Thursday, October 16, 2008

Milan Kundera, without doubt the best known and most popular Czech author worldwide, has long been viewed with suspicion by a great many of his compatriots. There are various reasons and motivations for this, some probably rather petty and uncharitable, some possibly a little more justified. Doubtless there’s a certain amount of resentment among those who stayed, fought and suffered whilst he was not only swanning around eating snails in France but also tended to be casually defeatist and sneeringly dismissive of the dissident community back home. For a long time he refused to allow the publication of his most internationally celebrated work, the Unbearable Lightness of Being, in his own language, a fact which can’t have helped allay the general feeling that he’d turned his back on the Czechs, and whatever the excuses he gave, the obstacles to the book’s release can hardly have been insurmountable (eventually it was published in late 2006, but it scarcely seems credible that it really had to take so long). Add to this his reclusive nature and positively paranoid defence of his own secrecy, even going so far as to visit the Czech Republic in disguise, and you have a picture of a man who hasn’t exactly bust a gut to build up his PR in his homeland.

There’s more to it than wounded patriotism though. Many simply complain that they find his work overrated, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, misogynist etc., and despite being a fan of his earlier novels, at times I concede they may have a point – although I’m still always nonplussed when some of these detractors then go on to profess their admiration of Bohumil Hrabal, whose prose has never struck me as anything other than florid, inconsequential noise. And then of course there’s the old theme of his history, that he started out as a socialist poet, some might say a tawdry propagandist (though by no means the only one), who only later, when the wind started blowing in the direction of reform, started expressing his misgivings. However, with regard to this fact it’s worth noting that a number of prominent dissident writers have excused this as youthful folly rather than cynical careerism, having themselves been swept up in the post-war, pro-Soviet euphoria for a while. Since some of these, most notably Pavel Kohout, whose own bleating odes of the time were considerably more execrable even than Kundera’s, were also Stalinist shit-peddlers in previous incarnations, one might stop short of hailing this indulgent stance as a veritable jewel of magnanimity, but still, as a leftie, who can recall with embarrassment a juvenile attraction towards an unabashedly bloodthirsty form of Marxism, I feel inclined to agree with them. Is it so difficult to imagine that, particularly in such times, even some highly intelligent people might have actually believed in the pap they were churning out?

With the emergence of this article, however, it’s become far much more difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. It genuinely seems that there were very serious reasons for Kundera’s wall of silence about himself and his past. Writing dodgy poetry is one thing, destroying people’s lives is another. So far his response has been to break his silence of 25 years in order to denounce (if you’ll pardon the rather sick pun) all this as an “assassination attempt”. And maybe it is, maybe the police report is fabricated and those who found it, seizing upon parallels between this apparently real-life episode and fictional ones in works such as The Joke and Life is Elsewhere, as well as his communist past and his cloistered lifestyle, have put 2 and 2 together and made 5. Maybe. But faced with a case for the prosecution such as this, which is as comprehensive as it is damning, merely spitting out “I never even knew the man” (admittedly fairly verbose by Kundera’s terse media standards) sounds pretty poor. You might be innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, Mr Kundera, but if you wish to salvage your credibility as a human being in the eyes of the Czechs, you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.


Anonymous jitka said...

Hrabal being 'florid, incosequential noise'? I can't agree more.

6:36 AM  
Blogger ASHDAV said...

Finally, a Czech person who dislikes Hrabal. You're a rare species Jitka. Thank you!

9:15 AM  
Anonymous jitka said...

There are more of us but it's a secret society.

9:50 AM  

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