Carrying a copy of Milan Kundera’s classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being was an affectation of many young students the world over in the 1980s. Published in 1984, the book attained near-cult status and also became an acclaimed film four years later.
Last week, the 90-year-old author was in the news again. The Czech Republic’s ambassador to France, Petr Dulak, went to Kundera’s flat in Paris to give him a citizenship certificate. Dulak later told Czech Radio of Kundera’s “profound” Czechness. “He stayed by his convictions and identity, a profound Czech, I would say. He is really someone who is very linked to this country and he is very interested in what is going on in Czech Republic.”
What had happened
In 1979, Kundera was stripped of his citizenship of undivided Czechoslovakia. He had published a book in France called The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, whose best known line is: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. The book is said to have alluded to the then Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak as “the president of forgetting”. The government did not forget. His citizenship snatched away, Kundera, who along with his wife was in Rennes on a teaching assignment since 1975, made Paris his home. He became a French citizen in 1981.
Kundera is identified as a socialist and was a member of the Communist party too, and was expelled twice. He first joined the party in 1948, was expelled after two years for “hostile thinking and individualistic tendencies”, and rejoined the party in 1956. It was after Prague Spring, or the Soviet suppression of the reform attempted in Czechoslovakia, that things got bad for him. He was expelled from the Academy of Writers and, in 1970, from the party again. His books and plays became invisible in his home country.
His idea of ‘home’
In an interview to The New York Times in 1984, Kundera said, “You have to ask: What is home? What does it mean to be ‘at home’? It’s a complicated question. I can honestly say that I feel much better here in Paris than I did in Prague, but then can I also say that I lost my home, leaving Prague? All I know is that before I left I was terrified of ‘losing home’ and that after I left I realised — it was with a certain astonishment — that I did not feel loss, I did not feel deprived.”
When Czech President Andrej Babiš visited Paris last year, he held a three-hour meeting with Kundera and his wife Vera, then posted on Facebook: “The conversation was driven by Mrs Kundera, an incredibly energetic lady… I think they deserve the Czech citizenship they lost after emigrating.”
Kundera has not spoken after his citizenship was restored. It is unclear if he had ever asked for it. He is reported to have just been concerned if there would be “too much paperwork”.
In 1984, in an interview to Die Zeit, he had said: “There is no such dream of a return… I took my Prague; the smell, the taste, the language, the landscape, the culture.”
What it means to the Czech
Many of Kundera’s later books were published in France, in French, and did not always reach Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic after 1981. He won the Czech national literature prize in 2008, but did not travel to the ceremony. He is known to have travelled back after the Velvet Revolution, but “incognito”.
The Czechs have had an intimate relationship with writers; theirs is one of the few countries to have had a playwright/writer as President in Vaclav Havel, for many years. Kundera and Havel held public debates on the meaning of protest and its utility. It started with Kundera publishing ‘The Czech Lot’, in the magazine Listy in December 1968; he wrote about the perils of being a small state. Havel responded in 1969, with ‘The Czech Lot?’ in the journal Tvar.
In 1984, Kundera spoke of regimes being threatened by critics. “Before, we had been thrown in prison, but now the Government was saying, in effect, that we were less dangerous to it in exile — writing and making speeches and even organising against it – than we were silenced in our own country. It was an acknowledgement that even in prison we added to the undercurrent of disquiet in Czechoslovakia, that the country would always know we were there.”