Why Kundera never went home

Oct 20, 2023


Interesting (and beautifully typeset) article about Milan Kundera's relationship with his Czech homeland.

Kundera made clear that he wouldn’t write politically committed literature, about which he had a very low opinion, and his critics didn’t believe his books, full of irony, laughable intrigues, and love affairs, posed any real challenge to the regime.

That may explain why the publication of The Unbearable Lightness of Being met with an enthusiastic reception just about everywhere except in Czech opposition circles.

...The Czech authorities stripped Kundera of his citizenship after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1978, which ridiculed the top party leader. Despite the official censure, the nation’s leading dissidents didn’t consider the book worthy of much attention. They expected a more politically explicit and engaged work, rather than what they saw as a series of erotic adventures

It was against this backdrop that Czech dissidents sent a petition to the Nobel committee in support of Jaroslav Seifert, the great lyrical poet, then in his 80s, who was virtually unknown outside Czechoslovakia but who was among the first signatories of the Charter 77. Some of those who put their names on the petition later regretted it, as they weren’t aware when they signed that its main rationale was to divert the prize from Kundera. The petition achieved its aim. The surprising award of the Nobel Prize in 1984 to Jaroslav Seifert was an insult to the Czech Communists, but also a triumph for the political project of Václav Havel.

Kundera’s laughter, in contrast, cut across all his novels and essays, always appearing in the presence of the tragic. Both laughter and tragedy, for him, led back to the inescapable ambiguity of a world that can’t be redeemed by any truth or political regime. But Kundera didn’t succumb to nihilism, finding hope in the cultural traditions of the West and Central Europe in particular, in music and in the art of the novel, and in the openness and unexpected turns of history.

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