Czechoslovakia at the centre of history

Eminent writer Milan Kundera celebrates the fragility of Eastern Europe's ‘small countries’ while making a powerful case for the transformative, political power of their Western cultural leanings.

The Charles Bridge, Prague, before dawn.
The Charles Bridge, Prague, before dawn. Credit: Nataliya Hora / Alamy Stock Photo

 A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe, Milan Kundera. Faber, 2023. 

While Britain has had a relatively inconstant relationship with Europe, for the countries east of Germany, the matter of whether or not they are European is pressing. A Kidnapped West, a collection of writings by Milan Kundera, the Czech Republic’s most eminent postwar novelist, shows that the frontier dividing Europe’s east from its west has long been contested. Two republished pieces — a speech and an essay — use the ‘troubled and disjointed history’ of the Czech lands to consider where Europe’s boundaries should lie. The Czech nation has survived the perpetual redrawing of its borders: in 1620 it came under Habsburg control and subsequently saw the Germanification of its language and culture; in 1938 it was brutally occupied by the Nazis; and between 1945 and 1989 — the era in which Kundera produced his novels — it was a satellite state of the vast Soviet Union. Despite, or perhaps because of, their country’s many iterations, Kundera argues the Czechs nonetheless have retained their identity. Written while Czechoslovakia was under communist totalitarian rule, A Kidnapped West represents Kundera’s attempts to resist the Czech lands’ absorption into the USSR.

In 1967, Kundera delivered a speech titled The Literature of Small Nations  to the Czech Writer’s Congress. The 1960s was a period of political liberalisation in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. Popular appetite for culture rose in tandem with the loosening of controls over the press: the uncensored literary magazine Literární noviny, produced by the Czech Writer’s Union, had a circulation of 300,000 in a land of only 10 million. Kundera took to a lectern in the Union’s headquarters (a requisitioned aristocratic chateau) to critique state censorship and outline the insidious effect of propaganda on the quality of Czech art. He called for the revival of Czech language and culture, stating that arts were a necessity in order to survive absorption by ‘big neighbours’ (meaning Germany and Russia). One year later, the politician Alexander Dubček launched a campaign for a free press; a reduction in power of the secret police, and a multi-party government.

The Prague Spring of 1968 ended when Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria sent tanks into Czechoslovakia to reinstate communism and reintroduce much tighter controls over public and private life. Half a million people – largely intellectuals – were made to leave their jobs; the Czech Writer’s Union was dissolved; 200 Czech and Slovak writers banned from publishing, and their books barred from public libraries. In 1970, Kundera was stripped of his Community Party membership, a sanction that essentially prevented him from working. He emigrated to France in 1975. His Czech citizenship was revoked in 1979, shortly after the publication of his polyphonic novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

By 1983, Kundera’s critique had become more explicit, and he had expanded his geographic scope. In his essay A Kidnapped West, first published in the French journal Le Débat, Kundera argues against the lumping together of what he calls the ‘small countries’ (the Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, and Hungarians) into the East. He makes a forceful case that the ‘small countries’ may have been part of the political system of the Eastern bloc since 1945, but that they are culturally part of the West, with a Western identity, history, and destiny. For example, Kundera states that the writers who have nurtured Czech language and literature have always sought to be in dialogue with the West.

Sixteen years separate Kundera’s speech from his essay, but the same themes echo through both. He makes much of the fact that Czech nationhood — like all those of the ‘small countries’ — has always been uncertain. Kundera points out the grandeur, glory, and sense of eternity in the national narratives of England, France, and Russia. ‘Small countries,’ by contrast, are defined by the fact that they might disappear at any moment.

Rather than lamenting their vulnerability, Kundera celebrates the fragility of the ‘small countries’. He finds opportunity in the face of national fragmentation by drawing a connection between ambiguity and creativity: Czechs have had to adapt to the European mentality and cultural framework, ‘take possession of it, and reconstruct it’ to suit their own conditions. In their work of reconstruction, the Czechs have much to draw on. Their experience of life at the centre of history (which, as Kundera says, is ‘not a bowl of roses’) provides the ‘small countries’ with the necessary fodder for creativity. Questions about history; peoples’ place within it, and the human condition, are recast by the Czech lands’ splintered history. Kundera returns continually to the theme of resilience and the transformative power of culture as a vehicle to give both personal and national suffering meaning: ‘on the magical terrain of the arts’, he says, ‘torments can turn into creative richness.’ He contrasts the resultant cultural diversity of the ‘small countries’ with the imperial USSR, which he states is ‘uniform, standardising, centralising, determined to transform every nation of its empire … into a single Russian people’.

Kundera’s reflection on the imaginative space opened by fluid frontiers maps onto his understanding of the novel. In an interview in 1987, four years after the publication of his Kidnapped West essay, he stated the novel is an artistic form founded on ambiguity: ‘We could even go so far as to define the novel as the art which strives to discover and grasp the ambiguity of things and the ambiguity of the world.’ The novel, Kundera said, occupies ‘a realm of reality that has not yet been revealed…[it is] beauty outside knowledge.’

It is perhaps for this reason that, in his 1967 speech, Kundera argued that the primary literary agent in Czech culture was not the writer, novelist or poet, but the translator. He described how translators enabled contact between Czech and European literatures, thus maintaining Czech links with the West. Like fiction, translation is an art laden with ambiguity. When changing a text from one language to another, translators must convey the author’s style (Kundera angrily critiqued translators who made his prose florid), while also accommodating the manifest and latent meanings of their words. The process involves considerable compromise, but, at its end, new versions of the text appear, each opening up new ‘realm[s] of reality’. Again and again, Kundera makes variety a virtue.

To contemporary readers, Kundera’s insistence on the close relationship of culture to mass politics may be unexpected. He is admittedly snobby about television, radio, and journalism — all forms of communication under the Soviet state’s control and thus subject to strict propaganda rules. Instead, Kundera argues that Czech revolts against their occupiers were seeded by novels, poetry, theatre, cinema, historiography, literary reviews, popular comedy, cabaret, and philosophical discussions. In turn, art reflects Czech peoples’ lives and desires: Kundera points out how Czech literature is inflected with the resonances of the spoken word. In his account, it is imagination that makes politics possible, creating alternative futures outside of existing structures. Popular participation in the ongoing process of experimentation is what gives — Kundera says — politics its beauty. There is nothing nationalist in policies that reduce a country’s creative force — quite the opposite.

In 1989 communism fell after large-scale protests across Czechoslovakia, including a nationwide general strike; in the subsequent period of liberalisation, the ban on Kundera’s books was lifted. The Czech lands were now free from the political system of the east, but their integration into the west that Kundera admired so much was halting; even after the fences and checkpoints came down, the Iron Curtain stood tall in the European mind. Kundera’s plea for European nations to pay attention to what happens in the ‘small countries’ still resonates. Putin’s imperial advance should make the communities on Europe’s edges — and the cultures that they create in the geopolitical cracks — more valued than ever.


Anna Parker