A Rationale for love, in relation to fiction of Kundera and Ondaatje

The very notion of rationalizing, or trying to rationalize, ‘love’, may seem like an incursion by the sciences calculated by the brain upon the aesthetics felt by the heart. But one may ask does ‘reason’ completely elude love, and its possible explication? While the reasons and its subjectivities may vary, Czech born writer Milan Kundera presents in his work The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, one such perspective of how love happens and how it may continue. In the Booker prize winning novel The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje propounds a rationale for the occurrence of love, which may resonate with the ideas of Kundera which these writers have grounded in the genre of literary fiction.

In the section entitled ‘Litost’ in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Kundera presents a character by the name of Kristyna, a woman of about thirty whose station in life does not entreat her with intellectual stimulation. The small-town life she leads as the wife of a butcher and mistress of a mechanic is pleasantly jolted when she meets a graduate student who visits her town on summer vacation, invigorating her sense of being from a point of intellect she had not experienced before.

Kundera describes Kristyna’s visual encounter with the student and consequent making acquaintance thus-

“Meeting the student turned her head powerfully. He had come to the town to spend his summer vacation with his mother, had twice stared at the butcher’s wife as she stood behind the shop counter, and the third time, when he spoke to her at the local swimming place, he was so charmingly timid that the young woman, accustomed to the butcher and the mechanic, could not resist.”

The illicit love affair that ensues is not one that is constituted of amorous intentions so much on the part of the woman, Kristyna. What she discovers is a new experience of life, a freshness that is consequently fused with flows of intellectuality of which the source is the graduate student. To her the eruditeness of the young man becomes a plane of thinking that had not until then touched her humdrum life’s provincial setting. The world of poetry and philosophy that accost her through the words of the student and his scholarly impetuses in the course of conversations posits the young man of letters as a fount of knowledge and literary beauties. The enchanted listener the young man finds in Kristyna makes her more attractive to him, and reinforces his sense of learnedness. And in this paradigm of emotions certain parameters had also set in terms of how far the aspect of physical intimacy could stretch between the two.

Of Kristyna’s sentiments Kundera narrates thus-

“It was not that she did not want the student. It was that she had fallen in love with his tender timidity and wanted to preserve it for herself. Hearing a man expound ideas about life and mention the names of poets and philosophers was something that had never before happened to Kristyna.”

Kundera also describes the student’s discovery of his inadequacies in the power for invasive seduction while also realizing of his prowess in swaying the heart of the young woman through poetics of his scholarly knowledge.

“The student, poor boy, could talk about nothing else; the range of his seducer’s eloquence was very limited, and he could not adapt it to women of varying social levels. Anyway, he felt no need to blame himself in this regard, because the quotations from philosophers produced much more of an effect on that simple butcher’s wife than on any fellow student.”

This relationship which Kundera crafts in his book presents a view of how a need for connectivity with a source of knowledge and the beauty of learning from the voice of an endearing person could engender a ‘love affair’.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient presents a perpetually reposing character in the invalid Count Almasy (dubbed ‘the English patient’) who is a source of much learning and information to the characters of Hana, Kip and Caravaggio. The knowledge of history and fine taste for literature that the English patient possesses makes him a repository of intellectuality. The relationship between Hana, the young nurse and her charge (the English patient) is purely platonic and steeped in emotional closeness. However, Ondaatje presents a vantage with which such bonds may be viewed, and what rationale may be conceived to an observer. The relationship between Hana and the army officer Kirpalsingh (Kip) which evolves into an intimate affair is appraised by David Caravaggio, a thief by profession. Ondaatje, through the voice of Caravaggio provides this food for thought, on how love comes into being.

“ “Tell me, is it possible to love someone who is not as smart as you are?” Caravaggio, in a belligerent morphine rush, wanted the mood of argument….Could you fall in love with her if she wasn’t smarter than you? I mean, she may not be smarter than you. But isn’t it important for you to think she is smarter than you in order to fall in love?…she can be obsessed by the Englishman because he knows more. We’re in a huge field when we talk to the guy…you see I think it is easier to fall in love with him than with you. Why is that? Because we want to know things, how pieces fit. Talkers seduce, words direct us into corners. We want more than anything to grow and change. Brave new world.” ”

It is possible Ondaatje gives a explication on the psyche that drove Kundera’s Kristyna to fall in love with the student who opened to her a new world? The young scholar is thought of as an ‘Angel’ by Kristyna who sees him far above her own mundane plane. And Ondaatje’s Hana says of the English patient.

“He is a saint. I think. A despairing saint. Are there such things? Our desire is to protect them.”

Between Kundera and Ondaatje what intertextuality there may be or not is debatable. Yet one may suggest that a shade of commonality may be detectable in the approaches taken by these two colossal figures of contemporary fiction writing, to paint portrayals of how at times love may arise, and carry in its manner of unfolding, the ground that holds its rationality.

The desire for learning may be a propeller of love, and what Kundera and Ondaatje have presented may be a window for the intellect’s voice of reason to find conciliations with what sometimes may seem as illogical impetuses of the heart.


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