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

By Dilshan Boange
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
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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