Fictional Keys to the Milan Kundera Uproar

Eastern European Fiction News Politics

This week it was reported that in 1950, author Milan Kundera allegedly informed on Miroslav Dvoracek, and as a result, Dvoracek ended up serving 14 years in communist prison camps. (Story here.) In many ways, the news is reminiscent of the story of German author Gunter Grass and his admission that he served in the Nazi Waffen SS as a young man.

So what we know is that there are documents in the Czech Republic's Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes that name Kundera as an informant, and Kundera has spoken out to say that this event never took place. Either way, the reclusive 79-year-old author is the source of a literary uproar of sorts -- did he, nearly 60 years ago, inform on someone, or is this all, as he claims, a lie?

When I first read about this on Monday, I immediately thought of Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I haven't read it for years, as it's nowhere close to being my favorite one of his works, so it's not exactly fresh in my mind. But I remembered that it had much to do with the Communist regime in the Czech Republic, and this morning I pulled it off my shelf and began to skim its pages. In light of the recent Kundera news, this passage from the fifth section of the novel jumped out at me. It's long; bear with me:

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You're the ones responsible for our country's misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn't know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?

Tomas followed the dispute closely (as did his ten million fellow Czechs) and was of the opinion that while there had definitely been Communists who were not completely unaware of the atrocities (they could not have been ignorant of the horrors that had been perpetrated and were still being perpetrated in postrevolutionary Russia), it was probable that the majority of the Communists had not in fact known of them.

But, he said to himself, whether they knew or didn't know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?

Let us concede that a Czech public prosecutor in the early fifties who called for the death of an innocent man was deceived by the Russian secret police and the government of his own country. But now that we all know the accusations to have been absurd and the executed to have been innocent, how can that selfsame public prosecutor defend his purity of heart by beating himself on the chest and proclaiming, My conscience is clear! I didn't know! I was a believer! Isn't his "I didn't know! I was a believer!" at the very root of his irreparable guilt?

It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by "not knowing," he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your "not knowing," this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you've done? How is it you aren't horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

Before I go much further, I want to make a point. I don't really believe in analyzing authors based on their writing. I like to have faith in the fact that writers are creative and capable of making things up in an effective way, and therefore if I'm reading a work of fiction I don't sift through it thinking that it's all veiled autobiography. A writer named Milan Kundera often appears in Kundera's work, but does that actually mean that the writer named Milan Kundera in his novels thinks exactly the same way as the writer named Milan Kundera who's doing the writing? (Was that too meta?) To put it another way, a little more than a year and a half ago, I wrote about an excerpt from Kundera's The Curtain here on LitKicks. Kundera wrote, "Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential." Certainly this is in the context of secondary material: letters, journals, e-mails, notes, etc., and means that the work is the work and the other assorted ephemera shouldn't carry the same weight. And yet does this not also apply to the writer's life itself? Is it not still possible to appreciate the work of people who may have been jerks? What's more important, the art or the artist?

And yet I quoted that passage from the book and I will admit that I thought about it a lot. It is a fact that Kundera was once a member of the Communist party, a very committed member, who eventually was kicked out after becoming disillusioned. Viewed that way, the above-quoted passage is undoubtedly interesting. Is he accusing himself along with the others? Is it impossible for us to know?

Either way, it's clear that the passage is written by someone who knows what he writes, knows it from his experience on both sides. What do we do with his writing now that he's accused of having been an informant more than half a century ago? Does it color his work in interesting shades of speculation? For me as a reader, that's really what's at stake in all of this, because I don't know Kundera personally and never will. Do we want to look at this news as the skeleton in Milan Kundera's closet that wrote all his books?

12 Responses to "Fictional Keys to the Milan Kundera Uproar"

Like you say, Jamelah, we will probably never know if Kundera really informed on someone. This whole subject got me thinking about forgiveness.

There are three types of forgiveness. Those who believe in God or a "higher power" have various avenues for seeking God's forgiveness. Those who care about human relationships sometimes ask other people to forgive them for some action. The third type is considered by many psychologists to be the most difficult of all - forgiving yourself. And to come full circle, some people say that when you feel God has forgiven you, it actually means that you have forgiven yourself ("forgive us our tresapasses as we forgive those who trespass against us").

William S. Burroughs killed his wife, but I imagine he regretted it. I still like his work and I wish I could have met him.

We hear about American soldiers returning from war with deep psychological problems because of the violence and horror they witnessed, sometimes perpetrated by themselves. A lot of Americans are doing things against fellow human beings in the name of Homeland Security.

But, back to Kundera. I hate it when someone tells me I did something and I say, "No, I didn't do that" and they say, "Okay, but if you did, it's okay."

And I say, "But I didn't."

"Fine. You didn't do it. But if if you did, it's okay."

"But I didn't."

"Alright, I belive you. But if you did, it's okay."

"DAMN you, I SAID I didn't do it!"

"Wow, you're a little sensitive about it, aren't you, Bill? If you didn't do it, why are you making such a big deal?"

Oh, time for coffee. I'm done.

p.s. - Excellent job, Jamelah, on applying that passgae from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to the current discussion! Top notch.

The passage was a fantastic find, whether he was an informant or not. Does his being accused cloud my opinion of his work? Absolutely not - in fact it sharpens it.

And, while I agree with Bill's take on forgiving someone for something they may or may not have done, I also feel that (sorry Bill) if he did do it, he did it as a young idealist in a time and place where many of us would have done the same thing.

It all gets me thinking about "America, right, or wrong." Who's to say whether or not there will be a future when a young person of today might be "guilty" of being an informant for turning in a person whose belief's might be contrary to Bush and Cheney?

The passage of time can turn heroes to goats and goats to heroes. It all depends on who wins.

I totally agree with you, Daniel. That's kind of what I meant I mentioned the soldiers. Sometimes they go to war idealistic, kill people, and later they wonder if they should have done it.

by syd on

Fascinating. I had not heard the news of Kundera and the thoughts presented both in the post and the comment are really insightful. And beyond Kundera's issue, give me a lot to think on. I still love Kundera's books regardless of the accusation.

by Dan on

Bill - I keep having to clarify this point about Burroughs: he accidentally shot his wife at a party when they both were drunk. He tried to shoot a glass off of her head.

This has been corroborated by several people who were at the party. The official investigation concluded that Burroughs was careless, but that the shooting was an accident.

Burroughs never forgave himself for the incident. It haunted him to the end of his life. I did meet him and got to know him slightly. He was a very nice guy. I miss him.

by Levi Asher on

I think we're a little off-topic with Burroughs here but -- yes, both things are true. Burroughs did kill his wife, and it was by all accounts an accident during a shooting stunt. Now, back to Kundera ...

Well, I don't think Kundura did it. Someone might have used his name so they could remain anonymous, or the communist government could have drummed up a phony report as an excuse to arrest Dvoracek, or someone else could have the same name as Kundera(I don't know how common a name it is).

My point about Burroughs was that people do things they wish they could take back. I know it was an accident and I apologize if I sounded blunt.

by jota on

This posting of Kundera reminds me of Orwell:

In his crabbed scrawl, and with characteristic acidity, Orwell secretly wrote down the names of prominent figures who he felt were so enamored of the Soviet Union that they had lost their political independence. He sent some names to a propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office, suggesting they were not fit for writing assignments. ''It isn't a bad idea,'' he said, ''to have the people who are probably unreliable listed.''

He was wrong-headed in a number of his listings. Stephen Spender, whom Orwell labeled a ''sentimental sympathizer'' in 1949, contributed an essay the next year to ''The God That Failed,'' an indictment of Communism. And some comments are simply appalling. The anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual overtones of his notes are clear.

Nevertheless, we should resist the temptation to condemn all of these secret scribblings as Orwellian double-think. The author of ''1984'' maintained that he ''named names'' not because of any private vendetta or opposition to dissent, but because totalitarianism posed a greater threat to liberty than providing information on those with a history of supporting the Soviet Union. This was a hard-won conviction, born of his experience with Stalinism in the Spanish Civil War. ''The conscious enemies of liberty,'' he wrote, ''are those to whom liberty ought to mean most.''

by Duncan Brown on

The shame game's just the same
From naming those names
To shaming tHose shames
That's always been the claim
The more it changes
The more it remains the same
Fame is the name of the game
And shame is the fame of the name
So what's left in a name.
By this or any other shame.

by Warren Weappa on

It scares me that Kundera could be accused of being an informant for the Communist Establishment and smells of disinformation of the worst kind or a mistake.

by Ari on

I am now reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and somehow I landed on this page and zeroed on the verse written by Duncan Brown (So what’s left in a name. By this or any other shame.) [The comment on October 19th, 2008]. Is it your originally? (forgive my ignorance). It is rather beautiful! :-)

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