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Milan Kundera’s identity crisis

In renouncing his homeland and despairing of European culture, the Czech novelist walks in the footsteps of Kafka.

By John Gray

Milan Kundera, the Czech born-writer best known for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has died in Paris at the age of 94. A novelist, playwright, essayist and poet, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times. In this review of his essay collection A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe John Gray writes: “The belief that he has renounced his homeland may be no more than an illusion, a myth, a fiction that Kundera clings to in order to assert his autonomy as a writer. But perhaps it is also a kind of modesty. Being a successor of Kafka is no small thing, nor is it without meaning.”

In A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe, Milan Kundera recalls a sequence of events that epitomise his dark reflections on Europe. The flat of one of his friends, a famous Czech philosopher, was raided by the police, and a thousand-page manuscript confiscated. Shortly after, Kundera was walking with his friend through the ancient streets of the centre of Prague. The philosopher tried to make light of the incident. How could the police decipher his text? They would be baffled by its hermetic jargon. But Kundera knew his friend was devastated. The police seized the only copy of a text on which he had been working for ten years – a more destructive assault on his freedom than the threat of five years in jail, the penalty prescribed in the communist legal code if he was judged to have committed “subversion of the republic”.

As they walked on, the two of them came up with a plan. They would make the episode an international scandal by writing to “some figure above politics, someone who stood for an unquestionable moral value, someone universally acknowledged in Europe. In other words, a great cultural figure. But who was this person?” Then they had an epiphany:

“Suddenly we understood that this figure did not exist. To be sure, there were great painters, playwrights and musicians, but they no longer held a privileged place in society as moral authorities that Europe would acknowledge as its spiritual representatives. Culture no longer existed as a realm in which supreme values were enacted.

“We walked toward the square in the old city near which I was living, and we felt an immense loneliness, a void, the void in the European space from which culture was slowly withdrawing.”

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The aftermath, which Kundera sketches in a footnote, was ironic. After much hesitation, the philosopher sent off a letter to Jean-Paul Sartre, “the last great world cultural figure”. As Kundera notes, Sartre was, in his belief in the political engagement of writers, “the very person who supplied the theoretical basis for the abdication of culture as an autonomous force, particular and irreducible”. Yet the former existentialist – by then Marxist – replied promptly to the letter, publishing a statement in Le Monde condemning the behaviour of the police, and a year later the manuscript was returned.

On the day Sartre was buried (he died in April 1980), Kundera reflected that the letter “would no longer find a recipient”. The culture in which the two friends invested their hopes had “bowed out”.

The lives of the two men provide a context for this sombre judgement. Unnamed by Kundera, the philosopher was Karel Kosík (1926-2003), a lifelong Marxist. After being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Kosík studied in the Soviet Union and was a member of the Communist Party throughout the Stalinist period. A leading advocate of humanistic socialism in the Sixties, he became a member of the Central Committee, only to be expelled in 1970 following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. His flat was raided in April 1975, and he did not publish again until after the communist regime fell in 1989.

Kundera’s initial trajectory was not dissimilar. Born in 1929, he became a member of the Communist Party in his teens, and aside from two years (1950-52) during which he was expelled for “anti-party activities”, remained a member until 1970, when he was expelled for a second time. Unlike Kosík, however, Kundera opted for exile. In 1975 he left for France, and after his Czech citizenship was revoked in 1979 became a French citizen in 1981. Now aged 94, he continues to live in Paris.

Kundera’s Czech citizenship was restored in 2019, but he is on record as stating that he is by choice a French author, and has declined to attend numerous meetings held in his honour in the Czech Republic. His most celebrated novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was first published in 1984 in French and English translation. (An American film adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin appeared in 1988.) The original Czech text was published in 1985 and banned in Kundera’s homeland throughout the communist era. In a 1984 interview with the New York Times, he expressed doubts about the very idea of “home”, wondering if it was not in the end “an illusion, a myth… a fiction we cling to”. 

Kundera’s repudiation of any identity as a Czech writer is strikingly paradoxical. In The Curtain, an essay in seven parts (2007, first published in French in 2005), he argues that writers must not confine themselves within the boundaries of their culture; the central concerns of literature are generically human. Yet the questions his novels pose are distinctively those of generations of authors from central Europe. The default setting of Kundera’s work is the suffocating tyranny that results from the pursuit of world-transforming political projects and the comical attempt to carry on some sort of normal life.

From The Joke (1967) through Life Is Elsewhere (published in French in 1973), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Immortality (1990) and The Festival of Insignificance (2014), Kundera’s novels are black comedies, brightly staged. Here he continues a Czech tradition exemplified in The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923), in which a reluctant conscript spars with military officialdom in the midst of the mass slaughter of the First World War.

Belief in an integral European culture is an unmistakable mark of a central European sensibility. It was not only tyranny that those who ended up behind the Iron Curtain protested against. They resented being cut off from a world of which they had been an essential part. The three addresses and one essay that comprise A Kidnapped West – an incisive and probing collection – were delivered or published between 1967 and 1983, when the communist bloc was still in place, but none of them is primarily an attack on totalitarianism. It is the role of culture in resisting totalitarianism that Kundera focuses on:

“The identity of a people and of a civilisation is reflected in what has been created by the mind – in what is known as ‘culture’. If this identity is threatened with extinction, cultural life grows correspondingly more intense, more important, until culture itself becomes the living value around which all people rally. That is why, in each of the revolts in central Europe, the collective cultural memory and the contemporary creative effort assumed roles so great and so decisive – far greater and far more decisive than they have been in any other European mass revolt.”

[See also: Locking down with Kafka]

An interwar generation of writers looked to communism to deliver Europe from barbarism. When communism had proved to be another version of barbarism, they turned to culture itself for salvation. Despite recognising its central role in popular revolts against communism, Kundera is more sceptical. For him there is no living culture in Europe, and its posterity inhabits a void created by the disappearance of any supreme values.

Kundera’s bleak diagnosis of Europe in the Seventies and Eighties has been corroborated by events. The fall of communism revealed a continent beset by division and decay. Post-communist countries have gone their separate ways. Poland is ruled by a hybrid regime fusing Catholicism with nationalism and Hungary is an illiberal democracy tilting towards Russia, while the Czech Republic oscillates in its orientation.

Throughout the western regions of the continent there are movements that dismiss the European synthesis of Jewish and Christian with Greco-Roman values as little more than a monument to white supremacy. The unitary culture imagined by dissident intellectuals in communist countries has vanished irretrievably, if indeed it ever existed.

Kundera’s view of life in these conditions is portrayed most clearly in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novel begins as a meditation on Nietzsche’s “mad myth” of eternal recurrence. If there is no realm beyond the human world, we have only one life, bounded on either side by nothingness. Whatever meaning we make is swallowed up by death – our own, and that of those we care for.

Struggling to remedy the nihilism he had diagnosed, Nietzsche deployed the idea that everything that has happened will be forever repeated as a therapeutic fiction. If we can say “Yes” to this prospect, we can imprint meaning on our lives. Instead of being weighed down by transience, we can live lightly in the world.

At this point a second philosopher is cited. In Ancient Greece, Parmenides understood the world in terms of opposites: light and dark, fine and coarse, lightness and heaviness. The first of each of these antinomies was positive, the second negative. But are matters really so simple? Might not a weightless life be for many human beings an unendurable burden?

Kundera’s characters are complex and credible human beings, not cipher-like stand-ins for abstract ideas. The philosophies he references are props, which form the background of the stories he tells of Europeans living in the twilight of their culture. The central male protagonist in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Tomáš, a surgeon, who flees to Switzerland with his wife, Tereza, when the country is occupied by the Soviets in the summer of 1968.

A courageous photographer who records scenes from the invasion, Tereza decides to return and Tomáš follows her back. During the subsequent repression, he twice refuses to retract an essay written during the thaw, resigns from his hospital and becomes a window cleaner. How far his refusal is motivated by a principled defiance of repression is unclear. His new life appeals to him because it removes him from political harassment and allows him opportunities to pursue his chief passion, which is philandering.

He loves Tereza, but will not relinquish the sexual variety that gives spice to his life. Tereza is tormented by her husband’s incessant womanising, but will not give up their relationship. Bound by their “heavy” attachment to each other, they seek a peaceful life in the countryside, where they die together in a car crash.

The “lightest” character is Tomáš’s lover Sabina, a gifted painter, who flees the country and does not return. Simultaneously the lover of Franz, a leftish Swiss professor, she refuses any permanent or irrevocable commitment. Her ruling passions are her own freedom and a hatred of kitsch. She despises communism because its bombastic slogans and mass parades are the apotheosis of kitsch, and ridicules Franz’s devotion to “the grand march of humanity” – a fantasy of revolution that injects a flicker of excitement into the banality of his academic life.

For Sabrina, “betraying” her lovers is an act of self-emancipation, as well as a revolt against kitschy notions of romantic love. She breaks with Franz after he leaves his wife to be with her, and travels via Paris to California, where she makes out a will requiring that she be cremated and her ashes scattered to the wind. “Tereza and Tomáš had died under the sign of weight,” the narrator observes. “She wanted to die under the sign of lightness.”

It would be a mistake to read the novel as a critique of lightness. Kundera finds no resolution in either side of the polarity with which his characters struggle. For these offspring of a declining culture, there is no escape from the emptiness in which they live. Whichever of the antinomies they opt for, they are in this sense tragic figures. But since they are enacted in a time that recognises no values greater than themselves, their struggles are without significance. Without that background, their lives are not so much tragic as absurd. Tragedy is like Shakespeare and classical music, a remnant left by a civilisation that has bowed out.

In depicting a post-tragic world of never-ending ambiguities, Kundera resembles Kafka. Walking through the streets of Prague, wondering if culture any longer survives, he trod the same ground as the German-speaking Jewish writer did more than half a century earlier. Kafka’s biographer Max Brod reported him as saying, with a smile, “There is hope, infinite hope, only not for us.” Living in Paris today, Kundera might express the same sentiment, with a similar smile.

The belief that he has renounced his homeland may be no more than an illusion, a myth, a fiction that Kundera clings to in order to assert his autonomy as a writer. But perhaps it is also a kind of modesty. Being a successor of Kafka is no small thing, nor is it without meaning.

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe
Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher and Edmund White
Faber & Faber, 96pp, £10

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[See also: Multi-dimensional man]

This article was originally published on 12 April 2023.

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue