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

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The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt

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Another thing the Respekt story obscures is that, based on the police document's careful attention to the timeline of the arrest--its punctilious record of the sources and sequence of new information--Kundera was reporting an anomaly and appears to have been unaware that he was exposing a fugitive. This crucial fact was also elided in newsy encapsulations abroad. The Times of London, in an otherwise accurate piece, translated the police report as follows, with ellipses: "Student Milan Kundera, born April 1, 1929 in Brno...reported to our department...Dvoracek, reportedly a deserter who had illegally fled to Germany." The statement following the second ellipsis pertains to facts supplied by Militká, yet this redaction implicates Kundera. Adding to the confusion, some of Kundera's defenders unwittingly misconstrued his role in the incident. Ivan Klíma wrote a thoughtful commentary for Lidové noviny, a Czech paper, exploring the episode's ambiguities and maintaining that Kundera was entitled to the presumption of innocence. Yet Klíma proceeded on the assumption that, if the allegations were true, Kundera had known he was reporting a Western agent. "To know of someone who arrived in the country illegally, and to hide him, meant abetting treason," Klíma wrote. Trying to offer a plea of self-defense on behalf of Kundera, he instead set up a false hypothesis that deepened his friend's guilt.

About the Author

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

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As misunderstandings and speculations piled up, Hradilek himself came under scrutiny. He is a 32-year-old researcher at the USTR, with a general arts degree from Charles University and some three years' experience collecting oral histories. The Czech government established the USTR as a research body early last year to study human rights abuses that occurred in Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1989, under both Nazis and Communists, which in its bureaucratspeak the institute calls "the time of nonfreedom." Last spring it hired Hradilek to interview Czechs about life before 1989 and to help organize the archive that was to contain these accounts. The question was, Why had Hradilek published the incendiary Kundera claims in the splashiest manner possible, while at the same time touting, in his Respekt byline, his affiliation with the apparently impartial USTR? The institute had added to the impression that the article was a coproduction between itself and the magazine by posting the original police report on the institute website just as the story hit newsstands (Hradilek had shown the piece to a USTR press officer five days before publication, and the institute decided to pre-empt a media onslaught by putting the police report online). The USTR publishes the monthly journal Pamet' a Dejiny (Memory and History), so historians were astonished that the story had not been vetted by the institute and published under its own auspices.

Not long ago I spent an hour on the phone with Hradilek. He seemed like a smart, congenial guy, just returned from a three-month Fulbright at Columbia University, where he'd managed to sit out the worst of the media hurricane. If there was opportunism in his pursuit of the story's publication--and he told me he considered it "my personal finding"--it seemed balanced by his belief that the Czech Republic needs to confront the hard facts of what happened under Communism, one fragment of the ugly mosaic being the police report he'd found, whose sixty-year-old ink indelibly named Kundera. Yet as we spoke I sensed that the sheer gravity surrounding that famous name pulled a lot of control and discretion out of Hradilek's hands, and the story, bigger than his own experience and reputation in the world, simply got away from him. Speaking with a Czech journalist in October, he acknowledged that the article's headline was "very harsh" and mentioned that he planned to publish a more complete version of his research into the Dvorácek episode in an academic journal.

Hradilek said that he'd declined at the outset to write such a piece for Pamet' a Dejiny because he had researched the Kundera story in his spare time and found the police report in a USTR archive that is open to the public. He was under pressure to publish sooner rather than later because a number of other journalists had sniffed out the story and were prepared to scoop him. How had the story leaked? He said it was known to many of his relatives, thus word of the police report had eventually reached the ears of "maybe around fifty people," plus about "ten journalists." And last summer, while helping Petr Trešnák, who was an editor at Respekt, assemble documents for another article, Hradilek told him about the police report. It was no surprise to Trešnák: apparently he'd already heard about it, and Trešnák said that Respekt would be interested in publishing a co-written piece, for which he would supply additional facts about Kundera's life and fiction. The editors wanted to run the piece in October, in a back-to-school issue that would have a wider circulation among universities. This seemed like an excellent idea to Hradilek. At the same time, Hradilek told me that what disappointed him most was the "hysteria" the story provoked in the Czech Republic. He speculates that Kundera's own reaction was colored by reports in France (where the novelist has lived since 1975) that misread the Respekt article and suggested that Kundera had collaborated with the secret police, which, Hradilek said, "simply isn't true."

He also told me that his first draft of the Respekt piece focused solely on Dvorácek's story. The magazine and Trešnák then revised it so that Dvorácek's desperate tale was braided together with the rise of young Milan Kundera, with the intersection of their lives finding echoes in Kundera's fiction. "Milan Kundera's Denunciation" features several cutaways to episodes in the writer's oeuvre, and in each case the word "inspiration" makes a suggestive appearance, implying that not only did Kundera perpetrate the deed in question but that perhaps he is also a literary fraud, refusing to acknowledge that scenes in his novels are modeled on and indebted to a youthful trespass. Hradilek scoffed at the notion that Pamet' a Dejiny would have published such a controversial story in its own pages: "No one here at the USTR would be trying to dig up something on Kundera, because then it would be really like an inquisition institute." What did seem to irk him was the notion that Kundera might have a principled reason for keeping quiet about his Communist background: "opportunistic" was the word Hradilek used to describe the novelist's activities in his youth, when he "entered the Communist Party around 1948, then was expelled and then asked again for admission in 1953, and was accepted in 1956. This is crazy; this is like entering the NSDAP [the National Socialist Party] in 1944!"

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