OBITUARY: Milan Kundera, one of Central Europe's greatest writers about the communist experience

OBITUARY: Milan Kundera, one of Central Europe's greatest writers about the communist experience
Kundera's life can also be read as a pocket history of postwar Central Europe as his life crossed much of the major political events shaping the region. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera July 12, 2023

Milan Kundera, the Czech-French novelist and essayist,  died aged 94 in his Paris home on July 11.  

Kundera was the most famous and translated Czech author but he had a complicated relationship with his birth country, which he left in 1975.  Kundera wrote all of his later works in French and later referred to himself as a French writer. After being stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 by the communist authorities, it was restored only in 2019. Kundera had been a French citizen since 1981.

Jan Culik, senior lecturer in Slavonic Studies at the University of Glasgow and a respected Kundera scholar, told bne Intellinews that the most characteristic feature of Kundera's writing was "mystification" and "lamentation over the inability to know the world",  so we are left, in fact, only with "making fun of it". Culik pointed out that Kundera warned, "I am an April child." 

Kundera's life can also be read as a pocket history of postwar Central Europe as his life crossed much of the major political events shaping the region. 

Born on April 1 in the metropolis of the Moravian region Brno in 1929 to a family which included writers and musicians, Kundera’s first major work was the 1967 satirical novel The Joke set in the Stalinist years following the 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia, arguably the best piece of writing about the Stalinist era in Czechoslovakia.

His other major novels include the 1973 Life is Elsewhere and the 1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which captured the crushing of the liberal reforms of the communist regime known as the Prague Spring by invading Soviet tanks in 1968 and the ensuing years of the so-called normalisation era – the stultifying political and social atmosphere of one of the most conservative communist regimes in the eastern bloc.

Kundera called the normalisation era Czechoslovakia President Gustav Husak "the president of forgetting" and the iconic regime-friendly pop singer Karel Gott "the idiot of music".

Kundera vocally supported the Prague Spring reforms and remained hopeful of these even after the August 21 invasion, sparking a debate played out in the media with Kundera’s contemporary writer and later dissident leader and the country’s first post-communist president Vaclav Havel.      

Kundera also left a lasting imprint on the understanding of Central Europe with his essay The Tragedy of Central Europe, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 1984.    

“Kundera asserts both the continuity of Russian traditions and their profound difference from the European ones,” wrote American-Bulgarian scholar of Central and South-eastern Europe Maria Todorova, explaining why in Kundera’s view “Central Europe’s adherence to the West is a natural disposition” of the region.

Some Czech political and literary theorists have been reinvigorating this idea following the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Before being eventually expelled in 1970, Kundera joined the communist party in his youth, and the Stalinist years continued to shape the public discourse on Kundera in his native country long after the fall of communism in 1989 despite his criticism of Moscow-enforced communist rule.   

In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published an article about an investigation which was at the time being carried out by the Institute for the Study of the Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, and according to which Kundera, in his university student years in Prague, was supposed to have been involved in the denunciation of the young Western spy Miroslav Dvoracek, who made his way out of exile back to Czechoslovakia in 1950 and ended up sentenced to a 22-year prison term following his capture by communist authorities.

The case became an instant sensation across the Czech media despite the inconclusive research on which it was based. Respekt journalist Petr Tresnak wrote that “over [Kundera’s alleged] denunciation an important debate will be held about what evidence we actually need to reconstruct our own history”.

He  asked whether “with lack of evidence we are simply not trying to mask our own reluctance to look back”. Tresnak had in mind tens of “evident StB collaborators” who were ruled by Czech courts not to have been active collaborators.     

In their dialogue book Thinking the Twentieth Century acclaimed historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder referred to the whole affair as a “complete misunderstanding” which has “simplified the picture to the point where every opponent of communism must have been a nice liberal all his life”.

Judt and Snyder argued that such oversimplification of history prevents understanding of what was appealing about communism to Kundera’s generation of writers, filmmakers and intellectuals, which include holocaust survivors Arnost Lustig and Jiri Weiss and many others, and highlighted that the explanation of how Stalinism came to appeal to the postwar generation is "a point of [many of Kundera's] novels".