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On the Small and the Contrary

In Prague, before the Velvet Revolution, one of the samizdat copies of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in circulation was a mimeographed typewritten manuscript, no different in its physical form than a thick stack of Communist era restaurant menus listing the various permutations of pork, beef, and knedliky (concrete slabs of potato dumpling). Unbound, with nothing to signal that it was a published much less revered work of literature, Kundera’s book existed in the most utilitarian and urgent of forms. Someone had re-typed the entire work—not from the Czech original but from a smuggled English translation—and mimeographed it, risking identification by typewriter keys, by the traces on the machine itself, or by the fact of missing ink and spirits.

Here was a book that did not look like a book and furthermore was cloaked in a foreign language. Its status was not a book to be placed as a treasured object on the bookshelf; rather, it was a collection of pages, printed in soft, purple type, meant to read, to be truly consumed and devoured, and then to be given away. While this particular work of beauty and nuance by an exiled writer was far more subversive than any blatantly political tract, the physical form of the book, the fact of its translation, and the necessity of its dissemination also profoundly affected both the act of reading and one’s role as reader: Kundera’s words in this “book” challenged a whole gamut of accepted truths. Holding on to it was not only a dangerous act—a punishable offense if you were caught by the authorities—but also a selfish one. By passing it on, you shared the risk as well as gave a gift: each reader became a publisher, albeit very much through the looking-glass.

The essay by Lisa Pearson continues as a pdf: On the Small and the Contrary

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