Two years after the release of their landmark album Promeny, the leading Czech folk-rock group Cechomor are currently touring the lp once again. Promeny received massive critical acclaim for its combination of folks songs - all traditional and mostly from Moravia - with classical orchestration.
Cechomor tour Promeny with orchestra again, two years after original release
Despite world renown Milan Kundera's relations with native country difficult
There is no doubt that - in world terms - the best-known contemporary Czech author is Milan Kundera, with books like The Joke, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality placing him among the most important authors of the late 20th century. In the Czech Republic, however, it is a different story: his earlier books (written in Czech) are often hard or impossible to find while his more recent works (written in French after he moved to France in 1975) have simply never been translated into Kundera's native Czech. What's more, the Brno-born author has almost nothing to do with his native country, visiting rarely and even in disguise. To find out why Milan Kundera is not a popular writer here I spoke to Tomas Vrba, who teaches Czech literature at New York University in Prague and began by asking how the author is viewed by the Czech literary establishment.
"Milan Kundera is admired in most parts of the Euro-Atlantic world at least as an international author but he has some problems with his domestic readership and with critics too. Surprisingly enough the Czech readership is the only one readership in the world not allowed to read the latest novels and books of essays Milan Kundera has published. And the situation became even more difficult when he stopped writing in Czech and only writes in French. He once declared that it's out of the question to ask anybody else to prepare Czech translations. So he is a little bit too jealous perhaps for every word he writes. And he is not on the best terms with local critics and that's why he is not willing to take the role of the translator himself."
So he's essentially blocking the publication of his own works in Czech?
"That's the problem and even his collected works published by the Brno-based writers' co-operative, the Atlantis publishing house, have some problems because the author insisted on publishing his work in chronological order. And he revisited most of his older works written in Czech, creating new versions, and he made one exception with Immortality. It was published out of this chronological order, but after that nothing appeared."
What is the source, would you say, of the conflict between him and the Czech literary establishment?
"I'd say that there are a series of reasons. One, they think that from the beginning of what we call here the samizdat era...Milan Kundera never gave permission for his manuscripts to be circulated in type-written version, unlike other leading Czech authors."
Do you know why not?
"I'd say that he was from the very beginning trying to master the language and writing in such a perfectionist way that he really couldn't imagine that his texts might be published without his direct supervision. And that was also the case for his publications in exile. Yes he gave permission to Josef Skvorecky's 68 Publishers in Toronto, and if I'm not wrong two or three of his novels were published there, but later he expressed his reservations about the editorial work."
The samizdat era is long over now - why do you think even now he doesn't want to have any contact with this country, or seems to have such minimal contact with this country?
"There are some theories that maybe a long time ago he had some - it was not conflict actually, it was a vivid debate - with Vaclav Havel and it's generally known that the two big Czechs never went to normal communication after that. My personal conviction is that at the moment he stopped using the Czech language as his artistic tool and thus decided to be a universal author he forbid himself from trying to renew the ties that he had with his motherland in the past."
You mentioned the debate between him and Havel - was that debate essentially about different attitudes to history and politics?
"Actually it was a larger, more general framework. It was a debate about the nature of the Czech nation and its role in Europe and in the cultural world. But very soon the debate became much more political and while Kundera was convinced that one day the Prague Spring would be considered as a historical event, as an heroic attempt - however unsuccessful - to form a new society, Vaclav Havel was opposed, saying that the Prague Spring was just an attempt of those who were actually also responsible for the tragic 20 years after the Communist coup in '48. It was an attempt just to improve a little bit but sufficiently and not to improve substantial things."
Was it the case that Kundera believed history was something which happened to people and was kind of a big joke, so to speak, and basically people couldn't act, people couldn't do anything, people couldn't really resist, whereas Havel believed the individual must act?
"Yes and you can have a series of good arguments for both parties."
Do you think Czech readers are missing something in not having the latest Kundera novels in Czech?
"For sure, because whether we like him or not Kundera ranks among the most important authors of the end of the 20th century, not only in Europe but elsewhere also, and he should be read. I try to respect his decision. It's the author's right to decide that he will insist on chronological order and he will insist on having the authorised Czech texts of his latest works. But on the other hand when deciding that he had to accept the risk that he would lose his popularity and that is what's happening. He is not generally perceived as a popular Czech author."