatness is elected through popular vote and academia, whereas legacy is usually only popular vote (i.e., Twilight maintains popular vote, but the academia would not consider Stephanie Meyer a prolific or masterful writer, only an entertaining one.)

“Legacy” has another meaning; the sum of an entire lifetime’s work passed down through time. I know this gets confusing as I use this definition of the word in my opening paragraph to speak to Milan Kundera’s body of work and what it represents. Legacy is not necessarily accompanied by greatness. From here on I will use the words as I have defined them.

So, I pose again: What makes greatness?

After much deliberation over this question, this is what I came up with – experience. A writer that writes from experience or has experience to pen into their work is chapters ahead of the writer who only has imagination.

I am not discrediting imagination. It is impossible to be a successful writer without imagination, and some will argue that all writing is fundamentally based on imagination. I am not denying this or disagreeing with this. However, a writer that has experience has a perspective that one cannot imagine, simply because it is real. The reality comes through, sometimes subtly, in the diction, in the stylistic choices, in the vibrating passion underlying words.

Kundera experienced exile; Tolstoy experienced war. Perhaps the barrier between greatness and legacy is experience but also the timing of that experience. What macro hardship does the American author have to endure in this modern era? Most of a developed nation’s issues are reflections of internal or “micro issues” such as finding identity, finding happiness, finding love; certainly not revolution, famine or exile. Specifically, in America culture, we are in an era of tolerance. There is no real all encompassing dissidence. Americans are allowed to think and say whatever they please, and if everyone in the world disagrees with you – you cannot be persecuted, you cannot be silenced. There is no punishment; there is no consequence. (Note: Holes that I can foresee in this argument include the microaggressions and continued discriminations towards African-Americans and homosexuals. I want to make reference to these as to not seem callous but also as to why I do not consider these in this argument. I consider the struggles of the American homosexual or African-American “micro” in the global scheme of things. In America, despite skin color or sexual orientation, everyone may live with the option or potential of luxury and privilege. People who suffer from discrimination in America still have it infinitely better than in certain African or Eastern European countries.)

All the American, or first-world writer, has to offer the novel are stories about experienced micro issues and imagined macro situations. These imagined situations will be, even in the most subtle ways, evident in the novel. What makes macro situations greater than micro situations? Scope. A level of scope and understanding that cannot be imagined, only experienced. Here lies the fundamental difference between what establishes greatness.

Perhaps I will never achieve the pinnacle of Kundera because I have no understanding or experience of the macro situations that touch a nation, a world, and a people. Perhaps all first world writers are resigned to that same fate. We are born in the shadow of greatness because of the time and geographic location of our births.

Then my boyfriend derailed my dramatic train of thought by interjecting I was reaching for an excuse as to why I would fail. In which case, I have set myself up for failure before I even begin as talent isn’t confined to experience. What a killjoy… clearly he doesn’t understand that all I have are my first-world micro grievances. #FirstWorldProblems

On the Bookshelf: David Sedaris – Squirrel seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary

Squirrel seeks Chipmunk

Before I begin this book review, I should mention that this was my first David Sedaris experience. Now, here is why mentioning that is important – though Sedaris is a highly regarded author, and I would never question his merit, I was disappointed by this compilation of short stories.

First, a short history lesson: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a compilation of bestiaries. Historically, a bestiary is a short anecdotal tale about (you guessed it) various animals, accompanied by morality lessons. Bestiaries were wildly popular during the Medieval era. Some modern examples of bestiaries would include your run-of-the-mill fable. Everyone is familiar with the story of the Tortoise and the Hare or the Grasshopper and the Ant.

Bestiaries have evolved even more in the last few decades. Modern forms of bestiaries do not necessarily include morals. A recent instance of a modern bestiary without a moral is in the video game Final Fantasy VIII. Within the gameplay, there are reference lists of the different beasts and monsters you encounter during your journey and a short description of them.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of satirical allegories united by that common theme. Sedaris puts his notoriously humorous spin on these allegories by personifying animals and placing them in human situations. I believe this serves to exemplify the sheer farcicality of human behavior amidst modern technology and dilemmas. Most of these bestiaries are structured similarly and riddled with different types of irony, mostly situational irony.

His style is formulaic. His choice of diction is clean and simple. There is a beauty in simplicity and a practical purpose within it. Simplicity works well against Sedaris’ ludicrous situations. While executed well, juxtaposed against the last novel on my bookshelf, Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it seems ridiculously simplistic. (Though this is exclusively a matter of preference.)

squirrel-seeks-chipmunk21 squirrel-seeks-chipmunk1

The illustrations scattered throughout the pages of these fables are fitting. They are reminiscent of tongue-in-cheek editorial cartoons found in (archaic) newspapers.

There is a good handful of fables cautionary against religious superstition. And not just against the usual Catholicism or Christianity, but also against the new-age hippie philosophy, which, in its cultish fervor, could be considered a religion. As far as the religious argument goes I stand fairly neutral. So, I can objectively say – it’s been done, over and over and again! Frankly, I’m disappointed in the lack of creativity. Poking holes in the logic of religion is just too easy; it’s already done for you! While an advantageous effort, Sedaris loses points for allowing already established stereotypes and archetypes to do the majority of the work that the writer is meant to do.

There were a few stories that made me feel uncomfortable. These were the stories satirizing animal abuse. For example “The Motherless Bear”.

lat_bear103110_146508a_8colThis allegory tells of an adolescent bear whose mother dies a sudden death. The adolescent bear is mournful, but her grieving is soon replaced by her cravings for attention and sympathy. This urgent desire drives her out of her forest village into a traveling circus act where she meets an adult male bear performer. The bear performer is littered in festering open wounds, has only one leg, cannot speak well or eat solid food since his teeth have been knocked out, and has remained shackled his entire life. However, this adolescent bear doesn’t see this circus bears’ misfortune, only her need for attention. I won’t spoil the ending for you, (but since this is a fable, it’s pretty much telegraphed for you).

I understand the point of juxtaposing a tortured bear against a selfish one serves to highlight the absurdity of her self-serving ways. However, as an animal advocate, I am not comfortable with the idea that animal cruelty takes a secondary priority in the scope of this fable. This fable parallels a real story close to my heart – Raju the Elephant, who cried.

Raju endured fifty years of slavery and abuse at the hands of his owner for profit. This particular animal made headlines because he cried tears of joy once he was released from servitude. True accounts, like Raju’s, make reading stories that use animal cruelty as a device nearly impossible to read objectively. I am aware that this is due to my bias and experiences, however upsetting or alienating certain audiences is something an author who chooses to use controversial subject matter must be conscientious of and prepared for. Therefore, I feel justified in my opinion.

In summation, everything about this novel screams stereotypical satire; from the choices of irony to formulaic structure to illustrations. I find the execution of the concept while notable, trite as it has been done before. George Orwell did much the same in Animal Farm and, in my opinion, did it better. The fables your grandparents told you about the Tortoise and the Hare carry the same weight as Sedaris’ bestiaries; the only difference is Sedaris’ are humorous and published. His execution of technique and style are well done. Sedaris is a conscientious writer. I’m sure he weighs every stylistic choice heavily, which leads me to believe, that perhaps his style just isn’t my cup of tea.

The former begets the quandary of, ‘when great writers write mediocre things.’ Not to dismiss, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk as mediocre, but when creating a book of fables, most of the work is already done. Perhaps the key to this particular quandary rests in my expectations of David Sedaris’ highly regarded talent. I am sure I am not the first person to read a work by an accomplished writer and come away sordidly disappointed. I pose this question at the end of this review because I am hard pressed to write any accomplished author’s work off (no pun intended) as anything less than great since they have established merit. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts. Is it a matter of preference? Could the work really just not be as good as critics made it out to be (usually for marketing purposes)? Or is it just expectation?

I hope this does not dissuade anyone from enjoying this particular piece of fiction. I will continue to read more David Sedaris novels.

Did Milan Kundera telegraph the advent of social media?

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”

~Milan Kundera~

Referencing the last paragraph in the excerpt of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it appears that Kundera was telegraphing the advent of social media, but furthermore prognosticating the effects of such a cultural phenomenon. There are parallels between Kundera’s coined “graphomania” on his generation and the effects of social media on our generation.

As described in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting “graphomania” is:

Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) reinforces and aggravates the feelings of general isolation in that everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”

In this abstract concept, Kundera is speaking to the universal and timeless human quality – self-preservation. Though this instinct is inextricably part of humanity’s DNA, civilization and technology have re-wired the human brain so that it functions more akin to self-obsession. The concept of self-obsession is motivated by something even more powerful that instinct – ego.

Freud’s notoriety was based entirely off of the ego. Likewise, so is Mark Zuckerberg’s and all his precursors.

As in Kundera’s generation, housewives needed to xerox their diaries to create the “Wall of Mirrors” ( this is just a tangible example, I harbor no hidden agenda against housewives). In this millennial generation, everyone has a “Wall of Status Updates and Pictures”.

Everyone wants a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, an Instagram, or a WordPress (guilty as charged). Social media has evolved from a means of mass social connectivity to a self-contained empire breeding and gratifying selfishness. We post pictures and write statuses about the most important life events, such as a death or a birth of a child; and the most mundane, what we ate for lunch or where we ate it. These “posts” or “tweets” allow our “followers” (Followers? Have we just regressed 100 years in history?) to envy, ogle, follow, and “like” you.

One could argue that postings on social media sites allow us to stay connected with loved ones through distance. Sure, that is one possibility for social media, but to the person that argues this point I pose another question.

How often do you check your families social media pages or your friends’? Once, twice a day? Or perhaps only when it pops up in your newsfeed as you are scrolling through your mobile app waiting in line at Starbucks. That sounds more accurate for the majority of my generation, again, guilty as charged.

Here is the conundrum: we expect to post a photo and receive at least several (definition of “several” subject to interpretation) “likes”, “comments”, or “re-tweets”. If this quota is not met, we are deemed unpopular on social media, and a correlation is made to our popularity in “real” life.

In this instance, we have failed at becoming immortalized and run the risk of being erased from the pages of history entirely. We as humans must leave our immutable mark.

Failing to become immortalized through our “photos” and “statuses” provokes us to populate another’s social media page. We “like” and “double tap”, and “comment” in hopes that the other party will reciprocate, thus immortalizing you on your social media page.

Kundera describes this fear, inspired by the ego, as the primary motivation for his generation wanting to become writers and surrounding themselves with their “Wall of Mirrors”, i.e., graphomania. For Kundera, he saw these desires in the form of words. In our technological generation, we see traces of this desire in the form of “likes” and “re-tweets”.

It sounds much more like a self-serving cycle than genuine communication with another person, doesn’t it? We may have gone into creating our social media pages with intentions of sincere communication, but this is not where we, as a culture, have arrived. Where we have arrived is indicative of mass isolation, universal deafness, and at times, lack of understanding, exactly what Kundera foretold.

“Graphomania” is a familiar concept to millennials. We call it “Facebooking”.

On the Bookshelf: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

On the agenda is Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Full Disclosure: I am a HUGE Kundera fan. This article is NOT a book review (because if Kundera writes it, merit is not in question) but more a reflection of his unique penmanship.

If you are not familiar with any of Kundera’s works, then this is a tragedy. There is no amount of essays or reviews to help you understand the essence of his work, except, to read it. Understanding is the task I have proposed to undertake since first reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I will speak more of that novel in another entry. Today’s focus is on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me as I try to keep up with his poetically abstract prose from page-to-page – he is a philosopher. Kundera has the uncanny ability to craft an entire novel around a series of abstractions. His novel and story arcs are propelled forward (or backward) more by his character’s emotional metamorphoses (usually illustrated through internal monologs) rather than by plot or dialog. Not to say there isn’t plot. The events that incite these mental or emotional epiphanies are usually small, brief, and somewhat insignificant in that they are only necessary as a transitory catalyst from which the real “plot” may happen.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts that speak to three different story arcs.

His style introduces an abstract concept pretty much within each small segment of a part of the novel (which is a LOT of abstractions since most of these segments are only 2-5 pages long). He makes his argument for the character’s emotional state of mind very quickly, then introduces an abstraction, much as a metaphor or conceit. He then relates it back to the character’s state of mind, making it tangible, then turns it back into an abstraction just beyond the scope of the reader’s grasp. The latter may be attributed to my ignorance in philosophy and many of the other literary works he cites or borrows his abstractions from, but I like to think he does this intentionally – with a smug half-smile.

Kundera also does something very unconventional in this book that I have not seen in my readings of The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Identity. In an entirely third person telling of the stories, he randomly inserts his first person perspective. This literary technique goes against every type of writing I’ve ever been taught. However, he employs this change in perspective so naturally, that the rhythm of the story is enhanced by it! The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a strange conglomeration of autobiography, literary criticism, fiction, and political statement – but it works!

For emphasis, I will post an excerpt from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Bear in mind that some of the effects may be lost if you haven’t read this book since this particular excerpt is taken from the middle. However, I chose this passage because the amount of damage and exposition required on my part is minimal as compared to other excerpts I could choose. Also, this is (in my opinion) one of the fewer abstruse abstractions, and one the aspiring writer (as myself) can relate.


  • Tamina – Main character in this story arc / bartender
  • Hugo – Bar patron
  • Banaka – Local writer
  • Graphomania – Unfortunately, this is another abstraction he coins earlier in the novel, which is eloquently introduced and explained, and crucial to understanding the abstraction of this excerpt. I will butcher and consolidate that eloquence in the spirit of the larger picture
    • Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) reinforces and aggravates the feelings of general isolation in that everyone surrounds himself with his writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from outside.
  • Personal diaries – Tamina’s main goal is to retrieve a package of love letters between her and her dead husband from the Russian occupied Czechoslovakia.
  • Bibi – A friend of Tamina’s and an aspiring writer and a protege of Banaka.
  • I – Kundera is referring to himself in the first person.

Several days later Banaka turned up at the cafe dead drunk. He sat on a bar stool, fell off twice, climbed back up twice, ordered a Calvados, and then put his head down on the counter. Tamina noticed he was crying.

“What’s the matter, Mr. Banaka?” she asked him.

Banaka looked up at her tearfully and pointed to his chest. “I’m nothing, do you understand? Nothing. I don’t exist!”

Then he went to the men’s room and from there straight outside without paying.

When Tamina told Hugo about it, he showed her a page of newsprint with several book reviews including a short note on Banaka’s works – four lines of ridicule.

The episode of Banaka pointing to his chest and crying out of existential anguish reminds me of a line from Goethe’s West-East Divan: “Is one man alive when others are alive?” Deep within Goethe’s query lies the secret of the writer’s creed. By writing books, the individual becomes a universe ( we speak of the universe of Balzac, the universe of Chekov, the universe of Kafka, do we not?). And since the principal quality of a universe is its uniqueness, the existence of another universe constitutes a threat to its very essence.

Two shoemakers can live together in perfect harmony (provided their shops are not on the same block). But once they start writing books on the lot of the shoemaker, they will begin to get in each other’s way; they will start to wonder, Is one shoemaker alive when others are alive?

Tamina feels that the eyes of a single outsider are enough to destroy the worth of her personal diaries, while Goethe thinks that if a single individual fails to set eyes on his lines, that individual calls his- Goethe’s -entire existence into question. The difference between Tamina and Goethe is the difference between human being and writer.

A person who writes books is either all ( a single universe for himself and everyone else) or nothing. And since all will never be given to anyone, every one of us who writers books is nothing. Ignored, jealous, deeply wounded, we wish the death of our fellow man. In that respect we are all alike: Banaka, Bibi, Goethe, and I.

The proliferations of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, mistresses, murderers, prostitutes, and doctors proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out into the streets with a cry of, “We are all Writers!”

The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before its too late.

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.

The abstractions, “graphomania” and Goethe’s posed question of, “is one man alive while others are alive?”, are presented plainly. Banaka’s emotional state is illustrated and the reason – a bad book review. That is the action or inciting plot device I spoke about earlier in this article. It isn’t much, and one could not base an entire chapter on this small interaction without it being trite and forced. It doesn’t appear to be much of anything, yet Kundera uses this external communication (the inciting catalyst) and cohesively relates and propels the character’s of this arc, namely, Banaka, Tamina, Kundera (as he places himself throughout this novel in a pseudo-autobiographical way), and Bibi, into their evolved state.

Kundera is illustrating several things here. 1) the tribulations of a writer 2) speaking about a generation of selfishness 3) the struggles of wanting to become immortalized among fellow writer and human alike specifically through words 4) posing and answering the question of legacy of a writer, i.e., can one great author exist at the time of another 5) explaining the fundamental similarities and juxtaposition of a single isolated human, Tamina who wants her letters for private reasons, and a immortalized writer, Goethe who writes to immortalize himself in the public, yet both are completely alone.

While relating these abstractions to his character’s, he is also posing new abstract questions, though not necessarily in questions, and this is how he can end on an abstraction while keeping the segment cohesive and inclusive. All these minor abstractions amass to the scope of his story – the greater abstraction!


His style is comparable to Wong Kar-Wai’s style of filmmaking – abstract, beautiful, pioneering. Of course, Kundera, as well as Wong Kar-Wai, have predecessors. Kundera’s style of writing, Wong Kar-Wai’s style of filmmaking, are not wholly original conceptions. However, their executions, are unique and coined exclusively theirs. They, as well as others like them, are making it acceptable to push the boundaries of traditional writing and filmmaking by making abstractions attainable and relatable to general audiences. No longer is the transcription of philosophers only for the minds of the bourgeois; this is the real landmark of our generation – the era of tolerance and accessibility.

I am in awe and in envy of this talent. Of course, Kundera’s style and technique vary from novel to novel, but three novels into his volumes he has been able to blow my mind with his methodology. An author’s work is constantly evolving. It seems Kundera is gradually working and re-working this unique style of writing in and about abstractions from book to book.