The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt | The Nation


The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt

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About the Author

Jana Prikryl
Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

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Late last year, as France's six-month term in the European Union's rotating presidency drew to a close, Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that his time at the helm be extended, while French officials hinted that the member state in waiting, the Czech Republic, would bungle its turn. The whispers were ignored, and the smaller nation assumed power--only to be embarrassed by a diplomatic crise. The Czech government had commissioned an artwork to celebrate the transition and decorate the lobby of the European Council building in Brussels. On January 12, Czech artist David Cerný unveiled a monumental sculpture whose twenty-seven pieces represented the EU's member states: Bulgaria a network of squat toilets; France obscured by a banner announcing Grève! ("Strike!"); Germany a series of interlocking autobahns vaguely resembling a swastika; the United Kingdom conspicuous in its absence. Bulgaria demanded that its latrines be removed from the display, while Slovakia (a sausage wrapped in the Hungarian tricolor) contented itself with a formal apology. If anyone doubted Cerný's lack of fealty toward his patron, it was soon revealed that he had pocketed the £350,000 fee meant to be shared with the twenty-six other European artists he was supposed to have tapped for collaboration on the piece. In an interview with the BBC soon after the dust-up, Cerný said that returning the money "would be sort of difficult." By the following week he declared that he would repay the fee in full.

For Czechs who followed the Cerný flap, there was little novelty in its combination of brazen swindles and crude political provocations. In early 2008, an investigative reporter named Janek Kroupa helped Vlastimil Tlustý--then a member of the conservative ODS Party who was waging an internecine contest against Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek--to stage compromising photos of Tlustý enjoying a bath with a young woman. Apparently animated by professional curiosity, Kroupa established a fictive detective agency as a front for shopping around the images to other ODS members to see if anyone in Tlustý's orbit had an appetite for blackmail. Jan Morava, then a 29-year-old ODS member of Parliament from a district just north of Prague, took the bait, trying to sell the photos to Mladá fronta Dnes, a national newspaper (in a deal prearranged by Kroupa). And in a remarkable twist, Morava told the "detectives" that by way of paying for the photos, he had a fresh commission to offer: he wanted to be photographed on the sly with another young woman, the 23-year-old daughter of Olga Zubová, a Green Party member whose support of ODS legislation was considered inadequate. Morava intended to use these images to suggest that Zubová's daughter was being watched, thereby pressuring the legislator to bolster her support of ODS. The entire scheme was finally exposed in September, when Kroupa had enough evidence--much of it footage from hidden cameras--to undermine Morava. Prime Minister Topolánek called for both politicians to resign and criticized the reporter's "provocative" approach to journalism. Morava broke into tears at the press conference in which he announced his departure. Tlustý rode it out and managed to remain in office. And despite the questions raised about his ethics, Kroupa seems only to have burnished his reputation with this manufactured exposé.

By mid-October, the Tlustý/Morava affair had been bumped from the front pages by a scandal with considerably more gravitas, though no less slavering by the media: a prominent weekly magazine claimed that in 1950, Milan Kundera had sent to prison a 22-year-old Czech who had been spying for the West. The furor this news aroused in the Czech Republic seems inseparable from the Czechs' persistent "allergy" to the expatriate novelist. Ivan Klíma diagnosed the ailment in a 1990 interview with Philip Roth, explaining that Czechs resent Kundera for being "an indulged and rewarded child of the Communist regime [before] 1968," too hands-off in his opposition to the party even after he began to criticize it in the '60s, and all the while presenting his travails under Communism to the world beyond the Iron Curtain in a "simplified and spectacular way." Now people were wondering how Kundera could have suppressed the 1950 incident for sixty years, even as he garnered international prestige for his opposition to Communism and his literary autopsies of the moral rot it breeds in the individual conscience. Perhaps he hadn't kept the episode under wraps. Could he have recycled it in his fiction? After all, his stories and novels are full of the betrayals endemic to a totalitarian regime. Speculating on whether Kundera had pulled off a grand deception, Czech journalists spiced their accounts of the affair with scenes from his novels in which characters seem to play according to the 1950 script.

Naturally, the article that broke the Kundera story--a weird collage of historical reconstruction and literary innuendo--became a story in its own right, and the outcry about Kundera became a meta-outcry: how could allegations touching a nerve so central to Czech history be slapped together for the delectation of a tabloid readership? Serious writers and historians were aghast, and many wrote pieces trying to show why, if Kundera had betrayed someone to the police, the political climate of the 1950s might mitigate his guilt. The story's relative longevity was sustained by Kundera's refusal to offer more than a summary denial, one that unfortunately tended to raise more questions than it answered. It's impossible to reach a final conclusion about the episode without a more forthcoming statement from him, because the degree of blame he might bear is so deeply tied to his motives at the time and how much he knew about the Western agent--when, and if, he may have given his name to the police. At the same time, the best intentions of journalists trying to give Kundera the benefit of the doubt by cleaving to the subjunctive in writing about the allegations have usually collapsed beyond the first wordy sentences: among the many Czech articles that I read on this subject, including those defending Kundera, only a handful stubbornly avoided the conclusiveness of the past tense. Ironically, as more writers joined the scrum of Kundera's defense, the more tightly his name became associated with the episode and the less credible his denial appeared.

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