At 91 years old, the Czech-French author Milan Kundera is a cult personality among millions of readers worldwide. In the Czech Republic, however, the author is largely ignored and is often accused of despising his homeland and having collaborated with State Security in the communist era. In late June, his first unauthorized Czech biography was released in the Czech Republic, reigniting a national debate over his controversial figure.
The Milan Kundera myth
Milan Kundera is often described as the quintessential Central European writer of the 20th century: He grew up in Czechoslovakia, experienced World War II, joined the Communist Party, studied literature and film, supported Communist ideology, then became disillusioned, eventually fled to France. He became a French citizen in 1981.
His works include 10 novels, a collection of short stories, four plays and many essays, and also poetry. Although he started writing in Czech, he gradually switched to French during his exile, and is now considered a French author.
Kundera's rise in the West was stellar: In a 1985 issue of Literary Review, novelist and literary critic Olga Carlisle did not hesitate to write:
In the 1980s, Milan Kundera has done for his native Czechoslovakia what Gabriel Garcia Márquez did for Latin America in the 1960s and Solzhenitsyn did for Russia in the 1970s. He has brought Eastern Europe to the attention of the Western reading public, and he has done so with insights that are universal in their appeal.
In the 1980s, Milan Kundera did for his native Czechoslovakia what Gabriel Garcia Márquez did for Latin America in the 1960s and Solzhenitsyn for Russia in the 1970s. He has drawn the attention of the Western reading public to Eastern Europe, and it has done so with ideas that are universal in their appeal.
One of his most famous novels, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, talks about a womanizer and his many love stories. It is also a reflection on relationships and eroticism; It also mentions the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops in 1968, after which Kundera left his country and applied for asylum in France in 1975.
The play was brought to the cinema in 1988 by American director Philip Kaufman, and further propelled Kundera to world fame:
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IF0cdoClvnI (/ embed)
Kundera reached a worldwide audience through countless translations in more than 40 languages and is mentioned as an inspiration by many successful authors; He has also been nominated for several years as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature.
However, there is one country where Kundera is far from being recognized as a key literary figure: the Czech Republic.
Nobody is a prophet in their own land
From the moment he began writing in French in 1975, Kundera distanced himself from Czechoslovakia, and while many exiled Czech writers returned – at least to visit the country after the overthrow of communism in 1989 – Kundera waited until 1996 to make his visit. .
Since then, he has always visited the country incognito and is famous for declining a media interview. He also blocked or postponed the publication of his books in Czech: his famous novel “Life is elsewhere” was first published in Czech in 2016, 43 years after its publication in France.
In an interview with Czech Radio Prague International in May 2019, Jean-Dominique Birerre, author of his first autobiography published in French in 2019, explains how most Czechs view Kundera:
J'ai l'impression qu'une partie des Tchèques, des intellectuels entre autres, lui reprochent son premièrement son passé communiste et deuxièmement, le fait d'être complètement invisible même après la révolution de Velours: de ne participer à rien… alors qu ' il aurait pu être un grand homme dans son pays.
I have the impression that many Czechs, including intellectuals, blame him first for his communist past and then for his complete invisibility even after the Velvet Revolution: that he did not participate in anything … although he could have been an important figure in his country.
Kundera's statements and attitude have reinforced the stereotype shared by many in the Czech Republic that exiles “had it easy” as they did not have to endure the years of censorship, the lack of basic items and the ban on travel under communism .
The biggest blow to Kundera's image in the Czech Republic came in November 2008, when the highly influential weekly Respekt came out with a sensational, albeit well-researched, article in which he claimed to have evidence that Kundera was cooperating with State Security. Czechoslovakian, as informant of critics of the regime.
The news sparked an international scandal, as many Nobel Prize winners denounced the article as a hate campaign against Kundera, who denied the allegations but declined to explain, and chose not to sue the media outlet.
Second phase of witch hunt?
Since 2018, the debate around Kundera has been rekindled. In late 2019, the novelist invited Czech Prime Minister Andrey Babiš to his Paris apartment, which many considered a corrupt figure under investigation for years by the European Union on charges of conflicts of interest and embezzlement of European funds.
Shortly after this visit, Kundera was granted Czech citizenship, having lost her former Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 on orders from the Communist authorities in Prague.
While many would agree that Kundera deserves to obtain a Czech passport, the conditions under which he obtained it gave yet another blow to his public image in the country, as Babiš is believed to have been an agent of the Czechoslovak Security State.
Jsem rád, že jsem to před rokem inicioval a vážím si toho, že jsem mohl 🇨🇿https: //t.co/RthCcUVUnX
– Andrej Babiš (@AndrejBabis) December 3, 2019
Milan Kundera regained Czech citizenship, which had been deprived by the Communists.
Writer Milan Kundera regained Czech citizenship after 40 years. Czech Ambassador Petr Drulák delivered the document acknowledging this to the author and wife Věra, 90, in his Paris apartment on November 28. According to what he said, he was granted citizenship at the request of the Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš.
I am glad that I started this (giving Czech citizenship to Kundera) a year ago and appreciate the fact that I was able to do it.🇨🇿
His first biography in Czech, published on June 26, is the work of Jan Novák and is entitled “Kundera Český život a doba” (Kundera: A Czech life during this period) covers the writer's life until 1975 when he was still living in Czechoslovakia. The book is understandably a success. Book reviewers, literary critics, and the media have already weighed in on their controversies.
Novák, who lived in exile in Chicago for many years and spent four years doing research for his book, gave a 25-minute video interview to DVTV, the internet television channel, on June 26. In the interview, he accuses Kundera of “lying about his biography” and of becoming the “victim” when in reality he benefited from the communist system. Novák never encountered Kundera during the making of the book.
Kundera never denied that he believed in communism: in 1954 he wrote a long poem entitled “Poslední Máj” (Last May) in which he praised the communist hero Julius Fučík. In 1963, he was also awarded the Klement Gottwald State Prize for his work “The Owner of the Keys” (Majitelé klíčů). At that time, only the most faithful artists were selected for this supreme mention; Kundera distanced himself from these works and does not mention them in his list of published books.
Pavel Kosatík, a leading essayist and expert on Czech identity, wrote on Facebook about Novák's book on June 17:
Z víceméně stejných zdrojů jsem vyčetl něco úplně jiného než Novák, což je normální, ale proč musí mít černobílý hnojomet 900 stran, jsem nepochopil. Ta kniha je tou monotónností až komická: kdykoli se má nějak vysvětlit nějaký další Kunderův čin, Novák vybere vysvětlení padoušské. Když mě někdo štve (protože tohle je téma Novákovy knihy), proč to nestačí říct jednou větou? .Proč hned tzv. literature.
I read more or less the same sources, but my conclusion is very different from Novák's, which is normal, but I don't understand why this beating has to be 900 pages. This book is so monotonous that it becomes comical: whenever he needs to explain Kundera's act, Novák chooses to paint it as a villain. When I'm mad at someone (because this is the subject of the Novák book), isn't a sentence enough to say it? Why write a supposed book?
In Týdeník Echo, Ondřej Štindl wrote a long article entitled “Další kolo bitvy or Kunderu” (Next round in the battle of Kundera):
Optimistic může chovat naději, že jednou zdejší debata or Milanu Kunderovi překoná tu mnoho let trvající neurotickou fazi. Také je možné, že čas střetů a slovních válek vystřídá doba zapomnění a lhostejnosti. Bylo by to hořké a groteskní, svým způsobem i docela kunderovské.
An optimist can still hope that the time will come when the debate over Milan Kundera overcomes its long neurotic phase. It is also possible that the time of clashes and wars of words will be followed by a time of oblivion and indifference. This would be bitter and grotesque, therefore in its own way, very much in the style of Kundera.