Michal Prochazka - lightening Kundera's unbearable burden of history

Milan Kundera

Last week the best-known living Czech author, Milan Kundera, was awarded the State Prize for Literature. The award sparked plenty of debate about the 78-year-old writer, who's lived in France since the 1970s and rarely returns to his homeland; he was not present to collect the award, citing ill health. It was given for the Czech edition of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was published in French in 1984 but not published in Czech - officially - until last year. Kundera's three most recent novels - published in French and translated into English - are still unavailable in his native tongue. All that has led some to accuse him of turning his back on his country. But is that fair? Rob Cameron discussed the matter recently with literary critic and Pravo journalist Michal Prochazka, and he began by asking him whether we could still consider Kundera a "Czech" writer.

"His origins are in the Czech Republic, in Central Europe, so there's no question that we can label him as a Czech, or at least originally Czech writer, no matter that he moved not only to a different country but also to a different language. I think maybe that the older generation has more trouble calling him a Czech writer, although I don't see any hesitation of the same kind among young literary critics and young writers."

His Czech agent I believe described him as a bilingual writer - not a Czech writer or a French writer. Do we know - and it's very difficult to say because he doesn't give interviews - what he considers himself?

"I think we need to go a little bit deeper into the conversation and mention two or possibly three things. First of all, the home of a writer is always the language he writes in. So from this point of view, he is a French writer - now. He actually switched from Czech to French back in 1993, and the problem is we don't know his newest books in Czech since he doesn't allow any translator to translate them for us. We also have to understand that he's someone who wanted to be very universal and who wanted to reach quite a big audience, as his own vision of the novel is a very complex mirror of society. So it's also understandable why he moved from this smaller language to a bigger language, to a bigger cultural group. At the same time, I would also emphasise that he's someone who came from something called "Central Europe" that doesn't exist anymore at least in the English language, or in the English environment. Kundera's Central Europe was quite a rich and interesting region, even at the beginning of the 20th century, and the biggest tragedy for Central Europe was that it was divided into so-called "Western Europe" and "the Eastern bloc". So I would say his roots and his origins come from a very different world than the Czech Republic of our time."

This prize was given for arguably his most famous work The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The book was first published in French in 1984, but the official Czech version was only published last year. Why did it take twenty-two years to appear in his homeland?

"Well I think we need to correct one thing here. To my knowledge he wrote the book in Czech, originally. Then the book was translated into French, since he was living in France at that time. But one year later, the book was published by a very famous Czech émigré publishing house in Toronto, the '68 Publishers. And the book came to Czechoslovakia, came to Prague, even before the end of the ancient regime, and was around even after the so-called Velvet Revolution."

So much is made of the love-hate relationship between Milan Kundera and his homeland. Karel Steigerwald described that relationship in Mlada fronta Dnes with the words "people will curse Milan Kundera as long as the Czech planet turns." What explains this level of vitriol and hatred aimed at Kundera from the Czech people?

"I think we would have to return back to the 1960s. Back then, a writer was considered to be a person with such a responsibility for the nation, especially at a time when Czechs were entering twenty years of occupation by the Soviet army and a new wave of a totalitarian communist state. So in that time a writer was considered as someone who should stay at home and defend the country and help us overcome what really was the topic of the day. There's also a sense of difficult relations with any emigrant who left the country, whether he didn't really leave the country because of the money, because of his bad life, because of silly dreams, whether he was not a traitor to this little country in Central Europe. So there are feelings like that, you can find them easily, especially I'd emphasize within the older generation. What is quite ironic is that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a book about leaving. Leaving not only a country, not only a person's calling - as is the motive of the central figure, but also leaving a certain burden of your existence. So we have to accept that Kundera chose his way. He also chose to live his life very distant from the media and from any kind of status of celebrity, of a famous person. So in my eyes we should respect that."

But do you accept that this difficult, problematic relationship between Kundera and the Czech people is partly his fault? That if he did choose to come and visit this country officially, if he perhaps sped up the process of making his books available in Czech - which he could do, if he wanted to - it would improve this relationship?

"I can't really judge to what extent it's his mistake. I think we lived - the country lived - in a completely surreal situation in history, and if that hadn't happened we would have been talking very differently. But to my eyes there are two important things. One thing is a sort of complex of history, and a complex of a country that perceived itself in a kind of bitter, self-indulgent kind of self-pity. It's important to lighten this burden a little bit, and accept that there was a writer, a genius writer, who wanted and had to leave the country to search for his own freedom. On the other hand, it's probably necessary and we would welcome it enormously, if he allowed his new French books to be translated into the Czech language, since you have a lot of trouble if you don't speak French, if you don't speak English perfectly enough to read great literature, and if you don't want to read those pirate versions, you don't have a chance to read his latest books. So probably he should have been a bit easier about that and let a translator - and there are wonderful translators in the Czech Republic - to translate his works."