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Milan Kundera: The re-readable writer

Milan Kundera’s work circled back to themes like the nature of being, free will, devotion and betrayal, and the meanings contained within laughter

Milan Kundera's picture is seen among his books in a shop window in Prague, Czech Republic on July 12, 2023.
Milan Kundera's picture is seen among his books in a shop window in Prague, Czech Republic on July 12, 2023. (REUTERS)

After the Soviet invasion of 1968 crushed the Prague Spring, Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke, which came out a year earlier, was banned for obscenity and anti-socialism, among other cited reasons.

The novel, partially inspired by Kundera’s first expulsion from the Communist Party as a student in the 50s, follows the character Ludvik, who is similarly expelled after making a joke about the Russian journalist and politician Leon Trotsky. Through his personal and professional travails, we learn how individual expression is slowly but surely stifled under the all-seeing Communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

Then, in the 1970s, following his second expulsion from the Communist Party, Kundera moved to France and became a French citizen in 1981.From the 1990s onwards, Kundera wrote exclusively in French and saw himself as a French writer.

On Tuesday, Kundera died in Paris following a period of “prolonged illness”, a spokesperson for the Milan Kundera Library confirmed. He was 94 years old. He was best known for novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and The Joke, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), all of which were written originally in Czech.

Many of Kundera's Czech works were translated into English to worldwide acclaim by the prolific translator Michael Henry Heim. The Joke, however, was revised in the early 1990s by Kundera and his editor Aaron Asher, because the author felt that Heim, while acting in “good conscience”, had ended up producing a “translation-adaptation (adaptation to the taste of the time and of the country for which it is intended)”.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, indubitably Kundera’s most famous work, was first published in its French translation, and later taken to over a dozen languages. In it, too, the womanizing protagonist Dr Tomáš – who views love and sexual attraction as equally fragile states of being, with his worldview being guided by his belief in the inherent “lightness” of this state – is also affected by the Communist regime. He is asked to repudiate a letter he wrote where he metaphorically likens Communist leaders to Oedipus. He refuses and is promptly stripped of his right to practise medicine.

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It would be a mistake, however, to see Kundera’s work through the narrow lens of political labels. The writer famously abhorred stereotypical representations of his work and once wrote about interrupting a panel discussion on The Joke because he felt that the humanity of the book was being sacrificed in favour of convenient, familiar-sounding political labels. “Spare me your Stalinism, please, The Joke is a love story!”, he told the panel.

Indeed, all of Kundera’s work, by his own admission, circled back to the same set of preoccupations: the nature of being and free will, exemplified by works like Slowness in 1995 and Immortality in 1988; the dimensions of devotion and betrayal; and the mechanics of laughter and the spectrum of meanings contained therein, with laughter as unthinking reflex, genuine emotion, passive-aggressive act and so on.

Mostly, Kundera was fascinated by how political churn changed the human experience at a granular, everyday level, one which paradoxically also covered the metaphysical. Everything else was just a means to an end.

The English covers of some of Kundera's famous books.
The English covers of some of Kundera's famous books.

Sample this bedazzling, multi-clause sentence from The Joke, where Kundera describes the state of mind of the hapless Ludvik, who has explained the story behind his Trotsky joke to a disapproving Communist politician for the nth time; the man is unmoved and proceeds to call Ludvik a “confirmed Trotskyite” in disgust.

“I came to realize that there was no power capable of changing the image of my person lodged somewhere in the supreme court of human destinies; that this image (even though it bore no resemblance to me) was much more real than my actual self; that I was its shadow and not it mine; that I had no right to accuse it of bearing no resemblance to me, but rather that it was I who was guilty of the non-resemblance; and that the non-resemblance was my cross, which I could not unload on anyone else, which was mine alone to bear.”

Kundera also wrote a trilogy of book-length essays on the European novel — The Art of the Novel (1986), Testaments Betrayed (1983) and The Curtain (2005). These were well-received, unliked his latter-day works of fiction like Ignorance (2000) and The Festival of Insignificance (2013), which were seen as too incohesive, especially compared to his mid-career triumphs in the 70s and 80s.

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Another aspect of his work frequently, and correctly, criticised was his tendency to slip into the “Madonna-whore complex”. For example, Kundera’s story ‘Eduard and God’(from the 1974 anthology Laughable Loves) features two women that are near-perfect representations of the Madonna-whore polarities. John O’Brien, the American author, described in his 1995 book Milan Kundera & Feminism, how Lucie from The Joke personifies the Madonna half of the complex, remaining a ‘pure’ and ‘divine’ route to redemption for Ludvik.

Two things can be true at the same time, however: it’s true that Kundera’s female characters erred on the side of stereotype — but it’s also true that he wrote some of the most re-readable literary fiction of the 20th century. Every so often, I find myself returning to his seven-part novel Immortality (in English in 1991), in particular.

As Kundera himself wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Kundera’s work is in no danger of being forgotten anytime soon.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.

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