Milan Kundera dreamt in Czech
- July 12, 2023
- Anna Parker
The émigré Czech novelist's uneasy relationship with his homeland adds more layers to his enigmatic output.
The Czech novelist, essayist, and poet Milan Kundera saw his nation as a laboratory of human experience, a place from which to experiment with the existential themes of exile, identity, and home – philosophical and political matters that he often refracted through the intimate and erotic relationships of his characters. But his relationship with his homeland was always uneasy.
Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. The newly democratic state had been established in 1918, and the interwar years were marked by an outpouring of nationalist culture. Kundera’s father Ludvík was a professional pianist, and from an early age, Kundera was taught the piano and composition. He later described the music of Leoš Janáček– a composer who wove the intonation of Czech speech into his melodies – as his first love. Kundera was only nine in 1938, when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and set to work turning it into the industrial engine of their war machine.
Having spent his adolescence living under Nazi occupation, Kundera welcomed the 1948 communist Soviet coup. It seemed to present new possibilities, and Kundera began teaching literature in Prague. Membership of the Communist Party was the price of entry to Czech academic, professional and cultural life: Kundera promptly and dutifully joined up in 1948, the year of the coup. So began a turbulent relationship. Kundera was expelled from the Party in 1950, readmitted in 1956, and expelled, once again, in 1970; like a character in one of his novels, the opportunity to work and make a meaningful life appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in front of him.
Kundera’s first novel, The Joke, was published in 1967 in the middle of the Prague Spring, a period of cultural liberalisation and of relatively low censorship, during which art and literature briefly flourished. In it, the life of the central character, an orthodox communist called Ludvík Jahn, is upended after he makes the mistake of teasing his girlfriend about her ideological obedience. The Joke set out the themes that would reverberate through the rest of Kundera’s work: how small, seemingly insignificant actions can spiral through a lifetime, how words shape reality in totalitarian societies, and how jokes can, in a world without footholds, perversely become the truth.
The Joke also marked the beginning of what would be a lifelong effort to bring Czech literature to Western readers. In a 1968 essay titled ‘The Czech Destiny’, Kundera argued that the Czech nation’s vulnerable position at the crossroads of Europe made its culture particularly rich: ‘by their incessant search for their own identity and by their fight for survival, the small nations resist the terrifying push toward uniformity on this earth, making it glitter with a wealth of traditions and customs’. Kundera also claimed Rabelais, Diderot, and Miguel De Cervantes as literary ancestors – an attempt to show that the Czechs shared a heritage with the rest of Europe, despite the Iron Curtain.
In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring. The Soviet Communist Party banned Kundera’s books, revoked his Community Party membership, and fired him from his university job. Copies of The Joke disappeared from shops and libraries. Kundera also lost favour in some anti-communist circles, not all of whom liked his characterisation of their country as a ‘small nation’. During a spat carried out in the journal Listy in 1968, Václav Havel, a dissident who would become the Czech Republic’s First President, called him ‘that blithely skeptical, intellectual man of the world who always was apt to see our rather negative angles’.
In 1975, Kundera emigrated to France; the Czech communists revoked his citizenship in 1979. His most successful books, The Farewell Party, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being – all written in France – were banned in his home country until 1989, when communism collapsed. Some time after his move, Kundera began writing his novels in French, rather than in Czech. While in exile, he also began to consciously cover over some of what he had written as an idealistic communist in his homeland. In 1960 he had written a Marxist literary analysis of Czech interwar writer Vladislav Vančura, titled The Art of the Novel; in 1986, he released an entirely different volume of literary essays under the same name, perhaps an attempt to paper over the latter.
It seems that Kundera came to accept exclusion as a permanent state of being. In a New York Times interview conducted in his Paris apartment in 1984, he admitted that home was the Czech ‘national enigma’, and reflected on what he described as the ‘glorification of roots, this idea that life beyond one’s roots is not life anymore’. During the exchange, Kundera variously compared home to a myth, an illusion, and a fiction. But, as in his work, fictions are compelling, a form of truth: he admitted ‘I’ve also been a victim of that poetry of the home — good poetry but also really terrible poetry.’
Despite being a self-professed ‘victim’ of the longing for home, after the fall of communism, Kundera did not seek to re-establish roots in his native land. Only in 2019, following a three-hour lunch with the controversial populist Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, did he finally agree to accept the return of his Czech citizenship. This seemed to mark a thawing of relations, reinforced by the fact that Kundera later gave permission for his most recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance, to be translated into Czech – the first since 1993. The Czech Republic’s ambassador to France Petr Drulák handed Kundera his Czech citizenship certificate in Paris, relaying to reporters that Kundera was ‘in a good mood’ when he received it – a bright account suggestive of other, less happy, exchanges.