Milan Kundera. Credit: MZK

Review: Milan Kundera’s “Jacques and His Master” Half a Century Later

Following the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Brno-born author Milan Kundera set to work on what ended up being his last play: “Jacques and His Master”. A couple of years later, in 1975, he left for France, where he took up residence until his death in 2023. Hard not to think of “Jacques and His Master”, then, as a farewell letter to an age, a country, and an occupation—not least because Kundera himself saw it that way.

In his introduction to the play, Kundera discussed how the invasion of his homeland made him feel like he was witnessing the end of Modernity and its ideals of reason, tolerance, and pluralism; excluded from publishing and with his books banned, he also believed that his literary career was over, and thought of “Jacques and His Master” and the aptly titled novel “The Farewell Waltz” as his last works.

Luckily, both impressions were mistaken. The “Russian night” he decried as eternal eventually came to an end, and Kundera went on to become the most celebrated Czech author since Kafka. He even had time to reflect on his failed predictions in a 1998 “Author’s Note on the History of the Play” (included as an afterword in most French and Spanish editions and absent from English ones with similar frequency), where the staging of his play by the likes of Evald Schorm and Susan Sontag is also mentioned. In truth, it was only Czechoslovakia he left forever, since he did not visit the country again until 1996, four years after the Velvet Divorce.

This very inability to seize hold of the future is, coincidentally enough, one of the main topics of the play. Indeed, both structurally and story-wise, variation is the fundamental theme of “Jacques and His Master”.

Drawing its plot from Diderot’s novel “Jacques the Fatalist” (modeled in turn on Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”), the play consists primarily of Jacques the servant and his anonymous master bantering about their amorous misadventures, which takes up the first and last acts, and an innkeeper’s story about a scorned noblewoman, which takes up the middle act. Their stories arise from the same issues—lost love and unfaithfulness—and tend to follow similar paths, which results in the feeling that one is listening to the same tale told multiple times. The characters themselves are aware of their analogous roles, with the master at one point even stating—with Kunderan explicitness—which one is a version of which other.

What keeps this archetypal plotline interesting is the subtle differences between the characters and the imaginativeness of their interactions. Honoring his philosophical sensibilities, Jacques’ indiscretions seem to come from a place of detachment, whereas the noble lady is just vengeful. Everyone is constantly interrupting each other or offering a live commentary on the events taking place. At times, thanks to clever stage design, dialogues from the past are juxtaposed with current ones; and so, the Marquis des Arcis, who appears in the innkeeper’s story, can praise the righteousness of a Syrian saint while Jacques tells a fable about how we are all prone to polygamy. This use of dialogue lends the play a polyphonic tone, emphasizing the theme of variation.

Quite interestingly, characters occasionally modify or downright insert themselves into others’ stories to shape them to their liking. In a certain scene (which I will not spoil), Jacques compassionately steps up to replace a character in order to change their fate, a noticeable shift in gears for a fatalist who had declared not long before, somewhat cynically, that he was not one to “squander” his sensitivity. In my opinion, the scene constitutes the most emotionally elevated moment of the play, a quality accentuated by the burlesque tone and slight overindulgence in lowbrow jokes present elsewhere.

The question remains, though, as to whether Jacques would understand his actions in the same terms. For a true believer in the omnipotence of fate, even the rewriting of the past—our own or that of others—was somehow already “written on high”; yet, Jacques has decided to intervene. Has this too been done in a predetermined manner, at least by the very text of the play, even if experienced as a free act by the fatalist making the choice?

Milan Kundera wrote “Jacques and His Master” during very difficult times. We may be tempted to find parallels between his own conflicted world and ours—we are sure to find them. But the big takeaway should be this: the times never cease to be uncertain for those who must live through them and who lack the luxury of observing their own present from afar. What one finds in “Jacques and His Master”, with its luminous introduction and structural elegance, is an attempt at finding solace in the rigorousness of destiny, as well as a merciful gaze at our actions and their unpredictable consequences. I believe it will continue to prove an enjoyable, thought-provoking companion for the ride.

By guest contributor Luis Bazet.

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