Acclaimed author and essayist Milan Kundera turns 85

Milan Kundera, photo: Jan Šmíd

This Tuesday sees Czech-born author Milan Kundera, who has lived and worked in France since the mid-1970s, turn 85. Although the Czech media has reported extensively on the occasion, it is no secret the author of acclaimed novels like The Joke and Immortality, has a complicated relationship with his homeland, not allowing novels after The Unbearable Lightness of Being to be published in Czech.

Milan Kundera,  photo: Jan Šmíd
Critics like Jiří Peňas from the Czech daily Lidové noviny have argued that Milan Kundera owes the Czech Republic nothing and that if anything, on the occasion of the author’s 85th birthday it is Czechs who could offer him thanks. In an opinion piece published Tuesday, Peňas reminded readers that Kundera’s novels cast a positive light on Czechoslovakia during the Iron Curtain, informing the West that the country was, culturally-speaking, not a Russian governorate where locals “blew their noses in the tablecloth”.

In his Op-ed, Peňas alluded to the weight of Kundera’s “absence”, a question that has come up routinely since the Velvet Revolution. Why? Examples abound: when Mr Kundera allegedly visits friends in the Czech Republic it is incognito to avoid detection; when he was awarded state honours by the late president Václav Havel, he chose not to attend; and he has forbidden any of his new work to be translated into Czech. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in 2006, was the last. A friend to Milan Kundera, publisher Miroslav Balaštík sees no ill intent on the author’s part but on the contrary consistency in his approach to his craft. The publisher spoke to Czech TV:

Miroslav Balaštík,  photo: Jaroslav Matyáš / Czech Television
“I think the reason Kundera does not allow his books to be published in Czech is two-fold. Every translation is – to a degree –an interpretation and I think if he saw a Czech translation he couldn’t just let it lie. He already works closely with translators into other languages but his involvement in Czech would undoubtedly be greater. It’s safe to say he doesn’t have time for that.

“The other thing is that if he did publish in Czech, I think he is worried about the hullaballoo that would focus on his person, rather than on the writing. As is well known, Kundera does not want to be ‘physically known’ as the author but to be present only in the text itself.”

In that, the author has been steadfast, closely guarding his and his wife’s privacy and refusing interviews for years. A rare occasion when he broke his silence was in 2008 and he certainly did not seek attention but was forced to respond, when it was alleged the author as a young man had informed on a courier for western intelligence in the Stalinist 1950s, for which the accused narrowly avoided the death penalty and spent 14 years in prison. Mr Kundera vehemently denied any connection and was backed up by a group of international authors and even by Mr Havel, who never believed the story. Even so, the accusations changed how the author had been viewed previously, to say the least.

As for his place in Czech literature? For one thing, he has written in French since the mid-1980s; The Unbearable Lightness of Being was his last written in Czech. It is perhaps more precise to view him through a broader European tradition which the author himself has always subscribed and often addressed in essays and criticism; publisher Miroslav Balaštík once again:

“For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.”