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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Kate Webb

Milan Kundera obituary

Milan Kundera in a Prague garden, 1973. Eight years later he took up French citizenship.
Milan Kundera in a Prague garden, 1973. Eight years later he took up French citizenship. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In December 1968, a plane carrying Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes touched down in Prague. The two authors had come to show solidarity with Czechoslovakia’s writers and to discuss the year’s historic events: how the hopes of Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring had ebbed into the interminable autumn of the Soviet patriarch.

Their host was the Czech novelist and essayist Milan Kundera, who has died aged 94. Mindful of the need to talk freely, Kundera took his guests to a sauna, the one place in the city impossible to bug. As the steam rose and their bodies began to overheat, the visitors asked where they might sluice off the sweat. The Czech led them to a back door opening on to a hole in the frozen Vltava. He motioned towards the river and they clambered down, expecting him to follow. But Kundera remained on the bank, laughing as these hothouse flowers of Latin-American literature emerged like popsicles from the icy waters.

“The second Czech K”, as Fuentes called Kundera, in 1968 had a growing reputation as poet, dramatist, essayist and intellectual. His first novel, The Joke (turned down initially for opposing official ideology), had finally been published the year before, gaining cult success, but this moment when socialism with a human face met the “threatening fists” of power was decisive, providing not just the setting for his best known work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982), but the governing theme of his oeuvre: how to be a novelist in an age when “political demagoguery has managed to ‘sentimentalise’ the will to power”.

For Kundera, who once defined himself as “a hedonist trapped in a world politicised in the extreme”, and whose novels are replete with bodily pleasures and humiliations, the lyrical intoxication of poet and revolutionary were dangerously allied. From the start, being funny was a serious business. In The Joke, a man sends a postcard with the mock salutation: “Long Live Trotsky!” The irony is lost on the censors, the result disastrous. Similarly, the stories that make up Laughable Loves (1963-68), move in a blink from farce to horror: the book was completed three days before the Russian invasion.

Like many intellectuals, Kundera was involved in the movement to create a de-Stalinised socialism. At the Fourth Congress of the Writers’ Union in 1967, Kundera gave a rallying speech arguing that Czechoslovakia’s existential precariousness (frequently overrun, its language threatened) placed it in a unique position from which to address the 20th century, but this could be realised “only [in] conditions of total freedom”.

However, after the invasion, his belief in the possibility of change unravelled: he lost “the privilege to work”, his books were removed from libraries and, by 1970 and “normalizace” – the policy of undoing Dubcˇek’s reforms – he could no longer publish.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche in the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche in the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Photograph: Cinetext Collection/Sportsphoto/Allstar

His Kafkaesque view of power led to disagreements with the dissident playwright Václav Havel, whom Kundera attacked for encouraging the illusion of hope (“moral exhibitionism”) in a situation where history preordained defeat.

Only apart from the fray could you record your testament: this is how the novel faces power, he argued famously, with “the fight of memory against forgetting”. Havel, who remained in “the country of the weak” (as Kundera described it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being), was jailed and then fought to lead a new Czech nation in the successful Velvet Revolution, admonished him: history is not a clever divinity playing jokes on us – we are “creators of our own fate”. But Kundera had long since left the stage.

At about this time, he had started being translated abroad, a “traumatic” experience for him: he accused publishers in the west of acting like Moscow censors, when they, too, tried to “normalise” his work to fit western standards. But in 1975 he took a job in France at the University of Rennes, and four years later his Czech citizenship was revoked. He took French citizenship in 1981.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), the first novel to come from his exile – essayistic, multi-storied – stages a battle between devilish anti-meaning and the angelic one true idea of communism. Kundera pictures these celestial figures laughing in the face of one another, a murderous dialectic against which the writer, with his love of variety and inconclusiveness, has no defence: “the terrifying laughter of angels … covers my every word with its din”.

His writing contains much of this dark laughter, strewn with gags, pranks and paradoxes, and there are good reasons for this. He exploits the vein of black comedy that central European history gives its writers as a birthright, but more ambitiously it is humour, originating in the laughter of Boccaccio, Cervantes and Rabelais, that he sees underpinning the European novel, and which he argues, in four volumes of essays, has shaped western consciousness.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz thought “humour … the great invention of the modern spirit”, and for Kundera nothing better disseminated this idea than the generations of novels that flowed from Cervantes, producing an art of ambiguity and polyphony. These novels gave rise to our understanding of what it is to be an individual, Kundera argued, and with this, the idea of “human rights”.

All of which perhaps explains why some critics find his writing too didactic (“all talk and no story”). For all Kundera’s engaging intelligence, John Updike also felt a “strangeness that locks us out”.

Unlike Márquez, or Salman Rushdie – the company to which Kundera aspired – there is no sign of the shaman, no risk of being thought a sham. Perhaps his refusal to fall for anything – neither politics’ nor poetry’s intoxications – his pedagogic desire to disabuse, and his view of the novel as a supremely moral and rational art, leaves Kundera, peculiarly, a novelist disinclined to enchant.

For some though, such as the writer Geoff Dyer, Kundera’s importance lies precisely in this extension of the novel into meditative interrogation, by which, Dyer thinks, he “recalibrated fiction to create forms of new knowledge”.

Born in the Moravian capital Brno, Milan was the son of Milada Janosikova and Ludvik Kundera, a pianist, composer and musicologist who was head of the Janácˇek Music Academy. The son also studied composition, and music was a lifelong love, often summoned in his novels and essays. At Charles University in Prague, Kundera studied literature and aesthetics and, like most of his generation, was caught up in the great postwar euphoria, attracted to the possibilities held out by communism, after the blight of nazism, of a Czech society reborn.

The Joke, 1967, by Milan Kundera
The Joke, 1967, by Milan Kundera Photograph: none

The Russians liberated the country in 1945 and nobody was surprised when, the following year, the Communist party won 38% of the vote and formed a coalition government. Kundera joined the party (“I too once danced in a ring. It was the spring of 1948,” he confesses in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), and some of his poetry displays the kind of lyrical enthusiasm he would later decry.

He switched his degree to film, but in 1950 was expelled for “anti-party activities”, an incident that gave birth to The Joke. Allowed to return to his studies, he rejoined the political fold in 1956, remaining in the party for the next 14 years. His freewheeling, speculative manner as a teacher of world literature at the Prague film school from 1958 until 1969 influenced many Czech new wave directors, Miloš Forman among them.

Living in exile in Paris, Kundera revised into French all his works written in Czech, then set a novel in France, Immortality (1988). The same year, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was adapted for film, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, and Kundera found celebrity as an author, a status he was not entirely comfortable with. He began writing in French (despite which, he won the 2007 Czech state prize for literature). Slowness (1996), Identity (1998) and Ignorance (2000) were well-received, though none had the impact of the earlier Czech works.

In 2008, after an investigation, an accusation was made against Kundera in the Czech magazine Respekt. It was claimed that in 1950 he gave the name of Miroslav Dvoracek to the police. Dvoracek, a pilot, had escaped from Czechoslovakia but returned as a western intelligence agent; he was subsequently arrested, narrowly escaped the death penalty, and served 14 years in a labour camp.

Kundera denied that he was the informant and a group of writers including Fuentes, Márquez, Rushdie, Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee came swiftly to his defence in a letter declaring him the victim of “orchestrated slander”.

Havel said he thought the way events unfolded too “stupid” for Kundera to have been involved, and that his old friend and adversary, who had scrupulously kept away from the media, rarely giving interviews, had “become entangled in a thoroughly Kunderaesque world, one that he has so masterly managed to keep at a distance from all his real life”.

The following year, Kundera published Encounter, a series of essays, some going back 20 years. In one, discussing Bohumil Hrabal, the author of Closely Observed Trains, Kundera reiterates his view of the relation of politics and art, and his belief in the pre-eminence of the novel in the struggle for human liberation: “One single book by Hrabal does more for people, for their freedom of mind, than all the rest of us with our actions, our gestures, our noisy protests!”

His final novel, The Festival of Insignificance, was published in 2015. Four years later, his Czech citizenship was finally restored.

He is survived by his wife, Vera Hrabankova.

• Milan Kundera, writer, born 1 April 1929; died 11 July 2023

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