Kundera became globally famous largely thanks to his status as émigré writer in Paris, and to the American production of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That book and film centered largely on the impact of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which crushed the liberalization of Alexander Dubček, on the work’s central characters. Some go into exile in Switzerland, only to find that they “can’t hack it” abroad. So they return to their homeland, where their travel papers are promptly confiscated. The hardliners are back in power, now enforcing “normalization,” a return to authoritarianism, censorship and doublespeak.
To me, that book encapsulated the plight of dissidents – or any non-conformists – in the former Czechoslovakia. Havel himself was even offered the chance to emigrate – the Communists wanted to get rid of him, they so feared his influence. But he declined, and once said that he was a “Bohemian bumpkin” more at home even in a country that wouldn’t allow publication of his books. (Like Kundera, he was able to get his books published elsewhere in Europe and North America.)
Kundera felt so stifled that he finally emigrated to France in 1975, acquiring citizenship in 1981 and writing in the language of his adopted land as early as 1986 with his article “The Art of the Novel.” He later said his works should be considered part of French literature. That would certainly seem to apply to his later works. I’ve had the difficulty, when seeking to read Kundera in his native language, that some of the Czech titles turn out to be translations (and not by the author) of French originals. (Incidentally, I had the opportunity to meet the English translator of Unbearable Lightness, Michael Heim, at an academic conference in the early 2000s.)
After 1989’s Velvet Revolution, Kundera returned to Czechoslovakia, and his Czech citizenship was finally restored in 2019, but he still spent most of his remaining three decades in France.
My general take on Kundera’s legacy is that he has made significant contributions to Czech and French lit, as well as to the world’s émigré and dissident lit. He deals well in themes of alienation and belonging. Unbearable Lightness does a good job in depicting secret police agents filming an adulterous affair in order to blackmail the victim into cooperating, the use of kompromat, including honey traps, being typical for such regimes.
I’m not crazy about Kundera’s obsession with sex – and baser instincts generally. His atheism was rooted in his insistence, for instance, that no god could ever have invented anything as absurd as the human need to defecate. Pardon me, but I scat, therefore God does not exist is a flimsy philosophical argument.
There is one matter for which he should be – and largely has been – forgiven. In October 2008, documents surfaced which seemed to indicate that he had turned in a defector who had returned to Czechoslovakia and was staying in the dorm room of an acquaintance. (I was in Slovakia for a two-month stint at the time, and it was very much in the news there.) It is unclear from the record whether or to what extent he cooperated with authorities, and a number of globally famous authors such as Salman Rushdie supported the author in a public statement at the time.
Oddly, the incident took place in 1950, the same year Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party, which he had joined in 1947 at a time of youthful idealism. He was readmitted in 1956 and finally expelled again in 1970. But he was active in the reform movement of the 1960s, and gained considerable attention for his speech at the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in 1967. So, even the year before Dubček’s liberalization, he was arguing for cultural independence from larger countries.
After the Soviet invasion, in December of 1968, Kundera wrote an important essay called Český úděl or “Czech Destiny,” echoing the theme of that writers’ congress speech. I quoted a powerful sentence from the column in my post for the 50th anniversary of the invasion, and it bears repeating here:
I am convinced that a world in which the voice of Guatemalans,
Estonians, Vietnamese, or Danes were heard no less than the voice of
Americans, Chinese, or Russians would be a better and less sad world.
Whatever his faults, he should be remembered most of all for writing such as this.