Milan Kundera and Me

22. 7. 2023 / Muriel Blaive

čas čtení 22 minut

The Prague Spring was in many ways an attempt by middle-aged men to explain away their enthusiastic support, as young communist intellectuals, for the terror regime at the beginning of the 1950s.

Many thanks to Derek Sayer, Gérard-Daniel Cohen, Ruth Zylberman, Jan Čulík, and Eloïse Adde for their critical remarks on this text. Their constructive objections show that this debate will be worth pursuing in the future.

With the reactions to Milan Kundera’s death in France and in the Czech Republic, I am experiencing a form of cognitive dissonance. Usually, French intellectuals pontificate on Central European literature and politics without understanding anything about Central Europe in general and about the Czech Republic in particular. This time, it is almost the opposite: not only have the French their own understanding and interpretation of Kundera’s life and death, but they are fully legitimate in it, as legitimate as the Czechs. Both parties are in any case quite unaware of the underlying issues and subtext on the other side. It is almost as if some French liked Kundera for the wrong reasons, and some Czechs disliked him for the wrong reasons, too.

The first misunderstanding: what it means to be French

Here is the source of a first misunderstanding: as opposed to the majority of Czech society, Kundera did not only understand the universalist nature of French culture, he deliberately embraced it. He chose to move to France and become a French writer. This was naturally attributed to political motives in the context of the stifling normalization regime of the 1970s in Czechoslovakia, but it would be a mistake to neglect the aesthetic aspect of this position because it reveals a world of misconceptions on both sides. Such a move away not only from the Czech homeland but from Czech nationhood is indeed, for most Czechs, incomprehensible. Czech culture and identity, inscribed in the German-speaking civilizational sphere, is grounded in an ethno-nationalism inspired by Herder and Fichte: in this ideal-type, one is Czech if one is born of Czech parents, period. That Kundera emigrated under communism was felt as a bit of a betrayal at home but was understandable in the political context of the time; that Kundera (Škvorecký, Kohout, and others) “turned foreign” and refused to come back after 1989 rapidly became unforgivable, especially if they were critical of the post-communist regime.

At least one current of the French understanding of nationhood and identity is closer to the American conception: in this ideal type, one is French who wants to be French, who was born in France or moved to France, and who promotes, via the use of the French language (never mind their accent), ideas, values, and an aesthetic that portents to speak to the entire world. The French are often misunderstood as being nationalistic because their aim is to speak in the name of the world; seen from the French point of view, this attitude is on the contrary the opposite of nationalism because it is all about promoting universal values (at least in theory). That France’s intellectual sphere was at the time of Kundera’s arrival predominantly left-wing, with a long-standing interest in Czechoslovak communism (for instance for Eugen Fried and Artur London), and that Kundera was a disillusioned Czech communist, but who still had penchants for leftist non-communist ideals, added to the spontaneity and natural character of such a cultural transfer.

Kundera understood all this and was welcomed in Paris with open arms. France gratefully accepted the gift of Kundera’s literary presence and readily integrated him in the French nation, not although he was Czech, but because he was Czech. In exchange, Kundera gained what he had been seeking: an increased opportunity to address the entire world with his literary work and this from Paris, which still had considerable intellectual cachet. He accepted the restitution of his Czech passport only when it was quite literally brought to him on a platter in 2019 by Premier Andrej Babiš (incidentally this was the only noble gesture of Babiš’s entire mandate, perhaps because Babiš himself is an oddity: he was not born Czech.)

There can be no doubt that Kundera’s first and foremost aim in life was the quality of his literary production. He modified his Czech novels in French not to rewrite history but to speak to ever wider audiences. He adopted French as his new literary language to be more widely understood. He refused until recently to have his French novels translated into Czech. He retired from public appearances in order to be as disconnected from politics as possible, while only the literary value of his work would remain the focus of attention. He jealously guarded and controlled every written word he ever produced. Some Czechs pundits bitterly laughed at this, but have generally failed to understand Kundera’s rationale: for him, to be a writer was more important than to be Czech; as it happens, to be a writer was also an intrinsic way to be French. It was a win-win situation.

The second misunderstanding: what it means to be Czech

This progressive effacement of politics and intellectual engagement to the benefit of literature went neither smoothly nor without setbacks, nor, mainly, without bitter irony. On his path to Frenchness and abstract universalism, Kundera published in 1983 his famous essay, originally entitled in French A Kidnapped West or The Tragedy of Central Europe. It would be an understatement to say that French intellectuals loved it: they worshipped it. The whole West loved it. I loved it too and was eager to discover this wonderful culture. As a student in Paris, moreover a student of Jacques Rupnik’s, I hammered to myself the historical truth of the time: Central Europe was politically in the east, geographically in the center, and culturally in the west. Indeed, since then I have never used any other expression than “Central Europe” to describe East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

Yet I would argue here that Kundera was fundamentally wrong in this essay, and it misled intellectual reflection on Western and Central European cultural ties for decades. The article was flawed on at least two counts. First, the concept of nation, small or big, is an intellectual construction – as Benedict Anderson put it in his famous volume published in the very same year, 1983, the nation is an “imagined community.” Perception is clearly more important than reality, but it can distort it to almost absurd levels. The Czechs count 10,5 million inhabitants – there is no reason why they should feel “small” when there are only 5 million Slovaks, 2 million Slovenes, or less than a million Estonians. The Poles are 40 million strong, but they feel as “small” as the Czechs, i.e., as victims of history and bullied by their bigger neighbors, Germany and Russia. On the contrary, the Hungarians are a little less than 10 million strong, but have always considered themselves a grand nation, destined to rule others (history decided otherwise because history is unfair.) There are only 8 million Austrians, but they led an empire for centuries. Yet, for all intents and purposes, they reflect on their position in the world and on their culture in a similar manner as the Czechs. The memoirs of Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, are in this respect eloquent: they are describing Viennese intellectual life, but Zweig could just as well be speaking of Prague. Small nations might have been bounced around by their neighbors in history, but it would be ludicrous to pretend that large states have not been equally so.

Kundera’s use of the myth of the Central European small nations was, similarly to István Bibó’s Misery of the Small Eastern European States, intended in reality for the West. It is only after securing his move to a “big nation” that Kundera romanticized “small nations.” If it said little about Central Europe, the essay spoke volumes about the narcissism and Orientalism of the large states of the West, especially France and Great Britain, which were only too pleased to appear, by contrast with these doomed offspring of modernity, as big and powerful. The kidnapped west episode definitively anchored Kundera’s position not as a Czech, but as a French intellectual, which was doubtless its aim.

The second reason why Kundera’s essay was flawed is that it dodged Czech and Slovak responsibilities in the onset and stabilization of the communist regime. Far from me the idea to exculpate the Soviets from their responsibilities and from the human and economic devastation they caused in Central Europe from 1945 to 1989. That they are culprits in this sense is not in question. The issue rather is to know if they are the sole responsible parties. To blame Stalin and “the Russians” was a typical argument of the Prague Spring already before the Warsaw Pact occupation. Why blame the Russians in spring 1968, at a time when communism was historically popular in Czechoslovakia and had finally managed to merge socialism and democracy? Because the country had suspiciously failed to oppose Stalinism and had missed a great rendezvous of history, the 1956 uprising of Central European nations against tyranny. For a society which claimed to be culturally democratic, it was difficult to justify why Czechoslovakia had not joined the Poles and Hungarians in their valorous opposition to the USSR. Quite the contrary, Czechoslovakia had done everything it could to curb its neighbors’ rebellion and help Khrushchev tame them. The explanation for this unexpected behavior, as I have shown here in French and here in Czech, is rather prosaic: as opposed to them, Czechoslovakia inscribed itself in a long standing left-wing cultural tradition, so that communism had deep and solid roots; and as opposed to them, Czechoslovakia had been a developed, industrialized country and its standard of living remained bearable even after Stalinism, still comparable in many ways to Western European countries.

But by 1968, this early endorsement of the Stalinist dictatorship had become embarrassing. New historical theses materialized out of thin air to explain that Czechoslovakia had not rebelled during destalinization despite its democratic culture only because it was still anesthesized by terror, a terror worse than all the other communist countries put together. I have pointed out that Czechoslovakia did not suffer more than all the other countries put together, and in fact it possibly suffered less from terror than any of the other communist countries taken individually. Again, this is not a way to deny that terror did exist and did make victims – of course it did. The smaller scale of collective terror compared to other countries does not in any way devalue the suffering of individual victims, ever. But no matter how unsound this historical thesis of “greater terror” was, the world was dazzled by the brilliance of the Prague Spring.

The Prague Spring was thus in many ways the attempt by middle-aged men to explain away their enthusiastic support, as young communist intellectuals, for the terror regime at the beginning of the 1950s. Kundera belonged exactly to that generation. Instead of facing the disturbing level of collaboration of the regime with the Soviets, and the disturbing level of collaboration of the population with the regime, instead of reflecting on how a developed society could embrace dictatorship with so little resistance, a new culprit, “Stalin and the Russians”, was found. Then, predictably, the 21 August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops only served to set this explanation in stone. The “Russians” were confirmed as the sole culprits, and the Czechs were spared a painful reflection on their previous and present collaboration with the post-invasion, Soviet-supported regime.

The third misunderstanding: what it means to live in a Stalinist dictatorship

As we now see, Kundera’s Kidnapped West did not stem out of nowhere but was part of his long-term intellectual baggage. Already in 1968 and in the frame of a debate provoked by yet another brilliantly provocative essay of his, this time on Czech fate in history, a young intellectual called Václav Havel had reproached him his pathos and romanticized understanding of the Czech contribution to the world of (left-wing) ideas. The French public was completely unequipped to grasp these Kidnapped West’s subtle references, but as I explained above, it did not really matter as the point was elsewhere: it was to turn Kundera into a French intellectual, on an implicit background of shared support for moderate left-wing ideals. On a side note, the Kidnapped West essay can in fact also be read retrospectively as introducing civilizational undertones already hinting at a future neo-conservative narrative Samuel Huntington-like – and more prosaically in Europe at a conservative turn of the left.

What is interesting for us here is that Kundera contributed to turning the Czech nation away from ever examining collaboration with the communist regime as a social practice and as a historical problem, at least on a collective level. His characters in The Joke, Life is Elsewhere, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being do grapple with the issue of communism as an endogenous endorsement of dictatorship and moral betrayal, but only on an individual scale, as a moral lesson anyone could identify with in what was, again, a search for universalism. Certainly, it was Kundera’s role as a writer to transform painful societal issues into literature. But Kundera’s role as a public intellectual somewhat came in contradiction with the aesthetics of this individual grasping with the everyday reality of repression.

In effect, an unexpected follow up to the Kidnapped West debate would come back to haunt Kundera. It was all the harsher that, despite losing his debate with Havel in 1968, or so commentators thought, Kundera unwittingly won the anti-Russian part of the post-communist battle: the more distant the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the more the Czech state has been rewriting the history of Czechoslovak communism as a history of anticommunist heroism tamed by the Soviet domination. Since the woes of communism and therefore of post-communism are now conveniently blamed on the Russians and their Czechoslovak communist agents, historical research on the collaboration of ordinary Czechs with the communist regime is not only unwelcome, it is almost illegal. The law creating the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in 2007 listed the themes of research this national institute of memory was to pursue: resistance and repression – not collaboration as a social practice.

Yet in 2008 and under the guise of researching anticommunist resistance, a historian of this institute, Adam Hradilek, published with journalist Petr Třešňák what purported to be a sensational discovery: in 1950, Kundera had reported to the police the presence of a stranger who had appeared in the student dorm of which he was the responsible student. I already wrote extensively on this issue (here in French, and here in Czech) so I will only summarize it here: a Czech native, anticommunist resistant, had escaped to the West and been tasked by Czech exiled forces, supported by the Americans in Bavaria, to go back and try to establish a resistance network. Dvořáček, that was his name, crossed back into Czechoslovakia, was hosted by generous strangers, met a former girlfriend by accident in the street, Iva Militká, asked her to keep his suitcase in her student dormitory, and went on to establish his clandestine network by looking for the number of his potential contact in the local telephone book. Since he couldn’t find it and didn’t know what else to do, he went back to get his suitcase and was arrested on the spot, as Milan Kundera had already alerted the police to his presence – or so Hradilek and Třešňák claim. A police document indeed reports that a certain Milan Kundera, born on 1 April 1929, had stopped by to report Dvořáček’s, or perhaps only the suitcase’s, presence, although the document is not signed, which is of course a crucial point.

The international scandal that followed this “revelation” swallowed this narrative hook, line, and sinker, and condemned Kundera even before questioning the seriousness of this historical work. Yet it was abysmally bad research, a discredit to the profession of both historian and journalist. The article was a prosecution, not a historical reflection. Driven by their anticommunist narrative and possibly thirst for sensation, Hradilek and Třešňák failed to restitute the context and oversaw many crucial details. I was surprised, though, to hear in the various obituaries that followed Kundera’s death in these past days, especially in France, that their accusation had proven to be false. This is not true. No documentary proof of any sort was produced since 2008 to dispel it. Given the historical context, it is in my opinion indeed possible and even likely that Kundera reported Dvořáček to the police. But this is not the point. The point is that Kundera had no other choice and had he not reported Dvořáček himself, someone else would have, the very same day. In fact, Kundera’s indiscretion, if it was his, came third in line. Let us review the context that was missing in the article.

Milan Kundera had just been expelled from the communist party, and he was the responsible student of the dormitory Kolonka, in other words he was on tenterhooks with the regime. The police happened to be surveilling the dorm for other reasons – they were on the search for a murderer, whom they thought might bring a suitcase there – and students were alerted to report anything suspicious. And final straw, the secret police had organized a series of provocations in the previous months, posing as resistance fighters coming back from the West, only to unmask and arrest any potential supporter at home. It would have been suicidal for Kundera as any other student aware of the presence of Dvořáček that day not to report him immediately.

Let us then reestablish the chain of responsibilities: it was almost criminal foolishness for the Czech forces in Germany and the Americans to send would-be spies without adequate training back to a tightly controlled dictatorship – it is not only Dvořáček but his companion Juppa who was arrested on the first day of their mission. It was tragic amateurism for Dvořáček to look for top secret contacts in the telephone book and to entrust his fate to a former girlfriend of whom he knew nothing in the present circumstances. It was irresponsible for Iva Militká to tell the whole story to her boyfriend, Miroslav Dlask. It was rational but morally dubious for Dlask to pass the story on to Kundera, either to protect his girlfriend, or because he was jealous, or both. Incidentally, after the eruption of the scandal in 2008 a new witness, a former policeman, claimed that also Dlask went to report Dvořáček to the police, independently from Kundera or perhaps even in place of him or in his name, which would explain why his signature is missing. It was not particularly glorious for Kundera to report the information to the police if he did so, but again, not surprising either and an understandable gesture of self-preservation. Neither was it particularly glorious for Dvořáček himself to eventually denounce under police interrogation the generous strangers who had hosted him on his first night. It was not particularly noble for Iva Militká, who had been foolish enough in the first place to talk about Dvořáček to her boyfriend, to send her relative Hradilek on the trail of this story only to assuage her own conscience and get to hear the final word on the behavior of her then boyfriend, later husband, Miroslav Dlask, who had died in the meantime. And it was a singularly poor job on the part of Hradilek and Třešňák to satisfy themselves with this would-be sensational discovery without bothering to restitute the context or to hear Kundera out.

The morale of this story is that nearly everyone speaks when tortured or pressured by the secret police in a regime of terror. Whoever is certain they would withstand it is more probably than not lying to themselves. It is not surprising that Kundera denied having reported on Dvořáček: even if he did report him, which is not certain, would he even remember this episode when he had no idea who Dvořáček was and how the story fatefully pursued its course for him? What is tragic is not only Dvořáček’s fate, who survived his arrest but underwent a terrible spell in labor camp and jail, but Kundera’s, who found himself dragged in mud by the international press without any possibility to defend himself.

The historical irony, as I pointed out above, is that Kundera had himself not little contributed as a public intellectual to eschewing any debate on collaboration. Yet what happened to Dvořáček was not the “Russians’ fault”, but the fault of Czech civilians. As an accomplished writer, Kundera did not miss the literary chance to reflect on what we see when we look in the mirror (think of his alter ego Jaromil in Life is Elsewhere), but as a public intellectual, he curiously failed to reflect on this unwonted aspect of collective forgetfulness. As for us, the public, more empathy would have been highly welcome: nothing prevents us from feeling sorry both for Dvořáček and for Kundera.

Conclusion: the cruel irony of fate

In 1968, it had been incredible to see reform communists and democrats agree on the fact that Czech culture was intrinsically democratic, i.e. Western, including within the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The only problem was, Prague Spring intellectuals claimed, this culture had been perverted by Stalin within the party.

In one of these unforeseeable paradoxes of history, the thesis of the kidnapped west was unknowingly revived by the post-1989 anticommunist doctrinaires, personalities who are not without being reminiscent of the Stalinist doctrinaires of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Now, again, but for reasons that are at odds with Kundera and his generation’s guilty conscience about Stalinism, the post-1948 demolition of what is thought of as a Czech democratic culture is entirely attributed to the Russians or rather, as is more politically correct nowadays, to the Soviets. But not only to the Soviets: to their Czechoslovak allies, too, the communists of the time, i.e. now including Kundera. The new anticommunist ideology is thus the twin sister of the former communist ideology, and Kundera found himself entangled in both, once as a co-creator of this intellectual trap, the second time as someone who had been tripped into it.

Havel and Kundera are two of the rare Czech intellectuals who were capable of thinking in abstract and universal terms. Both had trouble being understood by the Czech public, which shows that it is not easy to be Czech and open to the world. Milan Kundera really did not deserve the opprobrium that befell him in his last fifteen years. What he did deserve was the Nobel Prize in Literature, in the same way as Havel deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. It is certainly an historical injustice that neither received it. To be honest, after intensely studying Czech culture in Paris, the Czech society I met in 1990 in Prague was much closer to the earthly accounts of Vaculík and Škvorecký, including in their everyday vulgarity and sexism, than to intellectually high-flying Havel and Kundera. All four were at least united by what Kundera rightly underlined as a proverbial Czech quality: a delightful sense of humor. But these two giants wrote some of the most productive essays of our time and they were deeply European, indeed deeply human. As moving tributes from all corners of the world show, we all appropriated Kundera for ourselves, east and west, and for this alone, he was a brilliant and universal novelist. Rest in peace, dear Milan Kundera. Thank you for having made me dream, it was wonderful.



Obsah vydání | 25. 7. 2023