The Hitchhiking Game (Falešný Autostop) by Milan Kundera, 1965
THE HITCHHIKING GAME (Falešný autostop)
by Milan Kundera, 1965
Milan Kundera's international reputation as one of the most renowned writers of the twentieth century rests almost entirely on the novels he began publishing in 1967 and hardly at all on his 10 short stories. These stories were written during the half decade leading up to the short-lived Prague Spring, which ended with the Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The invasion occurred just three days after the completion of the last of Camus's three-volume collection: Směšné lásky (title meanšných lásek (title means "A Second Book of Laughable Loves"), and Třetí sešit směšných lásek (title means "A Third Book of Laughable Loves"). (Kundera revised the collection as Směšné lásky, and it was then translated into English as Laughable Loves.) Far from being mere apprentice work or just a sidelight to his dramas and novels, the stories are composed in style, structure, and substance clearly the work of an already mature writer who conceives of writing as a series of explorations in form and theme.
"The Hitchhiking Game" ("Falešný autostop"), from the second book, is a case in point. Here in miniature one finds Kundera's characteristic philosophical playfulness, classically precise antiromantic style, and the theme and variation approach that the author inherited from his father, a musician and musicologist. The story is less a conventional short fiction than it is an aesthetic and existential inquiry, a search for a new literary form through which to understand the human situation in the modern, posthumanist (and perhaps even posthuman) world. Its overall theme and variation approach incorporates a number of diverse elements, most notably the Sartrean gaze, film (which Kundera taught), and theater, while retaining fiction's capacity for entering the minds of its characters. As a result "The Hitchhiking Game" reads less like a story and more like a sketch for a script involving a very limited number of characters ("the young man" and "the girl") and settings (a sportscar, a gas station, a restaurant and room, both in the same hotel). The story's basic situation is no less deceptively simple. The couple, lovers for some time, are on their way to the mountains (the Tatras) for a well-deserved vacation—she from "Laughable Loves"), Druhý sešit sme her tiresome job and sick mother, he from an office that "infiltrates" and scrutinizes his every move (a reflection of the totalitarian state), "Its omnipotent brain … did not cease knowing about him even for an instant."
Their relationship, like their vacation, provides a respite from their otherwise confining lives. Even though he values her modesty (which she experiences as shame of a body she believes he will eventually abandon for one more attractive and accessible), the young man nonetheless plays with, or on, that modesty in a way that gives him pleasure but that causes her pain. (It is of course a relationship that looks ahead to that of Tomas and Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being [ L'Insoutenable Légéreté de l'être ] and back to Chaucer ["The Clerk's Tale"], Boccaccio, and Petrarch.) The game he plays is this: he drives until the car runs out of gas and then, hidden, watches as she hitches a ride from another man to the nearest gas station, during which time he fantasizes about what she and the driver may be doing. Alternatively he drives until she, despite her shame, must ask him to stop so that she can urinate.
Soon after he announces that the car is running out of gas they unexpectedly come to a station (much to her delight and his disappointment), where he fills up while she relieves herself. Then instead of returning to the car she walks ahead, and as he pulls up she puts out her thumb for a ride. He is no longer the young man but instead first a stranger and later a gallant seducer; she is no longer the girl but instead first a damsel in distress and then an "artful seductress." The permutating possibilities do not stop there as the role-playing leads each to believe that the part of the other more accurately represents who that other actually is and has always been. The mind-body dualism that troubles the girl suggests that the story is a variation on the familiar Descartean theme of cogito ergo sum, revised here to "I play, therefore I am." In her role as hitchhiker the girl can "do anything: everything was permitted her" because she has become "the woman without a destiny" or more narrowly and ironically without a destination.
If the road they take from the city to the mountains suggests their desire to escape their official selves not only by vacationing but by vacating their usual roles as worker and as daughter, then their turning from the plot of their usual game offers them a new but also disconcerting and even dangerous freedom not only from scrutiny and shame (two sides of the same coin) but from themselves as well. Similarly when he unexpectedly turns off the road to the mountains and toward Nowy Zamky, their game, shifting like his sports car into a higher gear, begins to develop a logic of its own. Borders are crossed and boundaries blur as the self begins to take on the unsettling look of a double exposure: "The game merged with life. The game of humiliating the hitchhiker became only a pretext for humiliating his girl" (whose "amorphous," no longer "pure," soul now disgusts him). Like the jokes in another of Kundera's Laughable Loves ("Nobody Will Laugh") and in his first novel Zert (translated as The Joke), the game has turned serious.
Although "The Hitchhiking Game" begins as a broadly drawn existential cartoon, its conclusion is decidedly horrific. The horror, which is existential rather than Gothic, begins with the young man's debasement of the girl and includes her finding pleasure in her own debasement as well as his awareness "of the emptiness" of "her pitiful tautology" ("I am me, I am me, I am me"). The horror does not end as the story does with the ironic statement, "There were still thirteen days' vacation before them." It ends with the realization that in pursuing freedom the young man and the girl have come to embody the very tyranny they sought to escape, becoming as it were the mirror of the larger political situation. In their sexual and emotional being they have fallen victim to the totalitarian tyranny and absolute skepticism that Kundera has elsewhere said the modern world has become.
—Robert A. Morace