Meeting Milan Kundera, a Writer Who Preferred Freedom to His to Roots

Milan Kundera in 1980. Photo: Elisa Cabot. CC BY-SA 3.0

I had arranged to meet Milan Kundera at his home in Paris and, as I was entering number 7, rue Littré, where he lived, I stopped in front of the elevator door. A tall, athletic man with white hair came out of the elevator. I asked him in French: “Could you tell me which floor Mr. Kundera lives on?” He gave me an amused smile and told me that I had to go up to the attic. So I did, and the door was opened by a lady who introduced herself in Czech as Vera Kundera and added that her husband had just gone out to buy some cigarettes. “Let’s see if he comes back,” I dared to reply with a laugh, because the story about another Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek, who went out of his house one day to buy some cigarettes, never to return, is known to all Czechs. But my little joke did not open Mrs. Kundera’s heart. We had not had enough time to establish a fluent conversation when the sound of the key in the lock was heard and in came the same white-haired gentleman whom I had asked about Milan Kundera a few minutes earlier. The man laughed out loud at the joke he had played on me. Then all three of us went to a Moroccan restaurant near his house, on the Place de Montparnasse. That was in the mid-eighties, I was in my twenties and Kundera was approaching sixty. I was then his translator into Catalan and I had a list of doubts to ask this writer who had recently become famous with his novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. While we were discussing my doubts, the writer emphasized again and again how important it was to him that all translations should be absolutely faithful. “Above all, no one should pretend to interpret my intentions!” he said more than once.

While we were tasting some chicken pastelas in the Moroccan restaurant, we talked about other things that interested all three of us. We soon agreed that, unlike many refugees, neither he nor I experienced exile as a tragedy but as a stroke of good fortune, as an adventure that never ended. Vera disagreed. Years later, she confessed to me that living abroad was the greatest mistake of her life. That meal with the Kunderas was the beginning of a friendship both epistolary –  at that time the internet did not yet exist – and based on meetings during my trips to Paris or the Kunderas’ visits to Barcelona, where their publisher was and still is, and in the surroundings of which the couple was then looking for a country house as a holiday home. The fact that all three of us had lived in Prague and then moved abroad was always a bonding factor and our conversation often revolved around it. In fact, for any exile, his experiences outside his country are the deepest thing he has ever experienced and, if he is a writer, it becomes a subject which dominates both his conversation and the subject matter of his books. Since his immigration, Kundera had explored this theme in several of his novels.

We also talked about the Prague we had left behind. Kundera told me that this feeling of being a foreigner and not understanding everything about the host country tortured him for a long time. What traumatized him most was not knowing French well enough. This, for a writer, was tragic, he said, even if he accompanied that statement with a smile. As we tasted the entrées, couscous and tagine, we continued to talk about Prague, that quintessential city of Kundera’s. I realized that Milan was Prague.

Although after his Parisian exile he wrote about other cities, in his work Prague is much more of a flesh and blood place than the others. His Prague concsists of the streets where Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek walked, where Czech, German and Yiddish were spoken and written, where various cultures and millenary traditions blended: a Central European city par excellence, which came to an end, trodden down by the boots of the Nazis. Kundera’s literary models are in equal measure Kafka and Hasek, reflection and laughter. At all events, there are several Pragues in his novels. One is the cheerful city which good-looking men, who are often a little ridiculous, stroll through, eager to conquer the girls. Another very different Prague is the one in which the writer experienced after the invasion of the Soviet troops in 1968. That Prague of the neo-Stalinist regime was an uncivilized city, in which both men and women were hysterical, angry and not known for their politeness.

The conflicting opinions of Vera and Milan Kundera for me represent a humanity which is divided into two parts that never quite agree: the one that accepts exile as an opportunity to grow and the one that freezes life, trapped as it is in a longing for what has been lost.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Kundera says, emigrants from communist countries were not much loved in Western Europe, where fascism, then, was seen as the real evil: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco’s Spain, the dictatorships of Latin America. It was only at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s that Western countries decided to consider communism as an evil, albeit a lesser one. Indeed, it is from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ that many readers began to understand what communism was about in Central Europe; before reading Kundera, some Western left-wing intellectuals still flirted with Soviet communism without openly condemning it. Along with exile and the growing impossibility of any rootedness, Kundera pointed to ignorance as another of the essential conditions of contemporary being: ignorance of what is good for us and, therefore, of what we are. In his novel – called, precisely, ’Ignorance’ – he continues his personal reflections concerning a question that he already formulated years ago and which reappears again and again in his books: Does mankind still have a chance in a world where external determinations have become so overwhelming that inner motives no longer count for anything?

Kundera, in addition to his novels, published some important essays. “The Abducted West”, published in 1983, when he had been in exile in France for six years, is one of them, and remains absolutely valid. Geographical Europe has always been divided into two halves that have evolved separately: one, linked to ancient Rome with the Latin alphabet as its hallmark, is anchored in the Catholic Church and Protestantism; the other is linked to Byzantium, the Orthodox Church and the Cyrillic alphabet. In 1945, the author states, the border between the two Europes shifted several hundred kilometers to the West. Thus, the inhabitants who always thought they were Westerners woke up one day to find that they were from the East. These surprised inhabitants are those who inhabited the cultural territory that the Czech-French writer called Central Europe.

According to Kundera, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a great opportunity to create a strong state in the center of Europe. However, Kundera asserts, the Austrians were torn between following “the arrogant nationalism of greater Germany” and their own Central European mission; that is why they failed to build a federal state of equal nations. “Their failure was the failure of the whole of Europe,” because the many dissastisfied nations of the region caused the Empire to break up in 1918. Thus the Empire was divided into a zone of many small countries whose fragility allowed first Hitler and then Stalin to subjugate them. “Have all the efforts we deployed to resurrect our people been worthwhile?” Nevertheless, the writer concludes that the contribution of interwar Czech culture was extraordinary.

This essay, like his novels, so influential in the years of its first publication, today, in the midst of the Russian war against Ukraine, takes on a new relevance. Kundera speaks of Russia’s imperial dreams, of its desire to take over as many peoples as possible, and affirms that in the nations that “have not yet perished,” (in the words of the Polish national anthem), the vulnerability of Europe – of all Europe – becomes visible. In Kundera’s contemporary world, when he wrote his essay, but also in today’s world, “all European nations run the risk of soon becoming small nations and suffer the fate of small nations. In that sense, the fate of central Europe appears as the foreshadowing of European fate in general, and its culture immediately acquires a great relevance.”

Kundera bases his opinion not only on modern history and politics but also on Central European literature: in Broch’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’, in which history is described as gradual degradation of values; in Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities’, which describes an elated, exultant society which is unaware that tomorrow it will disappear; in Hašek’s ‘The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk’, in which the simulation of idiocy is the only way to preserve one’s freedom; and in Kafka’s novelistic visions, which tell us “about the world without memory, of the world after historical time.” All great Central European art and literature since the beginning of the 20th century could be understood, according to Kundera, as a long meditation on the possible end of European humanity. Let us continue to read him, because he speaks to us about something that is absolutely essential.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)