Acclaimed Czech-born author and essayist Milan Kundera, still an enigma at 90

Milan Kundera

The celebrated Czech-born author Milan Kundera turns ninety on April 1st. True to form, the reclusive writer – who hasn’t granted an interview in decades – has insisted his publishers ignore the milestone. But the literary world cannot help but take stock of Kundera’s enduring legacy.

Milan Kundera | Photo: Elisa Cabot,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0
Milan Kundera, a French citizen since 1981 – and arguably a French writer for even longer– was born in the Moravian capital of Brno, where his father, a musicologist, led the Janáček Music Academy. He is said to have often returned from Paris to his home town – strictly incognito – to take in a Brno Kometa hockey match and visit a handful of lifelong friends.

But what the wider world knows of Milan Kundera – the man himself, how his thinking has evolved – comes through his writing. Though he joined the Communist party in 1948 while in his teens, clearly by 1967, when his novel The Joke was published, he had little respect for the regime. Ever since, Kundera was regarded as “subversive” writer, though we know he never saw himself as a “dissident” one.

Decades ago, before he stopped giving interviews, Kundera said his work is “subversive” in that it raises questions of moral and social uncertainty, anathema to the ideological faithful of any stripe – Communist, Christian, what have you.

Charles University professor of literature Petr Bílek explains.

“He always presses the role of the text and not the role of the theological human being who produces the text. So, it’s not that important how we label Milan Kundera as a person, but how we approach his texts. And here, I think the term ‘subversive’ is the key.

“He wants to attack things, to expand these interactions or relationships instead of fitting, more or less comfortably, into some pre-defined categories. This is why, I believe, he had so many difficulties with the label of ‘dissident’ – because it is a political category, and he reflects the world around him from the point of aesthetics.”

Kundera once said great novels are born of historical events that cast people into situations which unmask their flaws and reveal their true character – along with the absurdity of any certitude.

Indeed, his books focus more on timeless matters of the heart and mind than of the politics of the day. This is one reason he so often revised new translations of his books. Ironically, many have – and may never be – officially published in his native Czech.

Prof. Petr Bílek again:

Milan Kundera,  photo: Jan Šmíd / Czech Radio
“For decades, he is first of all an ‘international writer’, that is what I like to say. Since the success of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the eighties, he was been considered as next to, say, John Updike, or Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass, and so on – it’s this Weltliteratur, world literature category or international literature (transcending boundaries).”

There are now four of his novels that have not been translated into Czech, and he says he has neither the time nor the inclination to do so, nor would he let anyone else. Eventually, will they appear in Czech, do you think? Is there any clue whether he has made some provisions for that?

“It’s hard to say. It’s of course a paradoxical and very curious situation that you can read these in Chinese, Spanish or whatever but not in his native language. At the same time, in my view, it makes perfect sense because he is a bilingual writer these days.

“He wrote these novels in French. At the same time, he could translate them into Czech to do, say, the second version of the original and it would still be the ‘original’ language. If anyone else translates these texts, they are not going to be Kundera’s text anymore. The wording, the style, will be chosen by someone else.

“Psychologically, I can imagine, he has this kind of parental attitude and doesn’t want to see someone else changing his texts.”